Guardian Angel

By Elizabeth Gracen:

There was a time, many years ago now, when I ran away as fast as I could from the competitive world of Hollywood and the frenzy of chasing a career. I never thought I would ever move back home to Arkansas, but at the time, I remember being incredibly grateful to my parents for letting me return to the nest to recalibrate my life.

I had hit the ripe old age of thirty-three and found myself questioning just about everything. The French call this “L’age du Christ”—a symbolic coming-of-age moment where one can look back on the life you’ve led while simultaneously looking forward to full-fledged adulthood and the many possibilities of what it means to “wake up” and decide what you really want to do with the limited time you have here on this plane of existence.

It was a challenging time where I chose to dive deep into my psyche and unearth some of the darker, more tortuous events of my past—shadows that haunted me with sometimes knee-buckling surprise. Always running away from or creating what a friend would later call my own “mishegoss,” I decided to stop and do my best to figure it out before I burned out completely.

Even though I am not quite ready to write about the issues I came face-to-face with that summer, suffice it to say that over a three-month period, with the help of an amazing therapist, I made my way through a daunting workbook for survivors of sexual abuse and came out the other side with what I believe was a small but necessary step forward toward living my truth. It was not an easy undertaking, but I am grateful that I did it.

During that time, a wonderfully eclectic costume shop in Little Rock, Arkansas, announced that it was closing its doors. So, with my dear friend and frequent photographic collaborator Skip Lile in tow, we made several trips to this treasure trove and came away with collectibles, terrific pieces of wardrobe (I still wear the blue brocade Nehru jacket that I found there), and one inspiring creative project that kept us busy into the autumn.

In a corner in the back of the musty shop hung a rack of angel wings, crammed together, comically artificial and shoddily made, alongside white gown-like shifts, barely worn. No doubt the collection had been used for a Christmas play, choir event, or maybe even a nativity scene.

I'm a devoted fan of Wim Wender's gorgeous film Wings of Desire, so it didn't take me long to decide that I could create a character from these simple components to pay homage to the film and the whole idea of angels watching over us, acting as eternal witnesses to time, the universe, and the human race.

Before long, Skip and I found ourselves dust deep at an enormous bauxite mining pit off of Irontown Road, just outside of Little Rock, trekking across the white moonscape, my angel wings attached, his gorgeous 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ Hasselblad in tow. Soon after, we had permission to shoot photos of “The Angel” at the famous Hot Springs Arlington Hotel.

Photo: Skip Lile

In general, I need very little encouragement to dress up and become someone else. Give me a wig or funny hat and I’m a happy camper—vanishing into a character for as long as I can get away with it. The Angel was just someone I had thrown together, a discovery in the corner of a costume shop. There was very little thought put into “being” her. The wings alone transported me, I didn’t really think about why. But for others, the Angel caused confusion.

“What the hell? Why are you dressed as an angel?”