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A Brief Interview with Ashleigh Coleman

SM: Who are you?
AC: I am wife, mother, art lover, new Mississippian.

SM: What are you?
AC: The phrase “dust to dust” comes to mind.

SM: When are you?
AC: When I am most alive, I am on the road or at home, camera in hand, seeing something new or seeing something old a new way. As Annie Dillard would say, “the thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse.”

SM: Where are you?
AC: These days, I am always in between.

SM: Why are you?
AC: So that I can enjoy deeply and fully those who I meet and that which I see—that is why.

SM: I hope you don’t mind if I start with something about myself. But as you and I both live in Mississippi perhaps you can relate. I grew up here and aside from six years living in California, have spent my entire life in Mississippi. When I moved to California, I left the South partly out of frustration—my convictions were of the minority and to live by them was a struggle. Family didn’t understand why I wanted to live the way I did, many friends while supportive did not necessarily agree, and all in all I found myself living in contradiction to my surroundings. In California I found like minded people. But convictions became more like lifestyle choices. In short, to live by my convictions became much easier and I began to feel as though the challenges I faced back home added a necessary shot in the arm to living a particular life.

SM: I am back in the South now and on an almost daily basis face the same frustrations that compelled me to leave. However, I have recognized how much geography informs identity and this time I intend to stay. In your project, A Piece of My Heart it seems that you consider the familiar landscape that surrounds you as part of your identity. In your brief statement you say that, “This is the road I travel frequently and the roads it intersects. This is a portrait of what has been and what is.” I am reminded of a line from the novel Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry which reads, “Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back.” I consider identity as a product of place, rural country roads that twist back on themselves, and free range chickens roaming those roads not as a ethical statement but because the owner of those chickens knows that they’ll come back each night to roost. These images along with the recognized landscape of the South are all depicted in A Piece of My Heart. Share if you would about identity in relation to place. How does time and proximity inform identity and are we perhaps better for returning to a familiar place?

AC: Ah. Identity. This is something I have wrestled with for the last six and a half years, ever since I left my place of origin (28 years of it, more or less)—South Carolina. You wouldn’t think that moving from one Southern state to another would lead to an identity crisis of sorts, but it did. Everyone that knew me, everything that I loved remained behind. It unnerved me. How do I introduce myself without being tied to work or family or a church?

AC: So, not only did I move from South Carolina to Mississippi, I was newly married and I was living in a small town, not even a town, really. Like most rural communities, it once thrived but now is the barest of bones. The people there are so dear, but, again, I was not raised in the country.

AC: The longer I lived there, the richer and fuller my understanding became of this place. You could drive through and not even realize you had driven through, yet things were happening—friendships made, meals shared, weather watched, crops harvested, businesses opened, buildings burned or reclaimed by nature. There was an unquenchable desire to photograph the, at times, imperceptible changes taking place, to show the beauty, to make sense of what I was seeing and feeling.

AC: It came as a shock to realize, one day, as we talked about leaving this small town, that my identity had grown to include living in a town of 175 people and a 125 year old farmhouse, surrounded by soybean fields and looking past an old oak tree towards an abandoned church. So much of what came to inspire me creatively was encapsulated in a half-mile loop—if we left, would I lose the will to photograph? Would I adapt again? Could I adapt again?

AC: Changes and experiences that were incredibly difficult for me are, in hindsight, beautiful and full of meaning and rooted in that landscape and with those neighbors. I still mourn that place and question leaving—it has a piece of my heart and always will.

AC: All that to say, I agree that time and proximity to a place does inform our identity, but it also can soften our perceptions of others, which, hopefully, can lead to compassionate, respectful dialogue, something our country needs.