Amber Shields – Visions of Johanne
“There is a statue called The Pioneer Woman in the middle of Ponca City, Oklahoma, my grandmother’s hometown. It serves as a tribute to the frontier women who helped settle the American West. As a child, I fixated on her bronze bonnet and proud stride – family tales of my mother as a child climbing to the top or the family portrait taken at her feet. Born into a family of women, the statue resonated deep within me. And today, the Pioneer Woman stands as a reminder of a similarly fierce woman in my life – my grandmother, Johanne.
As I imagine with most pioneer women, it is impossible to tell a traditional story of a life content. And her story is also a different one. She is a woman, sometimes mean, who pioneered her own path of feminism at an unacceptable time, who fought the traditional female role her entire life and one who, at the end of her life, painfully hesitates to confront the face of mortality Over the last 15 years, my grandmother has allowed me to document her life and now, her death.
At the beginning, photographing her was my way of learning more about her life. From her weekly trips to the hair parlor to her enthusiasm for cooking a good southern meal, my early images depict the daily routines of a vibrant, self-sufficient woman. I came to recognize she was at the forefront of the second feminist movement, albeit not by choice. With outside appearances manicured, on the inside my grandmother locked out an abusive husband, the stigma of divorce, and sexism in the office as she built a successful career in the only field permissible for a woman at the time, an executive secretary. She was the breadwinner and matriarch of her family. She defied all measures during a time when women were suppose to stay at home and Ozzie and Harriet were the model family.
But as the years passed my images of her became increasingly macabre. From frequent visits to relatives’ gravesites, to stints in nursing homes for broken bones, the images mark her physical and mental battles with mortality. At times, a bottle tucked away under the sink was her only coping mechanism for the isolation and boredom of a world that was becoming increasingly limited. And because of our intimate relationship, I was there. I was allowed to be present at her most vulnerable time. Like a family recipe, she was passing down the accumulated wisdom from her life. As a witness, a granddaughter and a documentarian, Johanne’s final lesson to me is a greater understanding of mortality.”