At Frank Gallery, the first step in a collaboration

Dec. 20, 2012 @ 04:36 PM

“Getting Layered, 6 Women Artists Collaborate on Self-Portraiture,” Frank Gallery, 109 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, through Jan. 5. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays; and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. For information, call 919-636-4135.

Collaboration is a generous act; two or more artists work together leaving their personal egos behind and create a new work of art that blends their ideas into a new depth. This collaboration was the brainchild of photographer and teacher Barbara Tyroler, who floated it to five of her colleagues whose work she deeply respects and who show regularly at Frank Gallery.
Her approach was simple. She proposed doing a number of photographs of her subject who would be involved in some activity of her choosing, not necessarily making art. Between them they would pick the image they liked best — the sitter would choose the image she thought was most flattering and the photographer would agree if she was satisfied with the composition and the overall effect. The final element in the process was a new work of art in response to that photograph. The underlying theme was to invite a glimpse into the multidimensional internal landscapes of six seasoned women artists.
The project only had four months from the first photograph to an exhibition on the walls. Tyroler spent hours photographing, then developing, then meeting with the subjects and then finishing her part while the subjects prepared their responses. Each interaction represented one more layer over the final image. An interesting issue arose because all except one of the artists is over 50. Most did not want a close-up portrait, showing their aging; some were so adamant Tyroler blurred the sitter’s face while bringing other details into focus. As a senior herself she was sympathetic to their wishes.
The five artists and their chosen media are Katherine Armacost, acrylic and oil paint; Peg Bachenheimer, encaustic; Mirinda Kossoff, metalwork; Luna Lee Ray, mixed media; and Anita Wolfenden, fabric and paper. In the exhibition space each artist is represented by the original Tyroler photograph and her artistic response. As for herself, Tyroler hung a Polaroid she took of a bridge and then the self-portrait she made as a response to that image.
When the artists made their first step into the choosing process Tyroler encouraged them to pick the image they thought was the most flattering. She said, “The camera always lies so why shouldn’t we choose the lie that is to our advantage?”
She pointed out her portrait of Kossoff, who is in a swimming pool with her granddaughter. “Being with her granddaughter is something Kossoff considers the most important thing in her life,” explained Tyroler. Kossoff’s response was a collage of elements she added to the original portrait including a transfer photograph of herself as a child. Tyroler expressed regret she had chosen to do a painting rather than a three- dimensional piece of jewelry in her response. She wrote about Mirinda as a gifted jeweler and would love to see her make a complex abstract piece, with or without a photographic image embedded.
Wolfenden, the weaver, wanted her face completely blurred and so there is a ghostly presence in the image with striations across the surface suggesting the strings of the loom. Her response was to attach vertical paper cut outs across the original portrait with her fingers in sharp detail grasping the papers as if they were the warp of the loom.
Ray chose her garden as the site for her portrait which reveals the sitter pondering the moment, chin in hand, with a muted mirror image just behind surrounded by symbols from the garden. Ray’s response is a collage of leaves, flowers and garden insects laid over and around the original portrait.
The portrait of Bachenheimer is off center; in her response she used encaustic to create a family history. Bachenheimer has begun to use photography in her own work and added some of these images plus the words of a poem to her new composition.
Tyroler invited each artist to come to her studio and interact with her on the computer. “Only one of them, Armacost, really wanted to explore the computer and the wonders of digital imagery with me. When she saw what could be done she responded and kept pushing me to do more,” Tyroler said. Armacost had never worked with the computer but was totally seduced by the effects she saw as the photographer kept manipulating the images and layering one over another. For Tyroler this collaboration with Armacost was especially gratifying.
The exhibition is in a small corner of the gallery so the casual visitor might miss the whole thing. Tyroler, who teaches portraiture at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, has also done collaborative work with women in Washington, D.C., with a landscape photographer and with a fiber artist. She met me at the gallery and walked me through the various images and then later answered some questions via e-mail. She is very satisfied with the exhibit, writing that “This was a first attempt at gathering a group of talented women artists to create energy, enthusiasm, and inspiration.”
This first attempt at collaboration with local colleagues is a start. The idea is rich and the options are manifold. Some of the responses, however, were not of the best quality. It does seem a few did not seem to take the proposal seriously enough. I do believe this is a project which needs to be encouraged; Tyroler is already visualizing the next time. True collaboration takes time, so if they do plan another exhibition, with these or other artists, they need at least one year and deserve a prominent space in the gallery to show the results.
Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, P.O. Box 2092, Durham, NC 27702.