In the gallery, there was a painted silhouette of a mother-daughter embrace with the chubby face a six-year-old girl stared out at the observer. It’s almost most like she’s wondering why you’re intruding in this moment — in the fleeting memory of this embrace.
On March 7, Reid Ellingson was part of a group of 16 University of Oregon Bachelor of Fine Arts students that celebrated the closing of the “The Best We Could Do” exhibit. The exhibit, which was located in the LaVerne Krause Gallery in Lawrence Hall, was a response to UO’s 2018 common reading book of the same name, which was written and illustrated by Thi Bui. The artists featured an eclectic combination of different art mediums ranging from painting to jewelry.
Each of the artists responded to the graphic novel in a different way. For Ellingson, the inspiration came from what he perceived to be a disconnect between Bui and her parents. A relationship Bui tried to reclaim by creating the novel.
This parent-child dynamic spoke to Ellingson because of his own experiences with his parents. He is a transgender and gay man, which his father isn’t supportive of, and his mother passed away before Ellingson even realized he was trans.
“I was processing how I felt about losing my mom so young in life — I was 12 when she passed, so I was pretty little,” he said.
For Ellingson, this was an emotional process. The image on the painting is taken from a photo of him and his mom. Going back through the images of his childhood, there weren’t many family photos that he would associate happiness with. Many of them felt neutral; not happy, but also not sad. He chose the picture because of a neutral, solitary feeling.
“I’m in there, my mom’s in there and she’s holding me, but it doesn’t — I don’t have that memory, I don’t remember that happening or that photo being taken,” he said.
Because of how young Ellingson was, he doesn’t have many memories or images of him and his mother together. This made him feel disconnected with the image on the canvas and in the picture because, according to Ellingson, family photos are a collection of images of what’s happened in the past but won’t ever happen again.
Having to process the lack of memories he has of his mom and his childhood was cathartic for Ellingson, who used this process as a way to connect with her as the trans man he is.
“Because she passed away before [I came out as transgender] that was never anything that we talked about — so painting both her and myself, as a young child — a young girl child — which is so different from what I am now,” he said. “It was a process that kind of helped me come to terms with not being able to talk to her about that.”