DE May: Inside a studio, darkly

Sabina Poole's survey of Oregon artists' studios around the state continues with Salem's mysterious DE May

The assignment to photograph D.E May was met, at first, with little enthusiasm. Only because I looked at the address written on the Google Document: Salem, Oregon, it said.

It is not like I am a stranger to Salem. I’m not, I lived there for 10 years, and I’d always thought of it as tediously flat and uninspiring. But then, I had never met May, either.

May will entirely change your opinion of what he calls “Islandsalem” in a heartbeat.

Artist D.E. May, who, by choice, works in relative darkness in his studio. Usually a thick blind is pulled down over the window in the left of this photo. /Sabina Poole

Artist D.E. May, who, by choice, works in relative darkness in his studio. Usually a thick blind is pulled down over the window in the left of this photo. /Sabina Poole

I am an analog-appreciating girl. So when I received from May’s gallery representative, Jane Beebe (PDX Contemporary) the proper directives and etiquette to be in touch with the artist, I listened intently.

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.

May reluctantly answers his phone. (“You have to call, let the answering machine pick up, and start talking…He will either pick up and take the call or leave it. In any case, leave a message, he might call you back. Or he might not.”) I would learn later that he got his first phone in 1999 at the age of 47—it was a landline. Add to that he doesn’t “do” email, and there seemed no real electronic way to communicate with this man. I was instructed that if I did dare call, no contact should be attempted prior to 1:00 pm (“You know, because he stays up really, really late. He does that night thing.”) He was sounding more and more interesting. And, all of this in Salem?!
After a few post-1 pm calls to the aforementioned answering machine during which I talked away to myself quite happily all the while imaging May in a room vacantly listening-in, there was an out-of-breath pick-up. Within a short amount of time we had arranged to meet and photograph May at his studio. Then he read me his actual address, a a downtown Salem location, and, he added, “It’s kind of hard to find, I’ll put up signs.” Undeterred, I packed up my camera and made the drive down I-5 on a brilliantly sunny, summer day. The broad and bright light of day would make a perfect, natural light source, and I was confident. This was going to be good.

I arrived, realized I was precariously near a Salem theatrical landmark, parked my car at the city curb, and looked for the door. The location was in a downtown cluster of mixed-use buildings, in a rather non-descript area I had never really noticed before. The number I was instructed to look for was stickered on a glass door heading up a flight of stairs. And there, true to his word, stuck to the door with looped over masking tape, a 3 x 5 cardstock handwritten sign: “Sabina—Upstairs.” I pulled the sign off the door, and ventured up the narrow stairway; another sign waited for me on another door, “Sabina: This Way” it instructed with a small arrow. Then another that finally said: “Sabina—Knock.” I knocked, and the door was instantly opened by a gentleman in a porkpie hat. Quite dapper, I thought. “DE May, I presume?”

And, there I was inside the two small rooms that comprise May’s studio. I won’t try to describe the detail and organization of the space—it was intricate, to the point of beautifully obsessive: fantastically catalogued materials, brilliantly coordinated, tabulated, classified, boxed, stacked and shelved. Pieces and parts of a mind and thoughts represented in snippets and piles of maps, papers, stamps, blocks of wood, of the most eccentric quality and quantity; a place of imaginative cleverness and ingenuity. I was stunned, then, oddly comfortable in a very ‘spirit of efficiency’ kind of way.

Work laid out for more attention by the artist, D.E. May and his studio space./Sabina Poole

Work laid out for more attention by the artist, D.E. May and his studio space./Sabina Poole

This studio defied narrative. Instead it filled one’s head with intentions of being elsewhere—travel and adventure and possibility—was it the maps, entirely covering one wall? Or the books of collected stamps? The small pieces of paper, letters and notes to be or never to be written? The prospect of what might go on those pieces of paper: ideas to be recorded; notes to be printed? Parts and parcels to be conveyed? Or maybe pieces joined, stacked, assembled, categorized together in some way as yet unimaginable?

In May’s studio, there were punctuated light sources, mostly table lamps on desks, but, curiously, all the windows were boarded up, covered with brown perforated fiberboard, thick shades pulled over the fenestration. Light struggled to find ways in from the glorious summer day outside, barely making the room any lighter than a solitary desk-lamp-lit room late at night. Obviously, this was light May was accustomed to and preferred—the shelter of eclipse. That’s when May began to tell me about how he loathes daylight. He described how he and his friends sleep the day and function during nighttime—a nocturnal existence. He blocks out the light, if he has to be up during the daylight hours, to find it tolerable.

Finding pieces to work with, D.E. May keeps his materials intricately organized and boxed./Sabina Poole


Finding pieces to work with, D.E. May keeps his materials intricately organized and boxed./Sabina Poole

What else did I learn? May hasn’t had a car since 1977, but if he drove one now he’d prefer one from the Citroen DS series from the 1950s. He visits a local dive bar almost every night and visits the city library almost as often, but he admits, he is not a reader of books. He mentions a current search to obtain a 1965 Val Surf skateboard, and a casual yet ongoing attempt to pen a screenplay for the past 30 years. It’s a murder mystery featuring Sherlock Holmes and Marcel Duchamp together in New York City.

May collaborated with the shoot, sitting here and then there, showing me his work-in-progress, placing himself at his work spaces, letting me shoot from angles and distances throughout the studio, talking about his work and the darkness in the room. I encouraged him to turn off whatever lights he did not normally have on and pull shades all the way down on windows as he would have if I were not there. At that point, we were left in a dimness; the lights cast very concentrated spheres of illumination. May’s porkpie hat threw a silhouette of distinction.

When I got home, I jotted down some notes to remember May by and my visit to his Islandsalem studio. I wrote:

“HATES daylight, only likes to be up and about in the dark—hence his darkened windows, and all the shadows. He wants to be in shadow…. darkness is key to his work, and ethos. Interesting relationship with goldfish.”

And, no, I will not be saying anything about the goldfish.

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NOTES

DE May’s exhibition of new work, No Specific Region, opens November 5 at PDX CONTEMPORARY gallery, 925 NW Flanders. I’ll see you there.

DE May, untitled (674 front view), 2015 graphite, colored pencil and ink on found postcard 3 1/2" x 5 3/8"/Courtesy PDX Contemporary

DE May, untitled (674 front view), 2015
graphite, colored pencil and ink on found postcard
3 1/2″ x 5 3/8″/Courtesy PDX Contemporary

Next week: artist Julia Oldham.

The Ford Family Foundation with the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts are pleased to announce the upcoming October 2015 release of the book, Connective Conversations | Inside Oregon Art, 2011-2014. Connective Conversations is The Ford Family Foundation’s Curator and Critic Tours and Lecture Series program, conducted in partnership with the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts. The full-color book will be available at the 2015 Oregon Arts Summit’s Visual Arts Ecology workshop, supported by the Foundation; and, subsequently, available for purchase [locations TBA]. The book is a collaborative work representing the series launched in 2011, which brought national curators and critics to visit Oregon artists in their studios across the state, to present lectures and to participate in community dialogue. The book contains images of the 70 Oregon artists and their studio spaces visited between 2011-2014.

Connective Conversations | Inside Oregon Art, 2011-2014 | The Ford Family Foundation and the University of Oregon Curator and Critic Tours: Edited by Kate Wagle | Design and Layout by Pace Taylor | Photography by Sabina Poole | Advised by Carol Dalu and Kandis Brewer Nunn.

Connective Conversations | Inside Oregon Art is part of The Foundation’s seven-pronged Visual Arts program launched in 2010 to honor the interests in the visual arts by the late Mrs. Hallie Ford, a co-founder of The Foundation. Principal goals of the overall program are to help enhance the quality of artistic endeavor and body of work by Oregon’s most promising visual artists and to improve Oregon’s visual arts ecology by making strategic investments in Oregon visual arts institutions. Some program components The Foundation directs; others, it elects to work with regionally-based institutions such as it has done in partnering with the University of Oregon with the first four years of the Curator and Critic Tours and Lecture series. Such collaborations are invaluable in maximizing the delivery and impact of the program components for which The Foundation is most grateful.

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