When ‘Ghost Tike’ Meets Real Life

In my workshop with Green-Wood Cemetery last Thursday, an incredible thing happened in the last part of the workshop, where I invited participants to share their leaves and tell us who they were remembering.

A person shared their leaf, and then told us they had made it for the person whose ghost bike I had talked about earlier in my presentation. Of course, when they signed up, they had no idea of the connection. 

During the presentation, I had shown a snapshot of that ghost bike, which I had taken on my phone one day. I passed that bike a million times when walking to my school’s campus. I had found it deeply moving, and it inspired me to take a used toddler car and paint it white, creating a DIY memorial for my little brother Andrew. This painted car became the visual anchor, and the inspiration for the name, of my project Ghost Tike

I then told them that this ghost bike had not only inspired my Ghost Tike project, but it had prompted me to research ghost bikes in general, leading me to the website ghostbikes.org. Side note for those who are curious: ghost bikes originated in St. Louis, Missouri in 2003, but the phenomenon has spread to countries all over the world. The website was created by the NYC Street Memorial Project as a way to honor cyclists who had lost their lives in car crashes, but also to create awareness around the issue of road safety for cyclists. They gathered information on many of the ghost bikes all over the world and created a page for each individual bike. 

Anyway, I mentioned that I had used the “ghost bike map” function to search for the bike I had photographed on my commute, and was able to learn that the ghost bike had been created in memory of a fellow artist. Reading further, I learned that she and I had other things in common, too. She was a scholar of vanitas paintings and memento mori (topics that very much interest me) and had given lectures on them through Morbid Anatomy (an organization I follow and greatly admire). When I clicked on the word “memento mori,” it linked to an article she had written for Gizmodo, titled “Why are we so fascinated by photographs of decaying buildings?”

That very same week, I had been researching cultural attitudes towards ruins and abandoned buildings because I, too, was fascinated by them and trying to understand why. During my nearly ten years living in Tokyo, I took many trips to ghost towns where I explored and photographed abandoned houses, schools, apartment buildings, and hotels. There was a poetic beauty to their decay, the way that nature slowly took over and had its way with the possessions that former inhabitants had once left behind. Once I got to grad school, much of my artwork was directly inspired by these photographs because I felt they were visually rich with symbols of death, loss, and nostalgic longing for the past. 

When I came across her article, I was finishing up my last semester in the MFA program at Pratt, and neck-deep in researching and writing my thesis paper. She quoted a scholar named Tim Edensor from his book Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality. Within a week, I had ordered that book online, devoured it, and quoted it multiple times in my thesis. I was deeply grateful to this woman who I could never meet, but who had inspired me both in life and in death. If she had not died before I returned to New York from Tokyo, she and I could have potentially moved in the same circles, and even become colleagues or friends. In that moment when I learned about her, I was the same age that she had been when she died, thirty-four. It was yet another reminder to live my best life now, not later, because no one knew how much time we had left on this earth. 

I am still reeling from the shock of this occurrence. One of the other participants in the event said to us, “I believe this was not a coincidence.” I honestly don’t know what I think at this moment. I used to believe that things happened for a reason, that everything would work themselves out eventually, that there was something out there connecting all of us and everything. But now I am in the process of recovering from an essentially cultic religious childhood upbringing, and am wary of most things that even slightly hint at the spiritual. At the moment, I trust science, and things I can see with my eyes. So my first thought was, “Well, I guess Brooklyn is not that large, and neither is the NYC art scene nor the grief community. So realistically, the chances were fairly high that something like this would happen.”

However, I admit that the entire experience of developing the Ghost Tike project has given me a lot to consider on this topic. At the moment, I’m willing to use the word synchronicity to describe the things that have occurred since I embarked on this project back in the fall of 2019. The first of these events being when I started dreaming about finding a used Little Tikes Cozy Coupe, to represent the toddler car my brothers and I had played with as children. I had been searching for a few weeks on Craig’s List and Ebay for one of these cars without luck, when I was walking to the bus stop to head home after a late night at the studio. Suddenly, I passed by a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe sitting in a trash heap on the side of the road. Since I was less than a block from my studio, I immediately pulled it out and wheeled it down the sidewalk back to my studio. I missed my bus and ended up going to bed much later than planned, but it was so very worth it. Finding this car was just the first of the many synchronistic events that led to my launching the Ghost Tike project. 

I am amazed at the way things have truly come full circle since I started this project. The ghost bike they made to honor this woman in her death inspired me to create a memorial to my brother, which evolved into me holding workshops as a way to comfort and connect with fellow grievers, and then this person somehow ended up at one of these workshops. I am in awe, and still trying to figure out what to make of this.

Reflections on the Leaf Crafting Workshops

In my most recent Leaf Crafting Workshop, I tried something new. When it was time to make leaves together, I decided to play some music so that everyone felt comfortable muting themselves and focusing on what they were making. I also thought this would allow them more mental space for reflection and meditation on the meaning behind what they were making. In the process, I also learned that I really enjoyed curating a playlist for the event and sharing it with others. I loved playing a bit of ambient post rock like Explosions in the Sky and Helios, as well as folk and indie rock like Boygenius, and country like Sara Watkins. I felt like a DJ, playing tunes that I hoped would heal and comfort others the way they had done for me so many times. The moment when people wrote in the chat that they loved the music, or when multiple people wrote that the same song was one of their favorites, it reminded me how much music can connect people. As we worked on making our leaves, participants introduced themselves and shared about their loved ones they were there to remember. One participant then expressed that she was feeling insecure about her lack of artistic skill. I stressed that artistic skill was unnecessary here, that the point was the experience of making the leaves, and the intention or meaning behind it. 

After the leaf making portion was over, I turned off the music, we turned on our mics again and people shared their leaves, their loved one’s names, and how the experience of making their leaves felt. At the end, that same woman who had expressed such insecurity about her artistic skill shared that our simple conversation in the chat had allowed her to open up creatively, try again, and make a beautiful tribute to her loved one. One woman expressed that it was meaningful to be able to do this activity while holding her daughter in her arms. Yet another said she had not realized she needed to do something like making leaves for her loved one, but that doing so had felt really good and had been very helpful. Another shared the process of being able to let go of feelings of guilt while making her leaves. 

I knew I wanted to help people, and I suspected that inviting people to collaborate with me and holding these workshops could do that, but the results far surpassed my expectations. I am supremely grateful that I stumbled upon this project idea, which has allowed me to reach out, connect with others, and help people in a meaningful way through my art practice. I knew art had always been healing for me, and I knew that it could be healing for others too. But it’s not only about the making, also equally important for healing are reflection, processing, sharing, connecting, and telling our stories.