Edited from an article written by Gary Reese for The Lamoni Chronicle
Walk into the Helene Center at Graceland University, turn left and pass a classroom, then a few steps more to the Galleries of the Helene Center for the Visual Arts. On both the left and right, a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity awaits. It is the middle ground between yesterday and today, between fact and family lore, and it lies between the pit of apprehension and the summit of discovery - the dimension of imagination. It is an area known as Wichita Falls, Texas, the home of the Tucker girls. It is Julia Franklin’s Picking Up the Pieces: Interactive Installation.
Franklin’s interactive installation exhibit is currently open to the public and continues through March 1 featuring an artist’s reception Friday, Jan. 25, 5-8 p.m. Franklin, Graceland University and the Iowa Arts Council invite guests to walk through the rooms in the full-sized diorama of a 1970’s home, a life-sized, three-dimensional representation of the family home in which Franklin, then Julia Tucker, and younger sister, Jana, grew up with her mother and her father “as I best remember it.” Observe and experience the collection of memorabilia and sounds. Try to unravel the mystery and tragedy Julia (16) and Jana (13) Tucker experienced when their idyllic lives changed forever.
Franklin graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Printmaking and Sculpture from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls and completed a Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture and Ceramics from Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth. After working in Community Outreach and Education at the Dallas Museum of Art, she joined Graceland University as a Professor of Art in 2001 teaching Drawing, 3-D Design, Critical Thinking, Sculpture, Experimental Media & Process, Innovation & Creativity, Ancient to Medieval Art History, and Modern to Contemporary Art History. Along with four other recipients, Franklin was named an Iowa Arts Council’s 2018 Iowa Arts Fellow from a field of 325 applicants.
A visual artist, Franklin describes herself as a “found artist” in that she finds objects and displays them, which she explains is sometimes more theater and experience of a place or people or things. Her art is to be experienced. “I make art active,” she explains. “You have to actually participate and be immersed in my art.” As a result, Picking Up the Pieces is entirely interactive.
“’I failed miserably as a husband and father’ was the only line my mother read to us from our father’s suicide note. But those words were enough to make me feel guilty – that I was in some way responsible for his death. My mother acted as a gatekeeper of the family secrets, and I know that she tried to guard her daughters by doing so.”
Franklin and her mother never talked about her father again. “I hated living in my home town. I felt like people pitied me.” Even though it took 28 years, she learned through picking up the pieces that suicide is not something to be ashamed of and hidden.
Three years ago, Franklin’s mom died and there was no longer a gatekeeper to the past. Relatives brought her a box of her father’s belongings. Through family visits and a road trip last summer with her 16-year-old daughter, Skye, she began to better understand her father’s life as well as her own. Cousins told her stories about a person she never knew – a person admired and respected, sometimes funny. She learned people took advantage of him, and she learned that he had secrets. Online searches turned up involvement with law enforcement.
“It was serendipity – even bizarre – that all of this began to come together at once for me,” Franklin said. “The stories … the box … I had to follow it wherever it took me.” She took what was in the box – letters, jewelry, even his ties – and what people who knew her father told her and built this portal to the past. Along the way, these clues lead her to the answers she had been seeking to her father’s identity – and to her own.
Franklin describes the set as interactive, and visitors to her home are free to connect with it not only mentally but also physically as they walk through the living room, kitchen, parent’s bedroom, father’s office and kids’ playroom.
“I don’t have our bedroom because all my sister and I ever did was fight in there. While you’re there, sit at the kitchen table, watch television, touch anything, read letters, play records, or hunt through drawers.”
“Picking Up the Pieces really makes me vulnerable and exposes me, but by telling this story, it allows me to own my past and have power over it. This story has almost become a public therapy session, but art is made to be public so why not share it?” Franklin credits her husband, Davin Jones, with building the walls and installing the electricity, but more important to her is that he knows how central to the past the journey has been. One line of her artist statement shines a light on this story: "By sharing this secret that I’ve held too long, I hope to start conversations about mental health, memory, and identity and to help others find a way through loss and grief." At the same time, she hopes visitors are taken back to this 1970’s home and those who lived in that era enjoy a sense of nostalgia of their own home and family and can talk about it with those who didn’t. “It worked for me – I finally got to know my dad! And, yes, after all these years, we’re still the Tucker Girls.”
Join Franklin’s journey, be immersed in her art and unravel the mystery of her father’s death at the Helene Center Galleries through March 1 from 8:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. or by appointment. A play reading, Keeping up Appearances, will be held in the space on Feb. 8 at 7:30 p.m., and Franklin will present an artist talk at noon on Feb.18 at Carol Hall in the Shaw Center. All events are free and open to the public.