Emily J. Rago

Emily J. Rago

Emily J. Rago was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She works frequently with 35mm and medium format film and likes to incorporate the theme of being a transient observer in all of her work. Emily received her BA in Film Studies from Richmond the American International University in London, England. While in London, her installations and films appeared in several shows in London, including Ceven (2016) at Maverick Projects and 12/12/15 (2015) at Close-Up Cinema. After completing undergrad, she moved to New York City and proceeded to work in the world of film with internships at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). While at MoMA, she worked on the series Television Movies: Big Pictures on the Small Screen (2020), Doc Fortnight 2019: MoMA’s Festival of International Nonfiction Film and Media (2019) as well as conducting research for Biograph/Edison Restorations and Rediscoveries from the Collection series (2020) and The Eye of Iran: Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari film series (2018). Emily now resides in Pittsburgh and is currently receiving her Master’s in Library and Information Science from The University of Pittsburgh with the hopes to one-day work for a film archive. Since moving back to Pittsburgh, she has found herself working for both The Andy Warhol Museum and The Heinz History Center. She also teaches classes periodically at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and Media (PCA&M). Some of Emily’s work is currently on display at Exposure Gallery in Sewickley, Pennsylvania.

In her work featured in our artists writing series, she was inspired by her move back “home” and her transition into living back in a space that holds so many memories of many different versions of herself. Her work forms a timely and deeply personal response to the feelings of uncertainty, transition, and change, experienced over the course of this year.

A text by Emily J. Rago

I have always been intrinsically drawn to the idea of memories, not necessarily always my own, but more so the way in which we are capable of processing and recalling them. I can’t remember the first place I heard this—which, is ironic in its own right—but when we recall a moment in time from our past, the way in which we recall it, represents the last time we thought about that memory. This means that with each new time we recall a moment from our life, we recall the memory of the last time we thought of that moment, not the actual time that it occurred. It’s as if with each recollection we are pushing ourselves further and further away from our pasts.

Memories have always been poetic to me. I’ve always romanticized the human ability to call upon them. How a song I haven’t heard in years can make me feel heavy all of a sudden because it reminds me of someone I haven’t thought of in a while. Startled how I remember each note, each word. I’ve romanticized how a smell can feel nostalgic and take me to a moment from my past. Like a whiff of perfume on a stranger walking by that’s the same perfume my aunt would wear or how the smell of a hard candy my neighbor’s grandfather would give us, brings back little moments from my childhood I had forgotten. Even the way the light hits the earth on some days can trigger a memory of a time I put away. It’s like I buried all those moments somewhere in my head and they can come flooding in so easily with such a simple reminder.

Lately, I’ve been feeling more connected to the romanticism of memories. That mainly stems from the fact that I’ve somewhat recently moved back home—to the place where I was born and raised, the place I spent most of my adolescence longing to escape, and the place I lived away from for nearly a decade. Now me and my hometown are getting reacquainted with one another. Learning all these new things—like how we’ve changed, how we’ve grown up. It’s strange. Nearly every corner holds a memory of a person I once was—a person that’s still somewhere in me, a person who is just a little bit different now having since been carved into by time. It’s as if I was given a map of my past, with a little red pin telling me you are here, and then dozens of little black pins spread all around saying and these are all the places here you have been.

I’ve always been curious as to whether there are others out there that have given thought to this. What’s so glorious about it, is that in some way we can fathom how a memory or a moment can hold an impact on one another individually. We can understand the pain or sadness someone else may feel from a recollection or their utmost, elated joy. But whatever the memory is, it’s uniquely our own. Every memory is so personal to each of us. In them are the people we were before time changed us and moved us through whatever we needed to be moved through.

The house my grandparents moved into towards the end of their lives was sold this year. All of their belongings have been sitting there for 20 years and it was my siblings, my mom and her siblings, our cousins, and my job to sort through their belongings—and this is about the time my whole romanticism towards memories started to pick up.

Amongst all the dusty boxes were the remnants of my grandparents’ lives—neatly folded and stacked. Just mementoes of what remains and in each memento, a memory of theirs’. I never really got to know them apart from what I’ve been told about them—I was too little when they were alive to remember them now. I don’t know what their favorite colors were or what movies made them cry. I don’t know what part of the Thanksgiving meal they were most excited to eat or if they had any major regrets. I don’t know what we would have disagreed on or what we’d share in common. And that all got me thinking about life—how it all boils down to these minuscule little moments. Moments that go untold and unmentioned. And how every fiber of who we are, exists in those moments and memories—many of which belong to only us, moments and memories we do not share with anyone else but ourselves.

Detail, Graphite, acrylic, 35mm film digitally printed, and watercolor on canvas 2020

Some of the boxes at my grandparents’ contained 35mm slides. A slide is roughly two inches by two inches, and is the print of a film positive that is comprised of chromogenic dyes on a transparent base held inside a card mount, which is then placed into a slide projector in order to be viewed. You can never frame a slide or look at one and see each images’ details unless placed into the slide projector. Slides are sort of reminiscent to memories in that way—they can only be looked at when they’re recalled. There are thousands of slides in these boxes. Slides of my grandparents’, my uncles’, my aunts’, my mom’s memories and when I play them in the slide projector it’s as if I was given a special viewing of the moments they decided they wanted to recall.

35mm slides are no longer a print option and without the original film negatives, the photos that were processed as slides will forever remain as images comprised of chromogenic dyes on a transparent base held inside a card mount. But luckily, since I have the slide projector, I can recall their memories whenever. So, I decided I to make a series of paintings based on the slides within those boxes. It was hard to settle on what memories felt right to capture in a painting but I chose the ones that felt the most like how I want to remember my grandparents. I wanted to incorporate my own photography in the series as well, so I combined my memories with my grandparents’. A mesh of memories colliding on canvas. And by painting onto my black and white photos, I am painting new feelings, implications, and meanings onto my own memories—just as we do in real life each time we recall a memory again and again and again.

It made me feel connected to my grandparents. As though I was able to talk to them, share with them the memories and moments that are so uniquely personal to me, the moments that make up every fiber of my being. I never had the ability to sit down with them and talk about, well, anything really.

It’s why it’s so fascinating to hold onto the belongings of someone who is no longer here. Their clothes, their photos, all the little things they decided to keep for whatever reason. All of those things are an expression of who they were inside. A glimmer of all the pieces of themselves they kept close to their hearts. A physical representation of their own memories. And it isn’t something that should be thought of as sad, it’s something we all do. In many ways it’s what we do to create a relationship with ourselves. To anyone else all these things could be perceived as junk but to each of us they mean something. They’re the mementoes, the moments, the memories that are ours and only ours. Memories of all the places and people that held an impact on us. Big and small.

A Mesh of Memories Colliding on Canvas, graphite, acrylic, 35mm film digitally printed, and watercolor on canvas 2020

It felt special to share that with my grandparents—all their little memories that meant something to them mixed with all my little memories that mean something to me. And perhaps when we call upon our memories of a relative we have lost, or a partner we’ve since fallen out of touch with, or an old friend we drifted apart from we are paying homage to them and the people they were and to ourselves and the person we were. When we remember our little treks to the corner store by that apartment we once lived in or the living room we once shared with our friends that we’d would laugh in for hours—we’re giving a nod to all the versions of ourselves embedded in our souls.

It means something to remember, no matter how happy or sad it may make us feel. Maybe interspersed within all the heaviness of the world and in the lives around us and in the heaviness that is often present in ourselves, gnawing away with each breath, that maybe our ability to call upon our memories through sound, or sight, or smell, or just sheer circumstance, we are calling upon all the moments in which we were living, existing, feeling, changing. And that is something we all undergo and experience on our own. The great unifier. And that’s poetic.