The Edna Kolmas Janis Project (2004–2014)

Six months before my grandmother died, I dropped out of Oberlin College and enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I felt compelled to be in Chicago, and to help my family care for my grandmother before she passed. I completed the imagery for this project in 2004; now, eight years later, I am able to explain what it is about. There are two parts to this project.

The Edna Kolmas Janis Project: Me As My Grandmother

The first part of this project is called “Me as My Grandmother.” From August 2003–December 2003, I lived at my grandmother Edna and my grandfather Earl’s empty home in suburban Lincolnwood, Illinois. Earl passed away in 1999. Edna became a widow. She stayed in Lincolnwood until her Parkinson’s (with a dementia element) progressed, at which point she moved to an assisted living home in Skokie, Illinois. Their suburban home was empty, but the memories were still there. I wanted to live in this emotional space in order to both remember my childhood and be closer to Edna’s world. I journaled my experiences and emailed about the process and experience with my mentor, the artist Jean-Marie Casbarian. She encouraged me to continue digging. I visited Edna in the assisted living home as much as I could. I asked Edna if it was okay for me to live at her home. I remember her looking me straight in the eye and saying yes, that was fine with her. While I was staying at her home, I was inspired to re-stage old photographs of her in domestic settings. I replaced her with me. In doing so, I symbolically explored the roles of grandmother, mother, Jewish woman, housewife and accountant/master of all things related to the family business. I worked fast; Edna’s Parkinson’s were progressing fast, and I knew my time with her was limited.

Somewhere in the re-staging process, I lost the original photographs. Now all I have are the images I re-staged, which I believe is what Edna would have wanted. They hang in my living room in a way similar to the family photo arrangements that Edna always had in her home. Today the restaged images mix with actual photos from Edna and Earl’s life, marrying their spirits with my own.

Proud of Her Suburban Home (2004)

Baffled in Her Kitchen! (2004)

Watching the Cubs on TV (2004)


All photographs of “Alicia as Grandma Edna” by Caroline Voagen Nelson, 2004. 


The Edna Kolmas Janis Project: Portraits of Edna

Over a three-year period, Edna slowly died of Parkinson’s. She lost parts of her memory, bodily functions and ability to take care of herself. In her disease, she appeared happy, care-free and funny. In her life, however, she often times came off as strict and serious with a no-nonsense attitude about everything. In her slow walk toward death, she became the hit of the retirement facility. Despite her failing physical health, Edna still got her hair done every week, put on clothes, and went about her daily activities. Nothing could stop her from living her life. I took these portraits of her at the assisted living home in Skokie, Illinois. She is still the same woman I remember from the time I was a young girl.

Death is a part of life. In our daily hypermediated lives, we worry about how we will look in front of the smartphone camera; we want to show the beautiful parts of life, the magic, the romance and the good times. We don’t want to show the painful parts; we quietly push the dead and dying aside. These photographs are meant to show the human spirit that was alive in Edna all the way up until the end. Edna held on hard; she loved life, and she was a fighter. She kept her social circle small, inviting in only a select few whom she truly loved and trusted. She was the same woman until the day she died.


Edna Janis (color) from the series “When She Died” (2004)

Edna Janis (black & white) from the series “When She Died” (2004)

Portrait of Edna Janis, Despair from the series “When She Died” (2004)


Edna Janis Portrait, Stern from the series “When She Died” (2004)


Portrait of Edna Janis, Sleeping from the series “When She Died” (2004)

Portrait of Edna Janis, Napping with God from the series “When She Died” (2004)

Edna Kolmas Janis passed away peacefully in her sleep on March 9, 2004.

El Malei Rachamin
Compassionate God, Eternal Spirit of the universe,
grant perfect rest in Your sheltering presence to
Edna Kolmas Janis
who has entered eternity.
O God of mercy, let her find refuge in Your eternal presence,
and let her soul be bound up in the bond of everlasting life.
God is her inheritance. May she rest in peace,
and let us say: Amen

It took me eight years to finish this project.

All portraits of Edna Janis by her granddaughter, Alicia Kismet Eler.



The Edna Kolmas Janis Project will be presented in its entirety for the first time on February 22 as part of the art festival and book launch Why Marriage?


Why Marriage?

an art festival and book launch

Saturday February 22, 2014

6 to 10pm

at the Darst Center, 2834 S Normal Avenue in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago.

The arts festival, a one-night event, questions the validity of heteronormative models of relationships, and proposes alternatives ways of imagining love.  Exhibitions and performances will include:

Martha Burgess, installation

Drew Frees, comedy performance, spoken word

Shane Huffman, installation, with Karen Reimer and Laura Letinsky

Darrell Jones, dance

Lisa Lindvay, photography

Meredith Miller, performance

Madsen Minax, video

Dmitri Peskov and Inna Peschanskaya, performance, spoken word

Oli Rodriguez, photography

Christine Shallenberg, new media

Anna Shteynshleyger, video

Lord Sunder and Mariano Chavez, artist’s book

groups exhibitions:

Familial Territory with Alicia ElerMiller&ShellabargerMelissa Potter, andMiriam Schaer, curated by Jessica Cochran