Mary Jo Bole finally purges the past with ‘Family White Elephants’

The Columbus-by-way-of-Cleveland artist will premiere her new documentary at the Wexner Center for the Arts as part of the Cinema Columbus Film Festival on Thursday, April 25.
"Family White Elephants"
"Family White Elephants"Courtesy the filmmaker

“Family White Elephants,” the new documentary from Columbus-by-way-of-Cleveland artist Mary Jo Bole, took more than eight years to complete but stretches back generations, with Bole unpacking her family lineage as a means of dealing with the numerous heirlooms and sundry items passed down through her parents.

Bole first hatched the idea for the film while installing an elaborate handmade wallpaper exhibit at CCAD in 2015, its panels rooted in various historical family photographs and inherited objects.

“It took three years to hand make that wallpaper installation, and I thought I would burn all the emotional connection to this family stuff, and get it out of my system,” said Bole, whose documentary will premiere at the Wexner Center for the Arts as part of the Cinema Columbus Film Festival on Thursday, April 25. (Click here for a full schedule of Cinema Columbus films and showtimes.) “But the show was supposed to last three months, and instead the wallpaper came down after a month, which made me as covetous as ever.”

Bole, who grew up with an innate curiosity about her lineage, didn’t always like what she discovered as she worked back through her family tree, particularly as she uncovered the industrialist ancestors on her father’s side – an assortment of robber barons, bankers, industrialists and professional golfers whose wealth-hoarding existence ran counter to the punk ideals she gravitated toward growing up in Cleveland.

Part of the film serves as Bole’s means of reconciling this past, including a journey to Cumberland Island on the Georgia Coast, where she interviews a distant relative at an estate still controlled by the Carnegie line and backed up, Bole said, to a pile of shucked clam shells more than 10 feet high – a sight she described as a visual depiction of “continuity and power.”

Bole had awareness of this past growing up but said she was raised distant from its trappings, her existence comfortable but far more blue-collar. “I don’t know what happened,” Bole said of the wealth accrued by earlier generations. “I don’t know if they spent it all or it was the Depression. Mom and I were both like, ‘What happened?’ At the same time, both of us were pretty happy that whatever happened happened, and that our lives were fairly normal.”

In some ways, Bole’s family history echoes that of the city in which she grew up – a metropolis enriched by industry and then struck by misfortune. Much of the early artwork she created and documents in the film reflects this dichotomy, Bole drawn to the empty warehouses and the industrial artifacts left in the wake of this crash. “My early work was all about where I grew up,” the artist says in the film narration. “I recorded the sounds of Cleveland at the crumbling tail end of Cleveland’s devastating industrial ride. I am a product of this Victorian leftover culture.”

As a young woman growing up in this landscape, Bole would dress in the elaborate funeral clothes inherited from distant relatives and strike out to punk shows in the Flats, recalling one night when she joined Jane Cantillon and Pere Ubu’s David Thomas in crossing a railroad bridge, only to be forced to jump as a group into the Cuyahoga River when the three were confronted by an oncoming train.

Death and life collide in similarly rowdy ways throughout “Family White Elephants,” which is bookend by a trio of deaths. In opening, Bole shares that her father died more than 50 years ago, followed 25 years later by her only sister. The film then closes with the 2019 death of Bole’s mother, Ruth Stary Bole, incorporating a brief snippet of footage shot less than 30 minutes before she passed away, and which Bole said followed the two engaging one last laugh. The memory captures a trait shared by mother and daughter to uncover humor in any situation, along with an ability to not treat anything, even death, as overly precious. 

The film first emerged as Bole’s way to confront the “burdensome” items passed down to her, and in that way, it served its purpose. The artist said she’s finally ready to purge everything, hoping to donate the remaining archive to a university library, and perhaps the one at Case Western Reserve University, where she attended college. But the process also uncovered some ideas that Bole hadn’t yet considered, including the pull toward documentation exhibited by her relatives, some of whom kept deeply annotated journals – the echos of which might exist in the tug Bole feels to document her surroundings and experiences within her own art.

“I think I’m just somebody who does things. It’s knee-jerk,” Bole said. “That’s an interesting question, though. I don’t know that I have an answer.”

One thing Bole remains certain of, however, is that the release of this documentary has served as a clear line of demarcation within her own practice, freeing the artist to experiment with new ideas. Toward the end of our interview, Bole expressed an interest in creating work that would allow her to rethink Cleveland given the benefit of perspective, briefly displaying for the camera a recent linoleum print that has served as an entry point into these explorations.

“I’ve been thinking about it, and I guess I didn’t realize how much I was shaped by my sister getting cancer at 36, and the shift that happened from basically 1990 to now, really,” Bole said. “It turned me much more inward and made me more existential, where I wanted to face death in my work in as many ways as I could. It was like everything changed. But I do feel now like I’m finally coming out of it.”

Related Stories

No stories found.
Matter News