We humans have a love/hate relationship with our emotional baggage. We subconsciously carry the warm fuzzy part of it with us because it serves both as a winter coat protecting our raw wounds and most tender emotions, as well as a constant comforting presence that looks over our shoulders asking, “Can this person really be trusted?” After all, our brains are wired to learn from experience, and very often, it is within our best interests to stay away from relationships that mirror unfavorable ones we’ve experienced in the past.
However, this protective baggage also has a dark, less comforting side, which resembles an “internal exoskeleton” of metal armor. It is heavy, it slows us down, it blocks efficient communication, and it prevents us from fully engaging with and enjoying time with other people. Picture for a moment a giant snail carrying a bulky, “inefficient shield” on its back like a cursed, unfortunate burden, and you can imagine what it feels like to hold the memories of a significant trauma.
Mixed media artist and sculptor Susan Amorde states that her “Baggage” series is “a personal examination of the universal themes associated with how what we carry around impacts our identity. Apart from the literal meaning of ‘baggage’, everyone carries with them baggage in the figurative, emotional or metaphysical sense. My work investigates how such baggage is perceived, how it feels, and how it impacts the living of our lives. For me, sculpting people and their ‘baggage’ provides me with an endlessly fascinating journey of creative expression.”
Susan explores the human form and emotions by sculpting in an expressionistic style and working with mixed media and found objects. She often alters suitcases by inserting arrows into them or installing port holes into them to further display the symbolism of the baggage metaphor.
Through the use of port holes – the thick, metal-framed windows in submarines –Amorde sublimely suggests we are looking deeper into the unknown. We are looking straight into that guarded, subconscious realm that is anyone’s psyche. We are tiny observers on board a sub-surface vessel, peering through the thick, pressure-resistant windows at whatever lies mysteriously below the dark waters. Emotional baggage lurks so deeply in our subconscious that often our friends – and even ourselves – are unaware of its presence and the power of its influence. Baggage often lies waiting like a set bear trap: jaws agape and expectant, ready to slam down on anyone resembling a previous offender.
In the sculpture titled “The Key” a nude female figure stands behind a wall with a keyhole in it, while lying her head and one arm across the top ledge. She looks exhausted, like she’s been waiting there for weeks, waiting for the right person or thing to free her from the wall – the robust shield – that she has built up, either deliberately or subconsciously, to protect herself.
The viewer may very likely identify with the subject and ask, “What blocks my growth as a person – as a writer, as an artist, as a mother – and who or what do I need to get past this obstacle?” The fact that the figure is nude behind the wall works both to show the figure’s vulnerability, as well as to deliver the stark contrast of soft, warm skin, against a cold hard wall.
Amorde’s work is an examination of the myriad possible influences of baggage, including acknowledging, healing from, and overcoming it. In her piece titled “Pandora,” the nude female figure sits proudly atop her suitcase with her head held high and her hand on her hip, showing she has come to terms with her past, learned from it, and has gained strength from her experience.
Baggage can be also be the memories that we hold dear as we age, as illustrated in the sculpture titled, “Quite the Journey.” In this piece, the bust of an older man is shown with a staircase leading up to the crown of his head where a diminutive figure of the man sits holding his baggage under his arm. In the bust of the man, his neck is held straight in a neutral posture, and in his face we see humility and wisdom. The smaller version of the man, however, appears to have a heavy heart: he wears a wistful expression as if he is holding the precious memories of his past close to his body in a protective suitcase. Some of us favor the memories found in life’s unfiltered rear view mirror over the condition of mental sterility described so astutely by Alexander Pope as the “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.”
As an adult emotional baggage may bubble to the surface as one begins to reach a deeper level of involvement with a friend or become intimate with a lover. Expectations created by previous, unhealthy relationships can contaminate new and potentially more positive interactions. Social worker Virginia Satir, widely regarded as the Mother of Family Therapy, posited in the 1970’s that the “presenting issue” or “surface problem” that brings clients into therapy is seldom the real problem. She believed instead that the unhealthy coping mechanisms created the problem. Satir understood baggage; she knew that the heart of the problem could be found inside that internal suitcase, and her universal mantra was simple and profound: “peace within, peace between, peace among.”
Upon discovering a partner’s big secret, empathy plays a major role in the dynamics of the relationship because the air has been cleared – hopefully in an exchange that was handled maturely by both parties. If there are noteworthy similarities between the two individuals, normalization occurs, whereby forming a qualitatively deeper bond, which rests solidly based on mutual understanding.
In reality however, the art of revealing one’s baggage is complicated and unpredictable. Digging up the past can release deep seeded emotions, which had until this point laid dormant in the soils of the unconscious, and patterns of behavior drawn from the family of origin and still unconsciously carried around can cause defensiveness and highly reactive behaviors which can surprise both parties and proceed to create a parched environment for the tender flower that is their fragile intimacy.
In summary, the complex dichotomy of emotional baggage is this: the memories of the interactions and experiences we carry are heavy and they hinder our movement and growth. Yet we keep them close as they fulfill one of our most basic human needs: that of safety and comfort. Amorde’s “Baggage” series explores the many faces of human resiliency and succeeds at representing the nuances within this psychologically complex topic.