Art, for Melissa Partin-Harding, is about memories


Photography gives Melissa Partin-Harding another voice, one that can sing in major and minor keys.

It helped articulate the experience of caring for her dying child. And when delicate Michaela was gone, precious images remained.

“Through hours of thought, shooting, developing, and printing, this seemingly imperfect body was transformed into an aesthetically pleasing composition and represents the purest form of beauty in a world besieged by artificial beauty,” Partin-Harding wrote for an exhibit she called Michaela: A Child of Vulnerability. “The posture of her body combined with light and shadow emphasizes her vulnerability, while the subject evokes a range of emotional qualities.”

Some pictures “stir a sense of spirituality and purity to create a tension between beauty and spirituality of life and anxiety over the inevitability of death.”

Michaela was Partin-Harding’s fourth child, born in 1999 with a cyst on her brain.

“We knew she wouldn’t survive past childhood,” said Partin-Harding, who lives in McClure, just west of Grand Rapids, with her husband Michael Hardin, and children. “They said probably seven to nine years. I always had that stuck in my mind.”

In between wedding and portrait photography, and earning a degree at the University of Toledo, she had taken countless photos of the older children playing, swimming, hanging out.

“You photograph what’s in your world,” she said. “The photos I took of her were very different than the other children. I’d document what happened to her. I photographed her doctor appointments, hospital stays, and therapy sessions, her wearing a brace to keep her hips in place. It was so different than what the other children did in their daily lives.”

Inspired by Michaela’s loveliness, spirit, and resilience, she set out to make portraits of the little blond with ruby-red lips, milky skin, and blue eyes, nestling her in the bay window where natural light is good. Using a large-format camera and black-and-white film, she shot until Michaela became squirmy. Partin-Harding, who teaches photography at Owens Community College, spent untold hours printing the photos.

In her exhibits at UT’s Eberly Center for Women and the Parkwood Gallery, she hoped to draw attention to the meaning of a life with multiple disabilities: “What a child like that brings to your life, to how you see the world, and what’s valuable and what’s important. In the years she was here, she brought so much.”

Michaela died in 2006.

“I was using photography to help myself hold onto memories,” she said. “Art is personal, whether it’s wilderness scenes or bringing attention to something that’s important to you. And it helps you get things out that are stuck in your head.”