Ed Stifles

When I first heard that I had a mere five minutes to present my work at Slidefest, I felt anxious. Every associative concept and tangential project I’d worked on felt too important to leave out. That five-minute time limit started to feel suffocating. I decided to narrow my options down. What was at the core of my recent practice? What would get across the soft, warm nugget at the core of my past year’s experience?

My work while I’ve been at ICP has circled around a number of things, from aviation pioneers to step-parents’ step-parents.  More recently, however, it has been focused on Nantucket. I spent many of my summers and holidays, most especially as a teenager, on the island. But I feared focusing on my personal relationship with the island would be a dead end, both in my work and for my Slidefest presentation. I wanted to be in collaboration with that place as a Place, not with my own teenaged remembrances.


With that in mind, I went back to Nantucket for spring break. I spent my days wandering the nature preserves and beaches, stunned by and in awe of the rapid erosion I saw there, especially on the eastern end of the island. The ocean pulls and pushes sand seasonally, out to sandbars in the winter and back onto shore in the summer. A beach, an ocean, an island is always in flux, dunes and sandbars bending to the wind and the tides.  The erosion in the last few years has, admittedly, been worse than in the past, but that cyclical and eventually eroding pattern in both human society and in nature was something I felt I could run with.

I turned to creation stories, myths about the island’s origins. Beautiful stories have been passed down, accounting for the island being made of sand, for its seemingly perpetual fog and for the howling that comes from the ocean during a storm. Along with that, I chose to include part of an audio recording I had come across in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association. A whaling song, sung by a very elderly Edward Coffin in the 1930’s, was the perfect compliment to my images of the island and the creation stories. The rise and fall of the whaling industry on the island marked so much of the triumphs and struggles of the people there. The song tells the story of a whaling ship that loses a boat of its men to a whale hunt gone wrong. In the final verse, Coffin sings out the words of the ship’s captain swearing they will never go whaling again, never go whaling again.


In the course of narrowing down my immense project of “Nantucket” for Slidefest, I found a path for my future work to follow. The discovery of the audio recordings, as well as this investigation into myth, history, the passage of time and the layering of traces and destruction left by it all culminated in a presentation that, miraculously, fit within a five-minute time frame, and also gave me a launch point for my work over the summer.

–Kathy Akey

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