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Regular readers of the blog know by now that Ellen and I had always planned to have a gallery space in the house to enjoy our photography collection. We also always had a notion that we would stage other shows in the gallery but weren't really sure exactly what kind of shows or whether it would be for artists in residence, members of the community, or other artists whose work we admired. With all the effort of finishing the house and getting settled we just decided to let it evolve on its own.
Back in August I received a call from my good friend MJ Sharp who is an amazing photographer based in Durham. We have collected her work for a long time. She wanted another set of eyes on her recent body of work and invited me to her studio to get some feedback. Let's just say that MJ is not a neatnik. When I arrived it looked like there had been a photography explosion--images everywhere on every surface covering boxes and boxes of more photographs stacked next to tubes with rolls of more photographs. MJ works with traditional film in large format old school cameras with bellows and dark cloths. She shoots very long exposures, mostly at night, exposed only by moonlight, streetlights, or stray light from the man made environment. 20 and 30 minute or longer exposures are not uncommon. The magic of her work comes from an incredible eye for composition but also the nature of analog film that allows accumulation of light on the film over time-- rendering a scene that to the naked eye would be barely visible as if it were lit by theatrical lighting. "Outside Amarillo" below was taken in the dead of night and the scene was so dark MJ could not see to focus on the silo without temporary use of a spotlight.
Without special effects in PhotoShop or any other techniques (except patience) she has managed to create surreal worlds while using the most traditional methods of straight photography.
Anyway, when I looked at one of her new images I said, "MJ this is YUMMY!" Unbeknownst to me I had just complimented one of her secret favorites (she thinks some of her pet images could only be loved by a crazed photographer) and she then brought out a treasure trove of her favorites and I was hooked.
When I saw "Laundry with Wreath" I got all the way to "MJ, this is SUPER YUMMY!" Within an hour we were talking about doing an MJ SUPER YUMMY show as the inaugural exhibition at Cassilhaus Gallery.
MJ shoots her best work under the winter moon as it is high in the sky. She had been dreaming about going to Scotland to photograph ruins in February in some of the "more remote" sections of the country where it is freezing and gale force winds are not uncommon. MJ had a brilliant plan to borrow the idea of the CSA from the local food movement and port it over to art--Community Supported Art. The idea is simple. We would sell "shares" that correspond to print sizes i.e. 20x24", 30x40" etc., folks would pay in advance but get a discount from MJ's normal print prices, and in the process she could fund her trip with an assistant for two weeks in Scotland! Upon her return shareholders would have their pick of the work she creates on the trip or select from her previous work--a win win scenario. Why didn't I think of that?
We grabbed a scrap of photo paper and started to compile our list.....
MJ's plan of "we'll just tape some work prints up on one of the walls" fell prey to Frank's desire for a major gallery retrospective. It was an enormous amount of work but we had such a ton of fun and got to spend gigantic amounts of time together. There is no better way to get to know a person and an artist's work than curating a show with them. MJ did most of the heavy lifting of digital scans of her negatives, working with the lab to get perfect prints, shipping them to NYC for mounting, etc. etc. MJ is a perfectionist and a stunning image would come back from the lab and she'd get that "it needs one more percent of magenta" look on her face and you knew the FedEx man would be back tomorrow.
MJ's partner BethAnn demonstrates the MOMA approved Tidy Cat bucket mounting method on a stunning 40x50" print of "Purple Coneflowers"
Fripp the cat was a HUGE help with expensive prints all over the floor
MJ's sculptor friend Steve Cote made some beautiful custom metal frames for a few of the pieces. (pardon the glare)
It was cost prohibitive to mount and frame every print. Ellen and I stumbled upon these great aluminum print hangers called Posterhangers while we were on a house tour and they turned out to be one of the hits of the show! Shown with "Night Watertower 2009"
The final show looked glorious if I do say so myself. It spanned from her earliest work as the photographer for The Independent Weekly up to images she had just shot that week and had never printed before.
MJ included an "ephemera wall" with a fascinating collage of shooting notes, poetry, prints in progress, oddball variants, and souvenirs from the road.
We elected to have a big opening/fund raising party over two nights in December.
I surprised MJ for her birthday with homemade alphabet Scottish shortbread cookies that spelled out SUPER YUMMI and MJ SHARP
The parties were a smashing success and we had over 100 people join us. MJ gave a very engaging artist talk each night, explained her technique, and showed a wide range of images covering her career. I am very excited to say that we sold over $10,000 worth of prints and MJ and her intrepid assistant leave FRIDAY for the Outer Hebrides. Stay tuned for updates upon her return.
There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.