Art as Journal: Shari Wilkins and Laura Ruth Bidwell at the Massillon Museum
This upcoming Sunday, Shari Wilkins and Laura Ruth Bidwell will discuss their ongoing exhibit at the Massillon Museum, Art as Journal. The show encompasses two series of images depicting locales significant to the photographers.
For Promised Land, Wilkins took miniature Polaroid-style snaps of her father’s Illinois hometown, Cairo (pronounced “Kay-row,” unlike the Egyptian capital). Bidwell’s The Great Tangles presents scenes from around her former home in Peninsula, Ohio, and her newer one in Cleveland.
The artists’ choice of geography is not the most noticeable differences between their works. In depicting a place, Wilkins also gestures at its history, and poses questions about the future. Impressively, she does all this by crafting her photos within a strict procedure. The history underlying Bidwell’s project is more personal. It was undertaken amidst the process of moving out of a longtime home. Through her lens, we see Bidwell as she makes peace with leaving one home and exploring a new one.
Wilkins is executive director of the Cleveland Print Room, a darkroom workshop, educational organization, and gallery for fine art photography and photojournalism. In her artist statement, she writes that Cairo is a “mythical place” in her family’s collective memory. In a recent visit—her first after a 20-year-long absence—she was struck by the desertedness of the emptying town. (Cairo’s population peaked in 1920 at around 15,000 people; according to the most recent census, just 2,800 residents remained in 2010.) With her instant print camera, she sought out her grandfather’s house. Along the way, she stopped to shoot more than a dozen other homes, and one church.
Wilkins photographed all the buildings on their street-facing side, shooting each one straight-on. Every building is centered in the middle of the lens and snapped from across a span of maybe 100 to 200 feet. Though Wilkins’ selection of houses almost certainly wasn’t random, the series of photos is, in some sense, a “survey.” Wilkins’ camera put the same “question” to each home (“What do you look like from across the street?”), and her methodological consistency allows viewers to make apples-to-apples comparisons between “answers.” The results are stark. Houses of all ages, sizes, and architectural styles appear in dilapidation. Viewers see boarded-up windows, sagging wood, sun-stripped paint.
At first glance, one house seems to be inhabited by residents dutifully maintaining potted plants on their porch. Closer inspection reveals the home is leaning slightly, and that the porch’s greenery is actually branches sprouting up through floorboards. Another white cottage’s doors and windows have been sealed with black wooden squares, bringing to mind Matisse’s 1914 painting “French Window at Collioure”. Several buildings are cloaked by thick mats of ivy, blinding windows and straining roofs under their weight. A mansion boasts a stone wall and wrought iron arch identifying the estate as “Riverlore.” But there are no cars in the driveway, and no lights on inside. One structure is barely recognizable as a house, as its first-floor walls and entire second story have caved in.
As its houses illustrate, Cairo’s story resembles that of so many Midwestern cities. Unlike many Rust Belt municipalities, Cairo was never a manufacturing hub. But in the 19th century, its location at the intersection of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers made it a valuable riverboat port. However, decades of expanding highway infrastructure gradually eroded the city’s ferry, railroad, and hospitality industries. The city’s large black population has endured lynchings, riots, and white hostility to the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Cairo’s city’s decline, so visible in Wilkins’ survey of its homes, makes us wonder whether there will be a mythical homeland left for her family’s next generation to visit.
The Great Tangles also reflects on time, but in a nonlinear fashion. From one image to the next, we see trunks standing amid an orange-brown carpet of leaves, then branches drooping from the weight of summer foliage. Brittle vines hang dead, whitened by a frost. Another knot of tendrils buds green in spring.
Along with her husband Fred, Bidwell has overseen a vast collection of contemporary photography, and helped establish Transformer Station. In recent years, she has exhibited her photographic portraits, including a locally iconic image of the late painter Dan Tranberg. Visitors to Massillon may not have seen Bidwell’s landscape pictures before. However, they may recognize the same care for clarity and detail visible in her portraiture. Her images in Massillon are digital lustre paper prints mounted on white birch panel. These glossy surfaces show off the sunlit colors of Bidwell’s thickets. However, Bidwell’s craft also helps us appreciate small details, from orange berries hanging off of trees to thorns jutting from brambles. Several photographs’ backgrounds are purposefully unfocused and impressionistic, heightening the perception of precision in the foreground.
However, Bidwell doesn’t want us to miss the forest for the trees. Places, not just the intricate plants contained by places, are her subject. In her artist statement, Bidwell writes that when she moved to Cleveland from a longtime home in Peninsula, she grieved for the woods encompassing her property and the nearby Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Walking in her new urban neighborhood, she carried a camera and took pictures of wild and gardened plants.
The Great Tangles is not just a document produced concurrently with Bidwell’s adjustment to her relocation. Rather, it seems her photography was part of the process of adjustment. Cleveland flora no doubt reminded Bidwell of Peninsula’s woods, allowing the two locales to become “tangled” in mind and memory. A new place becomes home through reminders of an old home. Individual images in The Great Tangle are named, but only with strings of letters and numbers (4521R, 6571U) whose significance is not explained. This discourages viewers from guessing whether the tableaus were shot in Peninsula or Cleveland, fostering our own “entanglement” of the two regions.
Sunday October 14, Wilkins and Bidwell’s talk is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. The exhibition runs through Nov. 4 on the museum’s second floor, in the Studio M gallery. The facility is located at 121 Lincoln Way East, Massillon, OH. Admission is free. For more information, please call 330-833-4061 or go to massillonmuseum.org.
Special thanks to Margy Vogt, Alexandra Nicholis Coon, and Emily Vigil.