University Library Gallery displays people’s dying words


Marivel Guzman - The State Hornet

The “I Can’t Breathe” installation is displayed as part of former Sacramento State art professor Julia Couzens’ latest exhibition entitled “LAST WORDS” in the University Library Gallery. The exhibition explores final dying words, ranging from those of famous individuals like Elvis Presley to those of her own mother. (Marivel Guzman – The State Hornet)

Rin Carbin

Dying words are reborn as stitched blankets, paper mache and wire in “LAST WORDS,” the latest art installation by former Sacramento State art professor Julia Couzens inside the Library Gallery.

Couzens wanted to explore the dying words of people in her new work, at first starting with the words of famous figures, but later expanding to the words of regular people in hopes to include a more intimate language and the universal theme of death.

The end result is the exhibit containing anonymous phrases from not only famous people, but also some suggestions that Couzens received from her friends, colleagues and friends of friends. Couzens said that her reason for not identifying people is to stress the importance of what was said, rather than who said it.

“We shouldn’t make a distinction between Elvis Presley and your grandma,” Couzens said. “Death is an equal opportunity employer.”

Among the installations in the exhibit is a small, red chair with the words “Go put your shoes on” burned onto it. The story behind the piece is a daughter’s memory of her father shortly before he died of a heart attack. He was heading out for a baseball game and when his daughter followed him outside without putting on her shoes.

One piece personal to Couzens is a wire frame that spells the last words of her mother, whom she described as an optimistic person. The wires were twisted and wrapped together to form the words, “Why not?,” a trademark phrase of her late mother.

(Story continues below gallery. Slide through for photos of different installations in the exhibit)

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Some of the letters are backwards, which senior art education major Lori Henderson found to be her favorite part of the exhibition.

“I like the reversed words — you have to stop (and) notice instead of walking past mindlessly,” Henderson said. “The intimate messages on the wall felt like going through someone’s diary — like I wasn’t supposed to be there.”

Another component of the exhibit is the sound of a steady loop of a heartbeat heard throughout the exhibit. Couzens said that the heartbeat was a voice in the exhibition that represented life, a counterpart to the words that represented death.

“I can’t breathe,” the dying words of someone who died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and the centerpiece “LAST WORDS” are among a few installations that dangle from the ceiling and are illuminated by several lamps and gallery lighting to cast shadows on the exhibit floor.

Yelena Bulanova, a freshman social work major, said that she found the exhibit to be gloomy due to the subject surrounding death. Despite the gloominess, she said that the art pieces were interesting and that she could see the hard work Couzens put into making them.

Phil Hitchcock, the director of the University Library Art Gallery, said that he invited Couzens to create an exhibit to showcase her work, which he said he has seen since she was a student.

“I chose her because she’s very well-known (and) she’s outstanding in her field,” Hitchcock said. “I’ve seen her works since she was a student, I’ve seen her grow as an artist.”

Couzens said that her inspiration for “LAST WORDS” came from a growing interest in used and worn materials. She worked with thread and blankets to stitch lines, something that reminded her of writing.

“These sort of ‘blanket drawings’ mean to suggest writing,” Couzens said. “My first thought was writing about and reflecting on what that writing might be. The ideas of words and language came to mind. In this day and age of alt-facts, I thought it was relevant to address the idea of last words and the importance of words.”

“LAST WORDS” will be on display in the Library Gallery until Dec. 15. Couzens will also present a lecture showcasing her artwork from the past 30 years on Oct. 12 in the Library Gallery at 3 p.m.