Nikki O'Leary

Soliloquies of a Mariner's Descendant

For many years I was unable to board boats or cross bridges without a sense of panic. A debilitating fear of water was bound to me seemingly without any rhyme or reason. The image of deep waters, alone, was enough to induce palpitating anxiety, yet there have been no traumas, nothing rooted in my immediate past that I could link as the cause of this phobia.

Only recently, I was chosen as the inheritor of a towering collection of familial documents. Boxes upon boxes of evidence became a link to my past. What was revealed were centuries of lineage rich with seafarers; generations of ship carpenters, captains and sailors. Even more revealing was the overbearing presence of ancestors who were drowned or lost at sea. It would only excite my curiosities further when I discovered that this innate fear was shared between three subsequent generations - myself, my mother, and hers.

I became interested in the possibility of a relationship between my fear and my ancestor’s lived experiences. Stories of Mayflower passengers, mariner dynasties, a poet’s obsession with the sea, and an ancestor’s infamous account of a shipwrecked whaler, which would become Melville's impetus for writing Moby Dick, began to unravel a narrative where I was able to examine my fear as a sort of inheritance.

In conjunction with the notion of inheritance, the work explores the duality of my relationship to the sea, which both elicits intense fear and a sublime sense of belonging.

A Mariner's Descendant

A consuming fear of water, shared between myself and three subsequent generations of women came into question when I realized that I came from a strong lineage of mariners. For centuries, hundreds of matrilineal captains and sailors traveled the New England coasts, and though I spent more than 20 years 1300 miles away, I found myself instinctively returning to the same shores that my ancestors have known. 

Only recently, after a death in the family, I was chosen as the inheritor of several familial documents. Boxes upon boxes of evidence became a link into my past. What was revealed, were dozens of men who were drowned or lost at sea. I began to wonder about the the wives they left behind. I became interested in the relationship between my inherent fear, and their lived experiences, pulling from theories such as Jung’s Collective Unconscious.

In these photographs I play the role of a mariner's wife, stepping in the shoes of the past by assuming a role so common among my ancestry. I use the landscape that was once shared by my predecessors to construct imagery in attempt to understand the ties between one's proclivities and their inherited past. 

Salt Prints, 4x5 Film

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A Mariners Descendant 

Artist Book

The Mariner's Descendant series was originally bound in a handmade artist book, embellished with a salt cured fishbone, found on the coast where the photos were taken. 

Featured in the book are 11 oval-matted salt prints that have not been fixed. With each passing second of exposure to light, these images will gradually fade away.

These fading images represent the passing of time and fading of memory.

Drowning Is Not So Pitiful

Drowning is feared by many, but rarely does one fully understand the experience first-hand. Our perception of drowning is often limited to what is projected from the media. But, where film and television mostly depict drowning as a violent experience, stories from survivors recount feelings of panic quickly transforming into euphoria, as they begin to slip away in a state of narcosis - where the only pain that one survivor recalled, is that of being pulled from the water and forced to breathe again.  

The images within this series are of re-appropriated film stills that have been printed on cloth using the Kallitype process. While the images have been taken from the media, these cloth objects become experiential vignettes, where one ultimately accepts their fate.

Kallitype Print on Cloth, Reappropriated Film Stills, 15x15

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Against the Will of Water

Exposed and Developed on the shore as the pieces are physically "drowned" in the ocean.

Salt Process on Cloth, 9th Century Nightgowns , Developed in Ocean Water

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Melville's Architype

Vertical scroll giclee print on satin,  suspended from wooden dowels, backlit. Images captured from a Holga camera while submerged in the sea.

(Click image for full detail of scroll)

Captain and His Wife

These found photographs of my ancestors represent a common theme within my heritage. A photograph of a Captain is paired with a photograph of his wife, each displayed on a severed half of a table. The evaporated sea water becomes a metaphor for the experience of drowning. 

While the Captain ultimately loses his life, it is his wife who must bear the burden of this loss. 

Wet Plate Collodion, Wood, Evaporated Sea Water  harvested from the shores of Sandwich, Massachusetts.

Using Format