I love extraordinary evenings. Even an ordinary evening can seem special, just because of the heightened focus between what can and cannot be seen in that evening’s darkness. But set that evening inside an artist’s studio deep in Portland’s southeast industrial district, place the artist, wrapped in paper and tied with rope, on a pedestal, light her with the bright spotlit glare of a humming 1980s era projector, and this little theater becomes fantastic.
[Writer’s Note: In the summer of 2014, I began my travels around Oregon to photograph the artists who had received studio visits from the curators and critics of the Connective Conversations | Inside Oregon Art 2011-2014, The Ford Family Foundation and the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts Curator and Critic Tours and Lectures program for the years since the program’s inauguration in 2011. I travel light, only one camera, no lighting equipment, one lens. My goal is to show these artists in their environment—authentic, uncontrived, at ease. Learn about the project,Connective Conversations Inside Oregon Art 2011-2014 and the release of the book October 2015.]
Thus started another Connective Conversations photoshoot, this time with Portland artist, Blair Saxon-Hill. It’s worth taking a moment here to pause and contemplate Blair’s description of the work she makes, in her own words:
[Blair’s] work examines materiality and the relationships between photography and sculpture through the use of outmoded print technologies, the verbiage of our time (such as scanning and digital printing), and the evocation of the haptic. The resultant works appear as impossible documents and emotively activate the viewer’s perceiving body in considerations of material, space, presence and absence. Blair creates site-specific installations, artist books, sculpture, photographs, paintings and prints. Co-Owner (with artist John Brodie) of Monograph Bookwerks, she is represented by Fourteen30 Contemporary.
Back to the matter at hand: images of Blair in her studio….We had decided the week prior to meet again, for a second photoshoot. Our first meeting had been in the tame daylight of a late fall morning.
We had worked around the studio, Blair showing me her work, her favorite pieces, and her various work areas throughout her two-room studio space. It had been a foggy, rainy day, outside the wet Oregon gray light licked at the windows.
Blair, while completely cooperative, suggested we try and get together a second time when the light of day would not detract from the equipment she was making use of in her work at the time—namely, the overhead projector. We needed darkness, she explained.
Not one to miss an opportunity, I eagerly agreed. When I arrived on the appointed night, Blair greeted me with her customary warm hug, and showed me up the stairs to her studio where the projector was whirring away, a frayed net splayed over its surface.
“Here’s my idea!” Blair explained. She asked me to wrap her in a large roll of paper, closing the paper around her like a gift and tying it with a well-used rope right about where I imagined would be the mid-section of this bundle of Blair. I helped her up onto a rickety, paint-stained stool and made sure she lined up “just so” with the net projected from across the room. The shadow of the netting blanketed her like a captured mermaid, a siren pinned to the studio wall. Once she was situated, I couldn’t decide if she was more aloof 16th-17th century-Elizabethan, more powerfully victorious Nike of Samothrace (but notably with head in place) or more hedonistic-Botticelli maiden restrained under a mantle of paper.
She could have easily been all three.
Her image, to me, captured an essence of Blair, a reserved realism and a fierce female strength. She was fully covered yet her expression was confronting, revealing, a bit sensual, inviting in its transparency. “It looks like you have no clothes on,” I said offhandedly, and she giggled, maybe at the effect we had created. The portrait, I feel, realizes Blair as an exceptionally strong individual within her studio space: comfortable, vulnerable, susceptible. For a moment, we, as audience, are allowed in to see a side of her that is inherently connected to her art and ethos. It is Blair in character, but playing herself and playing herself with honesty and integrity.
That, I believe has been the real crux of this project to photograph the Oregon artists for Connective Conversations. We have been allowed to see an artist in their space, portrayed in a way that incorporates their work and aesthetic, and this view can give us a new understanding, knowledge and appreciation of both artist and work.
During my photoshoot with Blair, she explained her method: “Experiment, make something with the experiment and then use it for something else. I believe the studio is on some sort of holy ground. I felt that way about my last studio as well. Both spaces have looked south.”
Directing her here and there, photographing Blair revealed her sense of timing and self-depiction. Being “in character” for Blair is a truth, a lifestyle, a constant state. She is no other way. Whether standing at the far wall of her studio, in a long, dark overcoat and holding a tall crook (items pertinent to her recent work), wearing a hat perched on her head of long flowing hair, or sitting demurely on her studio couch, holding a red-fleshed apple as if it were a scarlet, wild rose, Blair was quirky, and intriguing. Every shot seemed a part and scene.
This intention became perfectly clear later when she explained to me, “I work in parts and scenes that then become whole works. Simultaneously thinking as a sculptor and a painter, I work with both precise and radical moves in the studio.” She continued, “I often perform in my studio. It’s those performances that assist the work and expand how I see possibility.”
As I photographed her, Blair moved around the room interacting with it as a theater that she had designed, a set ready for something to happen: arranging the papers on the studio table, her crook, the old netting. Each item was handled as if it was invaluable, though she paid particular attention to things that were not quite perfect, flawed in some way-—the broken, unusual, or different. A severed square in part of the net monopolized her attention for quite some time as I watched her arrange it to her satisfaction.
Collaborating with Blair Saxon-Hill, the artist showed me her own unique version of “all the world’s a stage.” Although I would slightly alter Shakespeare’s observation in this case: “all the world’s a studio…”