Interview with Graduate Rhonda Patzia
Rhonda Patzia is a gifted photographer who was left partially blinded by multiple sclerosis. When her photography business collapsed, Goddard represented new vocational hope. Once she had enrolled in the low residency MA in Individualized Studies Program, what had begun as a well-thought-out plan to study Transformative Language Arts became an exploration of territory she had never imagined.
Rhonda: What Goddard gave me was an extended, longterm passion - an on-fireness - that I never felt before. It began when I started to read female and feminist writers, and it directed what I wanted to study. Because I wanted to see and value women I reincorporated photography into my life: I photographed women at Goddard's fall and winter residencies, most of them naked, some in the snow. The aim was to encourage us all to root ourselves in the reality of our bodies.
After having agonized for several years about being unable to rise above my disintegrating body to live somehow as 'pure spirit,' I began in the low residency MA in Individualized Studies Program the transformative work of body awareness. Since MS affected every corner of my being, I was compelled to honestly and sometimes painfully confront my identity as a body. I learned that if I denied any aspect of my physical self, I would live weakly. With body awareness I am more vibrantly and powerfully present. My body is my identity: I am female, a sexual being, a mother, a thinker, an artist, a feeler, a product of experience and memory, and I am ill. In my thesis, Mindfully unraveling, with disease as a backdrop, I explored these identities and more by creating a mosaic of written pieces that together demonstrate the arduous and mindful work of rooting myself in my fullest, most earthly identity.
I really can't imagine a better sort of education for me. The low residency MA in Individualized Studies Program not only gives you the freedom to explore; it brings out your passion and then channels it. And my life after Goddard has been a continuation of this work. My thesis has meant a lot to many people. An ICU nurse who found me on the internet started sharing my writing and photography project with her friends and colleagues. She said it affected what she and other nurses were doing on the floor. The nurses read the essays, looked at the photos and came away with insight into their own lack of body self-acceptance. This insight made them more present to their patients. A friend passed the thesis on to a 60-year-old woman with MS who used to be afraid to go shopping or walk around outside for fear of falling. She said my thesis gave her courage every day of her life. At the insistence of all of these women, I've decided to try and get the thesis published.
I faced my mortality in my thesis, and it scared me but it was also a good thing because when I had faced my body disintegrating I also realized how much it was still intact. This gave me a new courage for life; in fact it gave me the confidence to try to get pregnant. I graduated in June 2004 and Marco was born in October of 2005.
From Rhonda's essay, Picturing Women:
I never imagined that so many would strip. I never expected that women at Goddard College would take off their clothes for my camera, for me.
I told them they could if they wanted to but only if they wanted to strip. "Just for you," I said. "Nobody else has to see." "Only if you feel comfortable enough." "But wouldn't it be nice?"
So many exposed women in one place, one week. One.
For me each session was like a meditation. Attention. One person at a time only. Vital. Just one, or it became noisy and not so much about us and how we moved together.
"What makes a good portrait?" some ask.
I would begin each session by breathing before we met, whether early morning or evening.
With hushed morning tones we chatted, we subjects, on the way to a spot worthy enough to contain us the forest usually. We talked more concretely of the upcoming shoot. What did she want? Where would we go? And I would sometimes have to breathe for her.
Upon arrival at our destination, slowly I would move and spin to notice light and how it fell on her, background and how it accompanied her, foreground and how it hid and exposed, camera settings and how they helped it all, and anything else that would express her, express us.
If she wanted to feel her body uncovered, comfort with this kind of exposure took more time for some, and less for others. But remembering that rhythm depends on the space in-between, we rested when we needed to.
I would attend to our breath in flashes as the time unfolded, breathing through tightness and inflexibility.
"What do you want me to do?" most would ask, not sure where to put their hands, how to hang their arms. "Tell me what you want."
Feel yourself move. Just Feel.
I was aware when my eyes were not attentive to the woman before me.
I could feel when too much of a focus on line and shape and f-stops and film burning made her start to disappear before me.
Breathe and breathe
Most sessions were quiet and about the presence of bodies: hers and mine.
Bodies: ours. I was present enough to forget all that wasn't before me. She was present enough to forget what stood in the way. And we were both present enough to forget the rest of the campus as we danced our way toward incarnation.
Anne was my first, since I knew her already, knew she was open, knew that I myself needed to get used to such a new rhythm between women. I don't think she saw how I transfigured there, breathing in and out, in and out, there in the tall grass that flew up between us, sometimes revealing, sometimes hiding. I need a new perspective, I thought then, a higher angle. So I crawled onto her truck's tailgate and forgot. I forgot my legs, forgot I couldn't. Forgot.
See how Lynn, whose study focus is grief, hunches, giggles, then straightens there in the trees that become her. And how Debbie laughs, calls me crazy, and says with light in her eyes, "I'll take it all off, but just skin. No breasts or crotch. Just skin. Only skin."
Sylvia's body is not so much her own yet. I saw that. I saw her eyes leave and float somewhere beyond, behind me, ripped from their sockets, I think, by a life of high fashion, of modeling body alienation.
"One good picture terrified me," she said. "I worried that in the next I would be too fat, too old, too freckled. You know what I mean. Not good enough."
I knew what she meant.
Elaine hates everything above her neck. "Not my face," she said. "I don't like my face at all or my brain, but that won't show up on film." I didn't tell her that it all shows up. I respected her self-loathing and photographed her nude silhouette. But I regret it. I regret that I pictured her as a shadow like a man might.
Lise, an advisor, sees right through me. At the residency, I felt uncomfortably naked around her, having already exposed myself to her through language for an entire semester.
"I'm not going to take my clothes off," she said as we ducked into the trees, having heard the rumor.
"I wasn't expecting you to," I said. We both felt awkward. I could tell this as I stood there exposed, noticing how the light fell through her skin.
Carol and I locked ourselves in an upstairs bathroom with nice window light, and we wonder still that nobody tried the handle.
"Just my breasts and necklace," she said.
Carol Scott, named for her dead grandfather Carroll - and dead brother - Scott. Both dead. But laughing breasty in a corner by the toilet. Alive.
Carolyn has breast issues. "Boys always made fun of them," she said. "Girls too." Carolyn didn't want to get wet or dirty and theorized beforehand about easing into nudity, exposing her crotch first. Carolyn with her breasts and her ideas, losing all her clothes at once, flying her arms in the air and thrusting her body forward to say, "Look at me! Look at me!"
I could hardly hear quiet Olivia say okay to a portrait, could hardly hear that she wanted to wear clothing, could hardly hear much of what she mumbled. But I felt she really wanted to, felt that she might someday speak louder - yell maybe.
Emily stripped in the trees with such attention that I could see her feeling it, see her knowing something new. Was it air? Skin? Relationship? Was it the integrity of being a beautiful body there with nature, there among her own?
Melissa, Favor and I swam naked at the quarry in the early morning with the haze. We photographed one another half on land, half in water. Morning-touched bodies tiptoeing over pointy rocks and squishing through mud to rest in the ease of water, and nakedness, and connection. The haze cleared as we went on.
Anne photographed me in a field of flowers. "No, they're weeds," she laughed.
Beautiful nevertheless, I thought, when seen up close without the cover-up of a name. I felt beautiful too, without clothes, without symbols, for the simple reason that I was standing naked in a field of white and green things shooting up around me.
Jeanne was my last and thanked me for asking, for taking the time for her. Earlier in the week, she wore clothes for a session. Later she wore none. In the meditation room, she wore none. In the trees, she wore none.
"Do you realize what you are doing for women here?" she said to me throughout the week.
Did they realize what they did for me?
"What does embodiment feel like?" Lise asked me.
Like I felt when picturing women. Passion. Connection. Joy.