The Witness

Raw Cinnabar

The Witness

Years ago, a family friend gifted me a page from a very old Qur’an, a little piece of paper protected by a big picture frame. I hung it at the top of the stairs. One day I noticed that sunlight sometimes streamed in through a window, falling right on that fragile page. That can’t be good, I wondered. Ultraviolet light degrades ink, especially red ink, and the marks on this page were hundreds of years old. 

I began to research how museums monitor UV exposure. I put a sheet of cyanotype over the framed page, wondering if the filtered sunlight would activate it. It did not. 

I read about the history of ink degradation, finding a passage in Pliny’s history that described the value of vermilion pigment and the circumstances under which it was most likely to lose its color. Vermilion is unique: rather than simply fading, it can turn gray or black when exposed to seawater, sources of chlorine, air, and sunlight. Its degradation is unpredictable, as vermilion pigment has varying levels of impurities. Real vermilion is hard to get, since the mercury in it makes it toxic. 

I obtained some vermilion, ground and mixed it to make watercolor and oil paints, and attempted to degrade it on purpose. I used salt, warm bleach, and direct sunlight, but could not get reliable results.

Meanwhile, I experimented with UV aging. Museums use blue swatches to measure UV exposure over time: they place the swatch in the same room as ancient objects, then monitor the swatch for fading. The clothing industry has a similar test for colorfastness, a set of 8 blue dyes that fade at different rates when exposed to the sun.

UV Test Strips

Hoping to mimic these results, I obtained a UV light and fixed it on a swatch of blue wool fabric for days on end. Nothing happened. My fabric was too strong, and my light was too weak.

Clearly I needed a stronger light.

Blacklights are actually very weak, and their radiation is in a narrow band. A far better light for my purposes would be a metal halide light. These lights have a mixture of mercury salt, halogens, and rare earth metals. High voltage ionizes the metals, causing them to emit powerful radiation mostly in the visual and UV spectrum.

These lights had a special coating on the inside of the glass that filtered out most—but not all—of the UV radiation. Without that filter, you’d get sunburned in minutes. I bought the largest one I could find from an old warehouse and I set it up in my closet. 

I called my light The Witness. I wasn’t sure why.

The light was scarily powerful. It was a third as powerful as direct sunlight, and its odd color balance and narrow-band emissions made things look strange. It didn’t seem safe to use it in my bedroom, even with eye protection, so I hid it in my closet. I ran it for awhile to ensure it didn’t overheat, and when I was confident it wouldn’t start a fire, I started to experiment.

Finding a welding mask to be a little too dark to be useful, I wore tanning bed shades while manipulating the light. I pinned swatches of fabric, dyed paper, and splotches of homemade vermilion paint in front of the light, hoping to fade and degrade them. It was a terribly inefficient form of alternative photography. 
Even from inside my closet its eerie light blazed through the cracks in the door. I found my eyes adjusting to it in ways that alarmed me. I would relax in bed for hours, waiting for an exposure to finish, and occasionally I would step out on my balcony for some fresh air. 

When I looked up at the night sky, it was no longer black.

My eyes were washed out. Dark colors were desaturated, causing blacks to appear muddy and gray, almost like white paint had accidentally got mixed in. Everything had a greenish cast. It took hours for my vision to feel more normal.

I was afraid. I began spending less time in my room with the light, but I continued my experiments nonetheless.


Frustrated by how difficult it was to discolor pigment, I turned my attention towards paper. I remembered cutting out shapes from construction paper and seeing them fade in the window. 

I discovered The Witness was indeed powerful enough to bleach the paper over the course of a just few hours. As expected, red paper bleached the most easily. 

I played with masks, made a pinhole camera out of a cardboard box, and managed to project all sorts of little images on the paper on the wall. It was exciting to manipulate the light, but the masks made the light too weak. 

To get a proper exposure I needed its full power. Besides, I liked the natural gradient formed by the reflecting cone. 

Construction paper doesn’t come in long scrolls. It felt important to use a long, continuous sheet of paper. I decided I needed to make some of my own.

I borrowed an old blender. I would tear strips of construction paper, mix them with water, blend them, then lay them out to dry. They were beautiful when wet, subtle and saturated, but when they dried the colors became muted and the texture became leathery. I also struggled with the thickness. It was difficult to press them evenly without separating the shortened fibers into clumps.

I also struggled with cleanliness. It was difficult to promote enough air circulation for it to dry properly without also exposing it to stray hairs and dust. I shrugged. This whole project felt pretty Wabi Sabi anyway.

All these efforts culminated in a long, sculptural piece of paper, bleached from the bottom up solely by light, ragged at one end, with a couple of paw prints from the neighborhood cat. I called it Nausea. I made it a wooden armature to hold it up, and draped it with a piece of silk.

Nausea, 2021

It was only then, when I stepped back to look at this odd relic, that I realized what I had been doing. The paper was flesh and emotion, soft and vulnerable. The wooden armature was bones, but it was also a house. I’d grown up in the church, a house for both heart and body. The silk veil was a way to control the exposure of that vulnerable paper. And the light, The Witness, was the Other. 

When you let someone see you, it changes you.

The wood felt wrong. It felt unfinished. And although I haven’t been a Christian in decades. I’d unconsciously made a cross and a house for this ragged piece of paper standing in for my heart. 

I knew I did not need to explore the paper or pigments anymore. I was still grappling with my recent divorce, and had gotten in touch with my own emotional vulnerability. What I needed next was to rebuild a skeleton, rebuild my home, inside and out.

So I started working with wood. 

Coming Soon: Bones