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a soft launch + reading celebrating the work of the iTi MFA Class of 2020 at the Printed Matter Virtual Art Book Fair

right where you left it

Caiti Borruso on Amy Schuessler

I hang the sheet in a strange corner of our house, as instructed, which I think used to be part of the porch. Last weekend we learned that the house is over one hundred and ten years old, because a man comes by and takes a picture of the facade and tells us that his great grandmother lived here one hundred and ten years ago. I’ve hung it with the smaller text facing outward; the big text, and all its gestures, faces the wall, where I can’t see it, where I imagine the ink is still fresh and leaving a mark like a monoprint.

It’s bodily and wet, the mark. Bodies are porous; they wrinkle when they take in water, they ripple. They freeze. The newsprint crinkles under the weight of the wind, and of the folds; but the words are strong, demanding, exact. Writing comes from the body, happens inside the body, regardless of what happens to the body.

There is an alternate life under the ocean, in another body, the body of water, when one’s body is replaced by salt and bubbles, where the pressure of the water serves as a balm, a weight heavy enough to suppress the rest of life. Breathing Underwater, the title of one of Amy Schuessler’s three thesis books, is an oxymoron, at least for humans, with futile lungs. Dry land, Schuessler writes, holds too many dangers….Water pressure, the kind I imagine in the deepest places in the ocean, that is something I can be in love with. The coastline is a limitless boundary, its length shifting with every wave, its totality debated (do you know of the coastline paradox? that the coastline changes every time you try to measure it?) and it has room for anyone who needs it.

I too have known the ocean as a respite. It is constant, and unrelenting, unyielding. And when living, on flat, dry land, is dangerous, the water can seem safe in its patterns, the way it returns, hour after hour, the way you can return to it, hour after hour. There is life down there and I want in. The bottom of the ocean is dark, and if you jumped in, the person you were running from couldn’t find you, not if you sank. In the ocean there are no husbands. In the ocean there are no men, wanting things from you. In the ocean the bees can’t get you.

She would write watery poems about her dishes and dinner parties.

But water is dangerous too; water wears away at rock too, shapes the earth into fresh undulating shapes. And it shakes loose the foundations of homes that crumble into the sea. And the salt air rusts the underbellies of cars, and pipes burst and flood the basement. There are wet socks, the cruelest surprise, and disappeared islands.

Schuessler’s writing, combined with images of homes that have marched into the sea and scratchy visceral triangles and marks, of waves retreating and coming forth, make a lonely, magnificent portrait of one woman who loves the sea, who loves water, who rightfully distrusts lakes. (Lakes, as she writes, don’t match her vision of living underwater: that requires salt.) There is domesticity and anger, collections of tiny things, there is escapism and there is real life, right where you left it. The things she collects from the beach, the shells, sea glass, and driftwood, are tangible markers of the trauma borne out by water: They bear the marks of time and affliction, rupture and abrasion yet they retain the most elegant and dignified forms. And when she plans on leaving, to distract herself, she dreams of a garden underwater, meadows of eelgrass to serve as protection, and then she dreams of being made of ice.

The second time I touch the Pacific Ocean, it is months into the pandemic, far from the ocean I’m used to, and I’m surrounded by a bunch of kids in the tide pools. It’s the closest I have been to anyone in a long time, and when I am done, leg hair wet and sticky, and hoisting myself back up the rocks back to the path, there is a couple taking turns photographing one another. And before I can stop myself, giddy from the ocean, I offer to take their picture together. I take the cell phone, covered in fingerprints, and let them press close together. Behind them, the Pacific stretches on, and on.

Caiti Borruso is a writer and photographer based in San Diego, CA.

Amy Schuessler is a photographer, artist, writer and PhD student, living and working in Columbus, Ohio.