On Grief, Storytelling, and Building Little Altars Everywhere

When you’re in the space of death, people dying, and fragility, things become very clear. It’s a very real sacred space and I think it’s the closest we get to being truthful about life and emotion.”


I met Starr somewhere in my teenage years through the deep friendship she shares with my grandmother. Right away, I sensed her kind, compassionate energy and this was only exemplified when I learned about the kind of artist she is. Through following her work over the years and seeing her occasionally, I learned that our interests overlapped in quite a few areas, the most notable being photography and storytelling. It was for this reason that I decided to interview her, however it became clear pretty quickly that we had even more in common than I thought.

Over the last few years, the topic of grief has been heavy on my mind and my artistic practice. Since starting this program, I’ve especially been thinking about ways we might be able to reshape our environment to be more supportive of those who are grieving. When I told my mom that I had decided to interview Starr she asked me if I knew how her and my grandmother met and I realized that I actually did not. She told me that Starr and my grandmother had shared a chunk of time on the hospice ward, my grandmother as a social worker and Starr a volunteer. So our proximity to grief and loss became a new theme connecting me and Starr. What follows is a conversation on grief, what we keep from those we’ve lost, and how we can use art to uplift the tender humanity that is all around us. 

Olivia DelGandio: I actually just found out that you met my grandmother because of your shared time working in hospice, I had no idea. Can you tell me how you got involved there?

Starr Sariego: So I started working at hospice as a way to sort of give back in my personal family history. I lost a sister about 16 years ago to cancer. 

Olivia: Oh, I’m sorry. 

Starr: It was tough because it was my first real experience with that sort of loss. And then my second sister passed away and then my mom passed away. And we used hospice for all three of their passings. And so when I got back to Miami, I felt like, gosh, I really want to get involved. And I was not interested in being committed to one family. So the other option was to work on the unit at the hospital. The hospice there had a whole floor. So I met your grandmother, who, you know, fast became like a dear friend to me. And she made such a difference in my life because she really taught me about grief and holding space for people going through it. And I think, you know, as women, certainly culturally, we are trained to fix health. To repair. You know, I could keep going with the adjectives, but you get the idea. And I learned from your grandmother that the best thing to do here is to be an open receptacle for that person to, you know, lead the way through their grief. It was just good practice for life, you know? 

Olivia: Yeah, for sure. My grandma is really good at that, at holding grief, for sure. But I mean, I’m so sorry to hear about all of that loss. That is so much. That’s so, so heavy. 

Starr: Yes, it was. 

Olivia: Was there any overlap between your time working in hospice and your art or any overlapping interests in that realm?

Starr: It’s interesting that you ask that question because I always wanted to do a photography thing on hospice. I was already doing photography and I had done the first photography project on women with disabilities called the Bold Beauty Project. I don’t know if you looked at my website, I have all the projects there, the projects that I’ve worked on. So I think they were overlapping and I was very called to do something in hospice, but I never did because I was worried, you know, I just didn’t want to deal with all the privacy issues and all of that.

Olivia: Yeah, definitely. So what do you think a project on grief and hospice would do or challenge? 

Starr: I think that what happens is, when you’re in the space of death and people dying and fragility, things become very clear. It’s a very real sacred space, and I think it’s the closest to being truthful about life and emotion. This space of grief and handling grief, it is a very deeply truthful space. It’s as honest as you can be. You know, I think in real life, you’re out in the world and you’re distracted by your children and your friends and going out and whatever it is you do in the world. But when somebody is dying, it’s like all those facades are ripped away and it’s a very truthful space to be in. So I think it’s an amazing place. You know, I think a lot of artists do their best work when they are troubled, you know, writers, poets and musicians and painters. So yeah, it’s a great motivator for art. 

Olivia: Yeah, I agree. And you know, I’m sure you saw recently that Scott [my uncle] passed away. 

Starr: I can barely handle it. I called your grandmother. I’ve called her twice. Then she called me and I was on this trip and I haven’t called her back yet. Yeah, I mean, I can’t believe what your family’s been through. 

Olivia: Yeah, me too. But I feel called in this moment to make something about it. And so I’ve been thinking about that a lot, like the space and the truth that’s coming out of this moment. And like the ways, especially because I’m so connected to my mom and my grandma, the ways that we’re all existing in this time, in this space. So I don’t know what it’ll be yet, but I think something.

Starr: Yeah, and I think you write beautifully, I’ve seen other stuff you’ve written, and I think that, you know, maybe in speaking to them, something will come alive for you. There is this thread of connection that’s very strong between the three of you and there’s something about what gets handed down. You know, the whole idea of epigenetics, where even another generation’s emotional experiences have an impact. In fact, I was just talking to my daughter-in-law about this. She’s sitting here in the car kind of smiling because we were talking about the things that had happened in her family two generations above her. Hmm. You know, it’s like in your case, I think it’s a very strong, positive thing. And in her case, it was sort of a very negative damaging thing and the effect of how that affects families positively or negatively, especially in the grief space. 

Olivia: Yeah, for sure. 

Starr: You know, she [daughter-in-law] lost her grandfather earlier this year to cancer. But out of that loss came a lot of truths in her family. And I find that that does happen. I don’t know if there have been more stories about your mom’s family and your grandmother’s family, you know? 

Olivia: Yeah, definitely. I mean, and it’s funny, really funny that you mention epigenetics because I had a conversation with a classmate yesterday, literally about epigenetics and grief. 

Starr: It’s a huge thing, it’s a huge thing. I mean, I don’t know what’s happened in your family, but— I think I met a poet once in California who was Jewish and her parents had been in the Holocaust and survived. And what trauma came to her even though she wasn’t in that trauma? 

Olivia: Yeah, I’ve been wanting to read about ancestral trauma and such. I’ve been thinking about that because my mom’s grandparents on her dad’s side fled Germany during the Holocaust. And so wondering, yeah, how that’s been passed down, for sure. 

Starr: Very interesting. And then interestingly in your family, like how intensely cancer has ravaged your family. And in my family too, not to the extent of yours, but definitely, you know, in my immediate family, it’s like, wow, yeah. And then my mom’s whole line of family all died of cancer. So it’s very interesting.

Olivia: There’s a lot there that I want to read about and learn about. It’s definitely a field and theme that I don’t know enough about. So I want to do some reading.

Starr: Well, you have plenty of time in your life. The universe will just give you those life lessons. 

Olivia: Oh yeah. Okay, let’s see what other questions I have for you. So you work mainly in photography and storytelling and I’m wondering what experiences, moments, or memories led you here, to the way that you tell stories. What were some influences on your practice? 

Starr: So interestingly, every project I do gets birthed out of my own personal experience. I don’t know if that is true for a lot of artists, but I think in my personal experience I have to have a deep emotional connection to the subject matter. So with the women with disabilities project, one of my friends had a disabled daughter, but I didn’t have a lot of experience with a lot of other people with disabilities. Even deeper than that, I think it’s really underrepresented in communities, you know, they aren’t seen, generally, or understood in our cultural lives. And so I think women with disabilities are really infantilized, and I did this project and I found out these women were sexual and had relationships and children and had big jobs and had been through tremendous trauma. And then the women in prison, the same thing. It was like this deep dive into the other and the disenfranchised, in a way. Recently, I started therapy again, and I think that a lot of my interest in that comes from my own feelings of having been “other” in my life. And instead of like seeing that, I’ve been looking for it outside of myself.

Part of the Bold Beauty Project, a visual arts exhibit that featured women with varying disabilities. Digital photograph. 2016. Miami, Florida, United States. Photo by Starr Sariego.

Olivia: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Well, it makes for some really beautiful work. 

Starr: Oh, thanks, honey. Thank you. 

Olivia: Actually, the program that I’m in had a project at a prison in Portland, Oregon, and I’ve been thinking about that a lot and maybe wanting to get involved in something like that. What was your experience there like?

Starr: Oh, it was very crazy. I mean, the biggest takeaway is that, since the 80s, the population of women in prison has risen 700 percent. 

Olivia: Wow. 

Starr: And of all the women in prison, like almost 90 percent, I think the number is 88 percent, have been physically or sexually abused by the time they’re 18. So when you go into that population and you meet these women and there are a lot of white women, more white women than you would expect, you realize these women could be my sister, my neighbor, my auntie. You know, somebody that you would know, except for this event that had happened to them. So, you know, that was my experience. But for me, you know, you were asking about the narrative portion. I really think the story, along with the image and the person telling their own story, has such tremendous power. Yeah, it’s like, This is how I want to be seen in the world. This is the story I want you to know about me and how I got to where I am. See my humanity. That’s my thing. I want people to see that humanity, you know? To remove the otherness, maybe.

Olivia: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. I saw on your website that you said you’re mainly self-taught. Can you tell me about that?

Starr: Yes, yes. I came to photography really late. I think I’ve always been visual and creative and artistic at home, or whatever. I like my environment being pretty in a way that suits me, not to suit another person or somebody else’s idea. In fact, I think my space is kind of a little quirky. 

[Daughter-in-Law jumps in]: Yeah, your space matches your soul. You select things that are beautiful to you. Things you love to touch, you love to look at. Right? 

Starr: Right, right. I like to talk about everything on my wall. Yes, and everything in my home has a story; the thread of meaning and the value things hold. It’s like the emotional core value that Little Altars Everywhere came from. When I was stuck at home by myself during the beginning of the pandemic, I realized I really cling to emotions, the past, and ideas from the past. I’m really working on evolving from that. The narrative, I think for me, is always important to the story of a thing, of a human, of an ornamental object. I always tell people I have a lot of dead people’s things in my house.

From Little Altars Everywhere, a pandemic photographic project by Starr Sariego featuring family talismans, vintage photos, Starr’s body, and natural treasures discovered on dog walks. This photographic exercise became a way of processing feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Digital photograph. 2020. Miami, Florida, United States. Photo by Starr Sariego.

Olivia: Oh yeah, me too. 

Starr: Not in a morbid way. But I’m comforted by having those things around me. 

Olivia: Yeah, me too. Yeah, for sure. I just made a little altar and I put, you know, photos and I have all of these little objects and stuff. So, yeah, totally. 

Starr: Take a photo with your phone and text it to me.

Olivia: Yeah, definitely. 

Starr: My whole house is sort of like little altars everywhere. 

From Little Altars Everywhere. Digital photograph. 2020. Miami, Florida, United States. Photo by Starr Sariego.

Olivia: I love that. Yeah, I love that phrase.

Starr: Yeah, and it’s true. I have little collections and things everywhere. I have this wooden angel and underneath it, it’s like my offerings to her, little bits of mica I find on hikes and beautiful leaves. 

Olivia: Oh, that’s so good, 

Starr: If I remember, I’ll take a picture and send it to you. 

Olivia: Yes, please. 

Starr: Yeah, it’s like honoring the beauty and little things you stumble across every day. 

Olivia: Definitely. So what’s one of your favorite things in your space like that right now?

Starr: Oh gosh.

Olivia: Or maybe not one of your favorites. Just tell me about one. 

Starr: Well, I value this portrait of my grandmother that was painted in 1942 and it’s a very beautiful, very sort of bougie, antique looking portrait. It’s like a classic vintage portrait of somebody that you would hang on your main wall and be like “this is my great grandma who built this house.”

Olivia: Yeah, that’s so cool. 

Starr: That’s very meaningful to me. And then I have two portraits of my children, if you text me and remind me I’ll send you photos of them because they’re quite lovely. Ok, well, so those things are very important to me and some furniture that my dad had made for me. 

Olivia: Oh, that’s beautiful.

Starr: Yeah, that I cherish. 

Olivia: That sounds like a lovely space. 

Starr: Oh, thanks, honey. Well, honey, if you think of anything else, you can always just text or call me tomorrow, OK? 

Olivia: I actually have one last question. Maybe kind of random but are you someone who remembers your dreams at night? 

Starr: I do sometimes, and sometimes I don’t. I was getting ready for this trip and I was having a lot of anxiety about it. I had a very specific dream. I’ll tell you my Halloween dream, which is really crazy. Ok. You know, I photographed a lot of LGBTQIA folks for my latest project. And so I had been photographing drag queens. And so in my dream, I was with a friend in a drag queen’s studio or shop that had amazing dresses. And I had eaten a hamburger, which I never eat red meat, but I had a hamburger recently, like maybe two days before the dream. And in my dream, the friend I was with found the most beautiful gown, cut out to the stomach with just thin strips of fabric that showed her beautiful, flat stomach. And she looked gorgeous. But I couldn’t find a dress that fit me. Every dress I put on, I couldn’t pull the zipper up. It was like an anxiety dream. Finding the right costume in the shop of the drag queen. And I was worried about my belly. So there you go. 

Olivia: That’s so funny. 

Starr: It was very specific. I do sort of remember some of my dreams. 

Olivia: I’m just asking because lately I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams and using dreams in artistic practice. So I’m just always curious about people and their dream life. 

Starr: Have a dream journal next to your bed, perhaps. 

Olivia: Yeah, I do. I write them down. I actually made my grandma start doing that because I want to write down my mom’s,  my grandma’s, and my own dreams at this point in time. So she’s been telling me her dreams lately. 

Starr: Oh, that’s so amazing. Wow. If that doesn’t suggest a project… 

Olivia: Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking about. And actually, last week, all three of us had dreams about dogs for like a week straight

Starr: Oh, that’s so funny. 

Olivia: So it’s just on my mind.

Starr: It’s so strong, the connection between the three of you, you’re even dreaming in triplicate. 

Olivia DelGandio (she/her) is a mixed media artist interested in human connection, what it means to be tender, and the joy/sorrow dichotomy. She graduated from New College of Florida with a degree in Sociology/Gender Studies and is currently working on her MFA in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. She finds solace in creating through and for grief and is currently thinking about how grieving can become more of a community practice. She likes to create books, photos and videos for and about the people she loves. The hope for these projects is to make intimate moments and connections more visible. You can find more of her work here and find her on Instagram here.

Starr Sariego (she/her) is a native-born Miamian and now calls Asheville, NC home. She is a passionate and mostly self-taught photographer. With over 15 years in photography, she’s found that her interest lies in photographing people. Whether it be a family portrait, a headshot, a business client or an event, making that human connection to bring out the best in subjects is her superpower. She is committed to getting the most out of every photo shoot for the benefit of the subject and the cause. You can explore more of her work here.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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