As Valencia artist Suzanne DeCuir sat with her husband in a stuffy, little hotel room in the Hunan province of China, they began removing layer upon layer of clothing from their newly adopted, 14-month-old daughter Anna.
“They have a concern about babies being warm enough … not every place has adequate heating,” DeCuir said.
So, as soon as the adoption workers left, they thought, “She must be roasting,” and started to take off some layers.
“We got down to the last layer and it was this incredibly beautiful, little jacket … that just struck me as so beautiful in its simplicity and humbleness,” she said. “It was fraying and had three totally different buttons … someone had obviously worked on it more than once.”
It was clear to her that somebody had worked really hard on this article of clothing, and that it had probably been worn by a number of kids, as Anna was only four months old when she came to the orphanage, so she wouldn’t have been big enough for it.
Fast forward more than 20 years, and DeCuir was going through her closets. There she discovered the small, white jacket.
“It made me think of all the kids who were adopted and went off to different lives,” she said. “Who knows what their situations were, but it also made me think about the kids who didn’t get adopted and what their fate would be.”
This moment inspired her to create “Life Jackets,” a tribute to girls around the world who might not have had the opportunity to realize their potential and the mystery around their fates.
She began making miniature jackets, all unadorned and a bit shabby, but each unique, just as the original had been, ending up with more than 100.
“I just started, and I kept going and going and going,” she said, adding that she would use odds and ends materials to “evoke that sense of an individual since they’re not matching.”
Some were made out of bits of fabric while others incorporated various materials from DeCuir’s personal experiences with her children, including Cheerios, ramen noodles and ACE bandages.
“When I see our girls going off into careers in music, athletics or research, I can’t help but think of those kids that are equally talented who may or may not have been able to use those talents,” DeCuir said.
When local filmmaker Pamela Beere Briggs heard of her artist friend’s latest project, she knew she had to showcase it.
“When (DeCuir) holds up Anna’s little jacket and you see the different buttons and holes, you can tell that somebody made this jacket out of love,” Beere Briggs said. “This jacket tells a story that is a part of all of us, and we all acknowledge that in everyone’s story there’s a piece of us.”
With the help of her husband and fellow filmmaker, William McDonald, Beere Briggs immediately got to work making DeCuir and her project the subject of her new documentary, “Life Jackets.”
“I always say that directing a documentary is really about being a good listener and knowing loosely that there’s a story I want to tell,” Beere Briggs said, adding that though they had limited time, it worked out well because DeCuir was already comfortable with them.
“That’s the secret of making this film — we were able to film everything in one hour,” she added. “This isn’t a long piece, it’s a short piece, a poignant piece about these lives and little jackets.”
Though it’s the shortest documentary film that they’ve ever made, totaling only eight minutes, it’s a story that Beere Briggs believes the world needs right now.
“We need as many stories about people doing things out of love and looking at what connects us all as a community,” she said. “And what I can do as filmmaker and storyteller is to share stories about people who are actually doing things out of thoughtful kindness.”
Beere Briggs has also been inspired by the jacket and DeCuir’s story, so much so that she is launching a website in late October so that she can continue to share similar stories of others acting out of kindness.
“We hope it’s a place where visitors can come for a minute or five to just feel like they aren’t all alone,” Beere Briggs said. “Similarly to Life Jackets, there will be different elements … little things we can do to create kindness, hopefulness, justice … as well as other inspiring morsels.”
The “Life Jackets” documentary will be available on the website, free of charge, in addition to other contributions by DeCuir, where she will discuss her artwork and “both the frustrations that come with trying to get an idea out through art and also the moments where something really works,” Beere Briggs said.
DeCuir also hopes to exhibit “Life Jackets” somewhere “to raise the question of what are we going to never know about all these individuals,” she said, while Beere Briggs hopes the project allows people of all ages to think of their own life jackets.
“The sound of a sewing machine is never going to be the same for me again, because when I hear it, I think of the little girls and all those stories,” Beere Briggs said.