I am gripped by the ripple effect of a murder in western New York. After three trials, the man accused of killing John F. Montstream was acquitted. John's wife, who had pled guilty to the killing, is in prison.
Transforming this story into art requires both inspiration and wisdom. Almost by definition, such an event shakes me to my core, cracking fundamental assumptions about family, justice, and religion. Until I have extracted meaning from the emotional chaos of the events themselves, I remain stuck. I may be able to engage a listener or viewer with a colorful story, but I will not be able to create images or words which may challenge, or move, or inspire. Thus, the creation of the piece may take months or even years.
That is where the artist's distance comes into play.
Whether with text, images, or sound, I want to recreate for the onlooker an experience comparable to mine when I initially chose the subject. My work should raise questions similar to those the original experience raised for me, but should allow space for the audience to create their own answers. Allowing that space does not excuse incomplete research or partial sharing of knowledge, however. Rather, I hope that the experience that drove me to this creation may drive them to thoughts and feelings that challenge their notions of truth and predictability in their lives.
If the life of John F. Montstream carries any lesson, it is that
our knowledge even of the people closest to us may be so incomplete as to
be fatal. Furthermore, our own personal virtues and talents, not only may
not protect us, but they may be used against us, may render us more vulnerable
to exploitation by a calculated predator
especially if that predator is our wife whom we love, seek to please and forgive
The moment of acquittal becomes my focal point. Within a month, I publish an account of that moment, a newspaper story. I hint at luminosity, but cannot yet move beyond the facts. The lessons of acquittal fail me.
A year passes. I struggle, write, destroy. There must be a way to convey the twists and ripples in people's lives, the rejection of careers by people who thought their choices were certain (even God-given vocations), the damage to cherished structures we thought functioned: churches, courts.
Repeatedly, I return to the visual: the faces, the places. The look of the gun, handled so gingerly by the prosecutors (signifying danger) and with disdain by the defense attorney (signifying indifference). I see the photograph of the gunstock, the victim's bloodstains in the wood. I recall the proof: the DNA analysis. Over and over, in my mind's ear, I hear the juror tell me, "We couldn't understand the DNA evidence, so we discounted it. I thought he killed John Montstream but there was no proof."