Devin Lee’s new photography collection is a poignant meditation on grief, family, and coming home.
For 24-year-old artist Devin Lee, home means a few different things. It can mean Denver, Colorado, where she grew up. It can mean New York City, where she relocated when she was 18. It could also mean Italy or Argentina, both countries she has spent stints living in. And right now home is Dublin, where she moved in 2021 for her graduate studies.
“When the pandemic started I was living alone and very far away from my family,” Devin tells me. “It felt like the first time I was able to sit with all my emotions and process them.”
During her many moves across the globe, she maintained a ritual of phone calls to her grandfather at home in the United States. He had been struggling with dementia for the last few years, so Devin’s stories of her adventures always came as a pleasant surprise for him. “He could never remember where I was or why I was so far away. That was something he would always say on the phone to me: ‘Where are you calling from tonight?’”
Their phone calls became the inspiration behind Devin’s upcoming exhibition at Hen’s Teeth, titled Where Are You Calling From Tonight?, which launched on August 20. The collection incorporates photography, collage and mixed-media to paint a varied picture of her relationship with her grandfather, her family, and her identity.
Looking at the series evokes the same feeling of rooting through a memory box or flicking through a scrapbook. There is a sense of jumping through space and time, catching quick snippets of the eras, places and conversations that make up a richly textured life.
It feels fitting that Devin uses the term “mixtape of memories” to describe the collection of work. One shot depicts people dancing in Argentina, taken when she was living there in the year leading up to his death. “That’s when we would call the most. He was in hospital that whole year with nothing to do besides talk on the phone,” she tells me. Another image, shot through the window of a warmly-lit bar, shows costume-clad revellers on Halloween of 2019, the night he passed away.
One of the mediums used in the series is collage, a practice that became an outlet for Devin during her bereavement. “He was always reading the paper or a magazine,” she says. She started to collect archive material published during his lifetime and use them in her art. “It allowed me to feel like I was seeing something that he had seen, almost like stepping into his shoes.”
The mixing of old and new images, or of black and white with colour, was a conscious choice. Inspired by Surrealism, Devin used collage to try and understand her grandfather’s mental state as he struggled with dementia. “I was thinking a lot about the idea of creating fractured memories,” she tells me. “I was also re-envisioning the past, something we all do through mourning.”
This series is about more than just Devin’s relationship with her grandfather. It is largely about places – the ones we grow up in, the ones we leave behind, and the new ones we throw ourselves into in search of a fresh start.
A portion of the images were taken during the summer of 2021, when Devin was driving from New York to her grandfather’s hometown in Nebraska. The trip was in part to scatter his ashes and in part to bid farewell to America before she started a new chapter in Ireland.
Shot using a self-timer and tripod, we see the artist in various locations on her trip: sitting alone in a field of wheat, stretched out on the bed of a blue-lit hotel, and standing alone in her grandfather’s tungsten-lit living room, surrounded by framed photos and paraphernalia of his life.
The self-portraits paint Devin against the backdrop of ambient rural America, giving the images a mournful, melancholy quality. They bring you into the artist’s inner world, showing you the world as she is experiencing it. The collection is a rumination on what it means to be a young woman trying to unpack complex emotions about grief, loss, loneliness, and home.
“When I moved to New York, I saw so many people who were ashamed of where they come from,” she tells me. “When I moved away, my grandpa became a representation of this cultural space I had left behind. And because I loved him so much, I learned to love where I was from so much.”
As well as being exhibited in Hen’s Teeth Studio, Devin is releasing Where Are You Calling From Tonight? as a zine, designed by her aunt, New York City-based art book publisher Jean Lee. Considering her geographical distance from her family, it feels crucial to memorialise the project, and subsequently her memories of her grandfather, in something permanent.
Reflecting on the project, Devin says: “It’s like this encapsulation of the last two years, this time when I was isolated in this long, drawn out process of mourning. [The project] is about being far away from a loved one, while still trying to connect with them after they’ve passed on.”
It’s moving to witness the earnestness with which Devin speaks about her grandfather. It’s clear to me that he had a profound effect on her life and greatly shaped her understanding of the world. I tell her he must have been a special person to inspire such a beautiful body of work, and ask her to tell me more about him.
And so, Devin tells me this: Bob Pierce was born in Alliance, Nebraska, in 1929. He lived through the Great Depression and survived World War Two. His most distinctive feature was his height, looming tall at 6 ft 8 inches, and Devin fondly describes him as “the giant of the prairie.” He was extremely proud. He had a deep, gravelly voice, like a cowboy in an old Western movie. He spent most of his life politically Conservative, as was the norm in Middle America, but had a change of perspective in his later years.
“One thing I loved about my grandfather was that he was able to reflect on his own beliefs. Towards the end of his life, he had a complete change of heart and became very progressive. Nothing triggered this. He was just like, I’m going to be this way now,” she tells me, smiling.
“In that way he taught me that you’re never too old to keep learning, keep understanding. He was such a legend. We miss him.”
Words by Kerry Mahony
You can purchase the zine of Where Are You Calling From Tonight?, as well as prints from the collection, on Devin’s website: devinlee.squarespace.com
You can follow Devin’s work at @amishstripper on Instagram.