As an attendee of Irene Reece’s Mon Frère installation opening in the Lawndale Art Center Project Space, an exhibit that promotes a sort of multi sensory experience as it provides the viewer with simultaneous experiences of seeing and being seen by Froncell, the artists’ older brother who has been diagnosed with autism, echolalia, and cerebral palsy, I was immediately thrown into the world of the artist and her family, people I did not know, but whose home I felt as if I was suddenly sitting in. It was a feeling you’ve likely experienced before; literally sitting inside of someone’s home and all at once being exposed to all the surface level pieces of their private life, while still knowing so very little about the person. Exposed and shut out, as a short film rolled on, and a wall full of photos stared back.
Wanting to know more about the installation, about the artist, and about the process that led to the work, I reached out to Irene, a notably young artist, in search of an interview and deeper understanding of what I’d seen. While the Mon Frère exhibit is now closed, her Oc.u.lus show, which we also discuss here briefly, will be on view at the Community Artist Collective in Houston until April 29th.
Talk to me about your background as an artist, and what sort of led you to this point in your career.
I grew up in a household that has always been filled with lovers of the arts. My father is a grant writer and used to write art reviews for a living. He really encouraged and taught art and music to my siblings and me as a child. Mostly all of my father’s close friends that are artists such as Beth Secor, Robert Pruitt, Laurent Bocarra, and many others had an influence on me. The art world has always been a part of my life, from going to art openings as a child to having private lessons with family friends. I was always fascinated with the arts but not yet photography. That skill didn’t come to me until later on in life, through my mother. When I began college, I started off as a Vocal Performance major. I didn’t feel as confident with music as I did with painting and other arts. As my first year of college was coming to an end, I took a traditional photography class just for fun and it reignited my passion for the arts again. Now here I am 5 years later, juggling three shows in 2017 while still a full-time student.
The inspiration behind the Mon Frère installation is your brother Froncell, how he sees the world and how the world sees him. Why was it important for you to put this out into the world in exactly the way that you did?
As a child, I never saw my brother as “different”. My parents explained to me that he is mentally disabled; he will always need our whole family’s love and support. It didn’t register to me that society would treat him any differently than anyone else. I was tired of people mocking those with special needs with slurs and epithets that target their community. “They’re slow, that’s retarded, he’s special . . .” it’s very hurtful. I could see in my brother’s facial expressions that he was always embarrassed and ostracized due to his disabilities. I created this series to provoke society to reassess their views on disabilities and people with special needs. I hope they will come in with open minds and empathetic hearts. When you walk into the exhibit you will see a young man with a family that loves him deeply. Yes he has disabilities, but I want you to look deeper into the mind of a man with a beautiful outlook on life.
Did you face any challenges in particular while working on this project, structurally, emotionally, or otherwise?
I had a difficult time installing the work. Typically I work alone. I find it counterproductive to work with others since my process is very personal. I have a very hard time opening up to people, which is why I express myself through my work. I am still and I’m very grateful to have had help from my team. It’s very hard to articulate what, why and how you want a certain piece of work to be installed. The project itself was emotionally draining for me due to its personal nature, as are most of my projects. I always contemplate how soon I will be forced to become my brother’s full-time caretaker. It is a tremendous obligation to ponder and sometimes I have doubts about whether or not I can maintain Froncell’s ideal quality of life as established by my parents. However ready I may, or may not feel, Froncell is my life. I love him with all of my heart and I’m ready for the responsibility.
You address being a caretaker as a part of the installation. Can you speak deeper about what it is you wanted people to know about that experience from your point of view as a caretaker and also as the child of caretakers who, maybe don’t get to take the reigns on decision making the way you might if you were doing it all on your own?
I’m not Froncell’s primary caretaker, I’m merely a family member. However I do contribute to his care. I’m his little sister. When the time comes and my parents can no longer physically take care of my brother, I will step in. My sister and I have always assisted in taking care of Froncell. I remember trying to teach him how to tie his shoe when I was still learning myself. I would say to those whom have a loved one with special needs . . . it is difficult. I teach my brother 3 days out of the week. Our lesson plans include Basic Math, History, English and life skills, although the frustrations are ever present. I don’t let him know that I’m mentally exhausted, but I am. It’s a challenging task, and it’s not suited for just anyone. I’ve known families that put their loved ones in a full-time assisted living facility. I could never see myself doing that to him. I want Froncell to be around people that love him and understand him. This is why we are still trying, and will always continue. It takes patience, love, commitment and empathy to be involved with someone that has disabilities.
Mon Frère is also a very multi-sensory project, from the interactive aspects to the included film, how does this play into your larger body of work, and why were the mediums you selected for this particular instillation right for the message you wanted to get across?
The series wasn’t just focused on one topic. I wanted to inform the general public about people with special needs. I want parents to come and teach their children that even though someone is different from you they are still a person, with hopes and dreams and fears like everyone else. You should be able to give them the same respect and courtesy as you do others. I also want to connect with families that have loved ones with special needs, and let them know that they are not alone. To people who have special needs, you are beautiful, intelligent and you can achieve anything; don’t ever let the world try to hold you back.
What message did you want to get across; what do you want to see come of the installation?
I want you to come into this exhibit with an open mind. This isn’t a pity party. Our whole family loves Froncell for who he is. We just need the rest of the world to accept that. Why must my brother change to accommodate for your insecurities? In reality the world should be more accepting and accommodating of his disabilities and needs.
What has been the response to Mon Frère so far; do you feel like you accomplished what you set out to with it?
Ever since this opening more and more people are contacting me about their siblings and loved ones with special needs. It’s gratifying and surreal to know that some of our experiences are shared. The fact that I finally feel accepted and can relate to someone is amazing. The fact that my work has impacted and helped so many people, and the fact that they can feel like they aren’t alone in the world is the most satisfying feeling ever! All I have ever dreamed about is becoming an artist and making a life out of it. Making a pretty piece of work just isn’t enough for me. I need my work to make an impact and make you feel something. Even if it’s just one person that I connect with through my work, to me it is more rewarding than being deemed the best artist.
You also have a piece on view at the Community Artist Collective, as a part of the group exhibit Self Love, which shifts the focus onto yourself. Did you find yourself working on these projects simultaneously, and did you feel a shift in yourself while shifting between subject matter?
I work on multiple series throughout the year and it’s a great practice because you never grow bored. All my work is very personal and about my life. This work however had nothing to do with my brother so it was refreshing to work on something different. I had to change my approach when I was working on my Oc.u.lus Tumor Series because it was about me struggling with a brain tumor. While Mon Frère put me in this wonderful loving place, [Oc.u.lus] forced me to relive having a brain tumor, over and over again. Whenever I would become depressed or overwhelmed by the project, I would take a break to work on Mon Frère again.
People usually either love or hate this question, but what’s next for you?
I plan on Graduating from the University of Houston Fall of 2017, and will hopefully get accepted to Paris College of Art for Graduate School. There will be many more shows and artist residency in the future. I have so many plans for my art and can’t wait to make a bigger impact in the art world.