“The visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable,” the renowned American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange once said. “I have only touched it, just touched it.” As she chronicled some of the most consequential events of the twentieth century, Lange amassed an enormous body of work that places her squarely in the pantheon of the most influential photographers in history. In the final year of her life, she devoted her time to curating a retrospective exhibition of her work to be held at the Museum of Modern Art. Sadly, she died before the exhibition opened. Though it was the museum’s first retrospective solo exhibition of work by a female photographer, it is uncertain whether Lange considered it her crowning achievement. We can only hope that she appreciated her legacy and felt satisfied that she had lived a visual life to her fullest potential.
Like Dorothea Lange, many visual artists feel the enormity of the covenant they have undertaken to create their work. The burden they bear is to fill an essential need for creativity that presses them onward to the next project. For some artists the burden is a torment, but for the many lucky ones it brings pleasure and fulfillment. These happy warriors fight the good fight and make their art with a passion that nourishes their creative souls. To them the visual life is a blessing.
In Portland we are blessed with an embarrassment of riches. Our town is a veritable Mecca for visual artists who have moved from other locations to join a thriving community of fellow creatives and share in a life of art. Oregon ArtsWatch recently caught up with three visual artists from other regions who have relocated to Portland to create their work. Besides having made Portland their adoptive home, these three artists have other commonalities, including an early exposure to the arts as children, a lifetime spent creating art in many forms, and a personal commitment to achieving their highest creative potential. Still, each of these remarkable women has developed a distinctive style of artistic expression all her own.
Grace Weston, originally from New Jersey, is internationally recognized for a unique style of narrative photography for which she builds meticulously crafted miniature scenes that address a variety of human psychological themes.
Laura Kurtenbach, born and raised in Central Illinois, is an artist, photographer and educator whose work tackles important social issues, such as the depiction of women in the media and the human relationship with the natural environment.
Susan Bein, a California native, creates ethereal, often whimsical, photo-based art captured almost exclusively with her iPhone and transformed into wonderfully evocative images that stir the imagination of the viewer.
The following is the first in a three-part series profiling the visual lives of these exceptionally creative photographers. In this three-part series, we’ll concentrate on one of these artists each day, beginning with Weston.
Grace Weston cannot recall a time when art was not an integral part of her life. Growing up in New Jersey, she was the bright child of working-class parents who made a point of teaching their daughter an appreciation for the arts. As a youngster she often accompanied her father on visits to the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, learning early on the importance of art in enriching our lives. In addition to the visual arts, Grace was exposed to music at a young age and learned to play violin and guitar, even trying her hand at the bagpipe chanter for a while after she attended the Scottish Games in New Jersey with her parents.
She started making her own photographs as a kid when she received a Polaroid Swinger, and later in high school she owned a Kodak Instamatic camera, which she used to document the escapades of her circle of artist friends. With a desire to pursue art after graduating high school, she enrolled in Mercer County College in New Jersey, which had a brand new campus with a sizable art department. In addition to the standard art classes, she took courses in black and white photography and film processing, and she later became a darkroom assistant in the excellent facilities provided on campus. In college she became serious about photography as a form of art, and she purchased her first consequential film camera, a Nikkormat 35mm single-lens reflex.
After college, she pursued other forms of art, including dance, singing and acting, but she eventually returned to photography. She studied studio lighting at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, and later became assistant to the studio photographer Mark Hooper when she moved to Portland in the late 1980s. It was then that Grace finally settled on studio photography as the mainstay of her work as an artist.
When Grace turned her attention to studio photography, it was in many ways like starting over. Mastering the technical requirements of studio lighting and large-format camera operation was a challenge, but she found that studio work offered her a way to express herself on a whole new level. It was as if the studio provided a blank canvas upon which she could tell her story in her own way, and any place that allowed her imagination freedom of motion was a perfect fit. Her early work in the studio gave her the opportunity to learn the properties of light and how to manipulate it. She began by making traditional tabletop still life photographs, but soon turned her attention to creating narrative staged scenes with sets filled with found or altered objects and her own handmade props. While her first successful narrative staged vignette, titled Free to Go, was on a human scale, she quickly moved on to building miniature sets to tell her stories. She began to experiment more with lighting, optics and depth of focus to photograph her tiny sets in ways that best represent her creative vision.
Grace builds her own props and sets with painstaking care in a slow, meticulous process that relies on a hands-on approach to create her three-dimensional models. Her sets are not classic dioramas in that they are not portable models, but studio sets that last just long enough to be photographed. And even though her images never depict actual people, her narratives very much provide a commentary on the human psychological landscape.
To facilitate her work, Grace eventually gave up analog cameras in favor of digital SLRs for the immediate feedback they afford, enabling her to make lighting and set corrections right away. She does not composite her photos using software, but prefers to capture as much as possible in camera, and she uses Photoshop only minimally, favoring the use of light, optics, props and sets to create her images. Grace’s complete body of work to date consists of an extensive collection of photographs of her narrative staged vignettes and character studies assembled in several distinct theme-based portfolios.
Weston’s work has been exhibited in a number of group and solo exhibitions around the world. She also has numerous grants, awards and honors to her credit, and much of her work is housed in various public and private collections. She has received a number of commissions to create artwork for editorial purposes, and her images have graced the covers and pages of many publications. Recently, Peanut Press published a limited edition collector’s book of her work titled The Neighbors Will Talk, which includes a signed print of her image House of Atlas. In 2018 her first photo-based multi-media installation entitled Escaping Gravity was exhibited at Nine Gallery in Portland.
Last year, a collection of images from her The Long Night series was juried into the 2020 Pacific Northwest Viewing Drawers in Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery. Early this year, many of the images from her ShortStories/Tall Tales series were featured in an exhibition at the Center for Photography Mart in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Grace has also participated in many invited lecture series, seminars, media broadcasts and other public speaking engagements throughout her long career as an artist.
To find out more about Grace Weston and her work, the author had the opportunity to interview her via email. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why do you create art?
Weston: I was taught the importance of art at a very young age, so my upbringing has a lot to do with it. My working-class dad had a deep appreciation for the arts, and although he was self-educated, he was well versed in literature and the visual arts. As a child I was fairly isolated, so I mostly entertained myself in a world of my own creation. I would fabricate characters out of pipe cleaners with crepe-paper clothes, make trailers out of shoeboxes, or role-play being a writer or an inventor. Of course, I still make art to entertain myself. But now I mostly make art to get my inner observations about life into a material form, to connect with others, and to have my thinking seen and understood.
Why did you choose photography as a form of creative expression?
Weston: I’ve tried my hand at countless media and disciplines. I’ve studied music, dance and acting, as well as painting, sculpture and other visual arts, including photography. I loved it all, but I was often discouraged once my progress with a new discipline slowed and the work became more difficult. In college photography was my main pursuit, and while I had struggled with the other visual arts, I seemed to have a natural aptitude for photography. It suited my personality, and the positive feedback I received from my professors encouraged me. Eventually, I was led to studio photography, which was very challenging, but I had finally matured enough to understand the concept of mastery and what was required to gain reward.
How would you describe your style of artistic expression?
Weston: I work exclusively in the studio, where I construct, light and photograph miniature staged vignettes with characters, props and sets that I find, alter or build myself. My fictional narratives express my interpretations of the actual world. Much of my work reflects my fascination with the human psyche, and by using miniature characters rather than actual people in my vignettes, I am able to play with fairly weighty issues in a lighter way. I really enjoy the hands-on part of my work as I construct my props and sets, and I love lighting, which is what magically brings my scenes together by bathing them with illusion and mood.
How do you come up with ideas for your narrative scenes?
Weston: Ideas and inspirations come to me at odd times – while driving, swimming, watching a movie, or even in the middle of the night. I keep a notebook where I jot down ideas or make quick sketches. Ideas for images might be sparked by a metaphor, an observation of the world around me, or a mood I want to create. Human quirks, fears, struggles, and assumptions often stir my mind, and though everyone tends to interpret these as unique to their own lives, in truth many of these kinds of thoughts and feelings are universal. Generally, I tend to approach my work intuitively, with inspired sparks of activity. I might go in with a plan, but I often just hang out in my studio to see what might happen. Often I have no preconceived notions, but one thing will lead to another, and I’ll find myself developing an idea just by playing around with props. Sometimes I can come upon a prop that inspires an image, while other times the idea for an image sets me on the search for a prop.
How do you get from an idea for a narrative to a finished image?
Weston: Since my creative process involves making my own props and sets, I have to solve lots of little problems as they present themselves. I often have to learn how to do something along the way. While working on my narrative scenes, I have my camera set up, deciding on the angle, thinking about the lighting, and so on. As I move from the fabrication of my props to working with my camera, I feel like another part of my brain gets activated. Of course, there are still many adjustments and details in the set that change once viewed through the camera. I shoot tethered to a computer, so I get immediate feedback while making changes (in the old analog days, this was done with Polaroids). And then once I bring in the lighting, the process starts to feel magical. I see all the previous work come together as my idea takes material form. I’m still enchanted that the final image is an entity all its own, because it doesn’t look much like the actual set. It’s all illusion.
Who are your most important artistic influences?
Weston: The photographers who have inspired me in the genre of staged photography are Richard Tuschman, Duane Michals, Bruce Charlesworth, Teun Hocks, Gregory Crewdson, and Paolo Ventura. But David Levinthal was really the first person I became aware of who worked with miniatures and staged photography. His work impressed upon me the fact that using a short selective focus allows the viewer to “fill in the blanks” of the unseen details, paradoxically lending the image more realism. This is a little bit of the kind of sleight of hand I love about staging miniature imagery.
What artistic achievements are you most proud of?
Weston: In 2018 I created a photo-based installation at Nine Gallery in Portland, entitled Escaping Gravity: Breathing, Dying, Swimming, Flying. It addressed my older brother’s death by drowning in a pond when he was eight years old, and my learning to swim quite late in life, an activity that now fills me with joy and a sense of freedom. Using enlarged photos of miniature swimmers printed on large chiffon banners, audio of water splashing, and theater lights that gave the illusion of the surface of water rippling on the ceiling, I built the installation with two separate chambers suggesting the underwater experience of both a pond and a swimming pool. I had never done a multimedia installation, and this stretched me artistically, technically, and emotionally beyond what I had ever done before.
How has the pandemic affected your work, positively or negatively?
Weston: Because I’ve battled with perfectionism most of my life, I’ve often caught myself working in a very controlled way in a race with time. But during the pandemic, the long chunks of alone time with few obligations were freeing. I found it easier to just play, which lifted some of the expectation to create a “masterpiece.” So some things have come to the forefront in importance and others have receded. I now feel less invested in destination and more in process, so I allow myself to play in the studio more with less attachment to outcome. Sometimes during the pandemic, negative thoughts entered my head that art-making was a trivial, meaningless pursuit in a year of such enormous crisis. So I produced less finished work than usual, but I did eventually lighten up and let myself relax. I’m practicing being not as hard on myself as I’ve been in the past.
What’s on the horizon?
Weston: I’m continuing my work on The Long Night series, and I’m doing some quick fun character studies just to stay loose. An interesting thing coming up is that a luxury hotel under construction in San Diego licensed my images of swimmers from my Escaping Gravity series to print on the walls of two elevator cabs. So you never know where your imagery might go!