I very recently finished Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms. Published in 1948, it is the story of an adolescent boy seeking his long lost father in the backwoods of Mississippi. Despite growing up in far more cosmopolitan New Orleans, the protagonist Joel has never even seen a picture of his father.
Photographs of our relatives, relations, forebears disappear into the mist. Their stories fade with them.
No more than fifty pages from the end, renowned novelist and storyteller, Durham’s Monica Byrne, referred her friend, artist, Danielle Durchslag to the Clarion Content.
Durchslag’s exhibited work, like Capote’s nuanced first novel, is about photography, family, and the connections made and lost over generations.
In an interview Durchslag told me it is possible to go for a photo to go from obligated reverence to disposability in a generation.
She should know.
And she is not talking digital.
The story started when as a little girl Durchslag gained possession of a box of old family photos. These photos were stored at first in a plain white shoebox, according to Durchslag’s early childhood recollection.
The photos were of relatives and ancestors whose images had out lived their stories. Durchslag grew up in downtown Chicago. Like many descendants of immigrants, her family of Eastern European Jews had photos of long lost relatives. Young Danielle, through her mother, was eventually the custodian. At some point she moved the photos from the shoebox to what felt like a more secure padded mail envelope.
Durchslag told me in our conversation that her Mother is a throw-er out-er. The antithesis of hoarder. Young Danielle, fearing these photos would one day be disposed of, carefully hid them in her personal curio cabinet.
Her secret treasure and cherished possession.
Fast forward more than twenty years. After graduating college alongside Byrne, Durchslag was studying at the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston. She was working with bellows and cape camera technology. Bellows and cape cameras shoot one negative at a time. The viewer shows things upside down and backwards.
Durchslag, coming to terms with being a young artist, learned precision and pacing. She was not weaned on digital technology’s mantra: take hundreds of shots, one will work. She told me with bellows and cape she internalized that every photo counted.
Durchslag was learning to accept what she knew was true at age eight, she wanted to be an artist. But she was coming to realize that photography was not her medium.
Durchslag recalls the moment feeling convulsive, almost shocking, “Of course, paper,” she thought, as if smacking herself on the proverbial head.
When she arrived at the show that day Durchslag was identifying as a painter, particularly of gouache watercolors.
Paper spoke to her. Immediately.
She spent months figuring out her technique.
It is on display now at Casilhaus in an exhibit themed around reacting to photography.
Durchslag took the photographs of the anonymous relatives that young Danielle had, oh so carefully saved. She made five, six, eight, ten copies of each image.
Then she placed paper underneath an image and began to cut around it with an Exacto knife.
Durchslag reports her Brooklyn studio is stuffed with hundreds of different kinds of paper, in every shade, color, thickness, and texture.
Durchslag stacks and layers varieties of papers and cuts them around her image.
She uses a tweezer and the Exacto knife along with paper and glue to build her pieces sculpturally.
Cutting, gluing, taping, selecting more paper, repeating the process. Durchslag concedes there is a rhythm eventually.
She rebuilds old photos from her scraps of paper, cut into diamonds, triangles, squares, ovals, discs. She creates shadows not just from the hue of the paper, but by adding piece after piece to give her work sculptural depth.
When she studies photographs, Durchslag thinks like a sculptor. She sees the planes of the face. She builds an architecture in paper photo replicas such that the nose rests on the skull, explodes from the head with a depth that is both perceptual and real, if very, very compact.
The promise of a photo is permanence she told me.
But here she was, a little child, custodian of a box of photos of relatives who stories had been lost.
Now, as she rebuilds them sculpturally, Durchslag thinks about and imagines her forebears emotional inner lives. The complexity and their dynamics, what led them to immigrate, the challenges they faced. The triumphs and tragedies. The drudgery and daily routines. She represents these struggles and joys though layers and layers of paper that bring the images off of the surface of the art in a way that a flat photograph never could.
Durchslag told me she hopes through her meticulous layers of her collages to reanimate her long lost relatives.
She not only attempts to lovingly recreate every detail in the original photos through her paper constructions, but also to pay homage to the technological and aesthetic changes in photos over decades, to build a visual history of photography itself through her process.
Durchslag told me that she believes most families have photos like this, most frequently once posed on the mantle or hung on the wall, before being relegated to a box in a closet or a basement. Forebears identifiable at most by a name, sometimes not even that, whom we hang on to, but cannot flesh out.
Her experience bears this out. People react strongly to these works. Frequently, telling stories of their own such photos, or super imposing their family history and memories on the anonymous collaged faces.
Durchslag has eight of these pieces in a show about responding to photography called “Ekphrasis” on exhibit now at Cassilhaus.
In another ironic circle, Durchslag was recommended to Cassilhaus by Lauren Turner of the Ackland Art Musuem. Turner didn’t know Durchslag personally, but was familiar with her work and themes.
The coincidence comes in where the Ackland’s Art Director, Katie Ziglar, unbeknownst to Durchslag or Turner, was visiting Durchslag’s ninety-six year-old grandmother in Chicago.
Grandma is a proud alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, home, of course, to the Ackland Art Musuem.
Ziegler found herself taken with a collage style portrait of Grandma Buddy.
It was Durchslag’s work. Ziegler, unaware of the connection, asked Grandma Buddy if the Ackland could exhibit it.
What could a proud grandmother and Tar Heel alumnus say, but yes??
Durchslag rarely teaches her collage technique, but will be doing so at the Ackland on Thursday evening, June 21st, from 5pm to 8pm.
She will also be the featured speaker at the Ackland Art Museum’s annual luncheon the following day.
Durchslag notes while she still sometimes makes paper collages like the ones on exhibit in North Carolina, she has mostly moved on to newer series inspired by her paper collage practice.
Her detailed paper cutting continues for her in her new ketubah practice (See an example). She still collages bits of things together, but mostly now in video work.
Durchslag combines and collages sounds from classic cinema to create new works.
She’s currently in post-production on a scripted video art piece using this technique, starring Broadway legend, Judy Kuhn. In this work, Kuhn mouths/talks in rhythm with an audio collage Durchslag made from bits of Katharine Hepburn’s words in the “Lion in Winter”, stitched and spliced together to sound like the monologue of a disappointed Jewish mom at Passover.
It is called Eleanor of Illinois and Durchslag hopes to complete it this Summer.
Works on exhibit at Cassilhaus can be seen by appointment only. The show featuring Durchslag along with eight other artists is “Ekphrasis: Eight Artists Responds to Images from the History of Photography.”