There are different ways to create a portrait. An artist can paint or photograph the subject. An artist can depict that person's living or working space, to show how he or she lived. Pola Esther does both and neither.
For her exhibit at Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Esther has filled a gallery with a collection of artifacts and items to create a "built essay" about a woman named Ruth Coxe.
Until she died in 2015, Coxe was known in town. She often protested what she believed to be injustice. She ran for town council decades ago. She was a member of the Congregational church. She was devoted to organic farming and sold homemade bread and vegetables.
Esther wasn't drawn to Coxe through her activities. It was Coxe's house, next-door to Esther's boyfriend's, that "magnetized" her attention.
"She happened to venture over. She was telling us stories, telling us her involvement with food, telling us what was on her agenda, preaching to us," says Esther. "I went inside her house. I got fascinated with the condition of the house, the neglect, the colors of the walls, the decay, the mess. It inspired me visually. I kept going back, taking pictures of the walls, of objects. I believe chaos can reflect the mind of the occupant of the house. ... There is a visual magic in the aesthetic of the house."
Through the objects in Coxe's house, Esther got to know her. Coxe was too caught up with her passions to care about how her home looked. White walls were turning gray. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling. Cobs of popping corn were hung from the ceiling to dry. Objects were piled on top of other objects. Clothing hung on hangers throughout the house. There was rarely a place to sit down that didn't have something on top of it. While a slight step above "Grey Gardens," the house's interior belied its classic New England exterior.
"I don't think she had a material nature," Esther says. "She wasn't practical."
Esther learned about Coxe's passions through her things, too. Multiple images of Mary nursing baby Jesus — hanging on the walls, in hundreds of Christmas cards — reflected Coxe's strong advocacy for breast-feeding. A collection of sun hats shows how much time Coxe spent in her garden. A large, angry sign ("Children deserve the god-given right to their parents' judgement until they reach the age of majority") was evidence of her preference for home-schooling and her sorrow at alienating one of her sons at an early age. Other signs protest property valuation, taxation and agricultural usage of non-organic elements. Souvenirs from her travels show how she ventured about looking for confirmation that her beliefs were right.
Esther mounted small snapshots onto a rotting door and a dirty mattress. After Coxe died, Esther created larger-scale photos showing models wearing Coxe's clothes and posing in various spaces in the house.
"It was as if Ruth was still a living spirit in her house," Esther says.
A lock of Coxe's hair, family snapshots, Ruth's resume and a Warhol-esque series of images of Coxe as a teenager wearing a Lauren Bacall haircut complete the picture of a woman who did not achieve what she dreamed but kept dreaming anyway. Coxe's greatest accomplishment could be that she fascinated someone enough to become the focus of a museum exhibit.
"Her son said to me: 'Finally my mother succeeded'," Esther says.
A ROOM OF HER OWN: THE BALLAD OF RUTH COXE is at the Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St. in Old Lyme, until Jan. 28. flogris.org.