As so many of us know, Flickr is a melting pot of creativity, ideas and interaction. When I was new to photography, Flickr was a safe-haven of support and inspiration for me. I would latch on to people who inspired and encouraged me, and Vanessa Powell was one of the first people with whom I formed a lasting relationship that transcended the borders of the Flickrverse.
Here we are, six-ish (oh my gosh, SIX!?) years later, and I am still enchanted by her ever-evolving imagery and narratives. A large part of me still believes that forests are, in fact, inhabited by magic. Vanessa’s work speaks to that part of my soul – the part that believes in magic and myth and fantasy out there in the world, either waiting to be seen, or waiting to be created.
I was so happy to have the opportunity to ask Vanessa a few questions about her background in art, and how she approaches her work.
AG: You come from a family of artists – can you talk a bit about how your family has influenced you as an artist?
VP: I was born and raised in Alaska as an only child, away from most of my mother’s extended family whom I only saw during summer vacations every few years. After meeting my biological father at age 15, I found out that I not only had two half sisters, but also a huge line of extended family I’d never had an inkling existed. On one of my very first visits to my “new” grandmother and grandfather’s home in rural Pennsylvania, I quietly roamed their ambling, ranch-style home, marveling at the artwork on the walls, in cases and on shelves. Sculptures of marble and clay, oil paintings in gold leaf frames, and scads of small artworks tucked into bookcases with volumes of books about history and art. I asked my grandmother where some of the work had come from, and I was astonished to learn it was my father’s work, and hers. My grandmother was a talented sculptor and my father, an insightful photographer.
At age 15, learning that was akin to finding out I’d been born into royalty. Artists. Everywhere in my family line. I finally had a place begin to resolve where my artistic soul had emerged. It was in my makeup the whole time. After learning about the artists in my family, I embraced my art more closely, in a more integrated way, as much as one is capable of doing at age 15. I began to revel in expression in new ways, branching out in my work to include cartooning, charcoal, watercolor, sculpting and more. While I’ve had cameras in my hand since about age 6, now I picked them up with more intention and meaning, sending my father new photographs via mail and eagerly awaiting his written replies. It turned out art was our first link, my father and I, and it still links us today as he ages and looks to me as the person who will carry our love of the photograph into the next generation and beyond.
AG: You have a degree in Art History, which I find wonderfully inspiring! Is your photography inspired by artists or mediums outside the medium of photography?
VP: My Art History degree is one of my proudest accomplishments to date. I attended college at George Mason University in Virginia with the specific goal of working at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. While interning there during my senior year, I had the pleasure of walking through the Barnes Exhibit as it was set up for public viewing. With nobody in the galleries, and complete silence save the click of my high heels on the marble floors, I had the opportunity to get close enough to Renoir’s work to see the shadows on his brushstrokes and to immerse myself in the color and depth of his textures. It was truly a transformative experience. Hand on the wall, leaning in just far enough so I wouldn’t actually fall onto the painting, I was transported. A similar feeling has taken over me every single time I look at the work of great painters.
To try list all my favorites would be ridiculous because it’s truly ever changing. There are some though, who I will run through rainstorms and travel thousands of miles to get to see up close and in person (both of which I’ve done, I’m proud to say). John Singer Sargent is and always will be a favorite for his intimacy, attention to detail, and use of paint to create light. I’m drawn into the strange and surreal with the work of Edvard Munch, whose style I actually disliked a great deal until I saw some of his charcoal drawings this past fall while in Chicago. The sculptures of Michelangelo hold a special place in my heart as I can feel his depth of connection with the stone, and through reading his journals and studying him for my senior thesis, learning more about his upbringing and life as a young man who was not allowed to be with his family, but who was connected to them through his artwork. And probably one of the most everpresent and enduring influences on my work and development of an artist has to be Arthur Rackham. His illustrations structured and brought life to my favorite childhood stories and a huge canvas of his work hangs in my loft space as homage to the man who I am pretty sure painted my daydreams.
AG: You seem to have such a healthy balance between the work you do commercially, and your personal work. How do you make time for both, and do you feel that each set of work informs the other in some way (ie – does your personal work inform your commercial work, and vice versa) ?
VP: I’m not sure I’d always call the balance in my work healthy. Making time can be a powerful struggle. Sometimes I neglect commercial work for too long by not paying attention to marketing, or by not being as engaged in advertising or word of mouth activities as I probably should. Since I don’t have a background in business, but instead the soul of an artist who LOVES to engage with story, I tend to “forget” the business side of things, and focus in on the creative and personal work. I have summers off from work, so I usually start out with a bang and my to do list is miles long with ideas and concepts that have been percolating over the long Alaskan winter. I think that possibly because my photography, both personal and commercial, is so entwined with social media, it may seem that a solid balance is present and that I’m constantly shooting wonderful things and romping about with my camera finding what I love to shoot and pleasing clients left and right along the way. In reality, as most photographers and other creative entrepreneurs know, that’s not the case, and the struggle can be present every single day. It just means sitting my butt down and doing the work. It means taking advantage of late night hours and early mornings, and finding or making the time is easier for me in the summer to be sure. I love my clients however, and as much as I might struggle to pull my head out of daydreams and work at this business, in the end, I want my photography business to be successful, and it’s worth the focus it takes, the learning curves it allows me to climb, and the sleep it sometimes steals.
All that being said, I find that when I allow myself attention to my personal work, it supports my client and commercial work in some pretty exciting ways, and it allows me to survive with this artist soul of mine intact. My commercial clients often tell me how much they love my personal work and how it speaks to them. They tell me that this piece or that piece was so moving to them and that it spoke to their lives in a certain way. It’s sometimes odd for me to hear because often I feel as though my personal work lives in a bubble, and the idea of anyone, especially commercial clients, looking at my work and finding meaning or enjoyment in it, is a fascinating and thrilling idea for me. To me, my work is just my work. While I love to share it, I don’t always quite make that jump to the viewer connecting or interpreting. It’s a funny little balance between artist and creative business owner. It’s one that I love though, for the challenges it offers and for the relationships it allows me to experience.
AG: Can you talk about the role of fantasy and the sublime in your work?
VP: My very first and most powerful memories are rooted solidly in fantasy. I grew up as an only child with an enormous creative spirit and imagination. I was rarely inside the house, no matter the season. For a few years in my childhood, we lived on a lake and I often mark those years as key in my development of imagination and engagement with fantasy. Those were the years I first fell in love with science fiction and fantasy writing, and the year my grandfather gave me a leather-bound volume of the work of Edgar Alan Poe, which I voraciously read from cover to cover, by flashlight under the sheets in my bed if the need presented itself. They were the years I sat for long periods of time in our forests, watching animals, reading, listening to birds, and singing to myself. I built entire civilizations in my head during those years. I would spend time gazing into the water, collecting leaves and plants, feathers and flowers to create world for gnomes and sprites, and I sang and walked in the woods until the dusk finally came or I remembered I hadn’t eaten in a while.
Those connected experiences, with literature, with nature, and with imagination, are the building blocks of my personal work and the roots of fantasy and the sublime in my work. I believe it is because I was drenched in all that surrounded me, to my very core, that I am now able to find ways to express my imagination through my photography. To me, showing what my mind dreams up is truly only about my adult self connecting to my child self. It’s not about showing scary things, or trying to shock anyone with my ability to create a scary photograph or to set up a dark scene. It’s about connecting to what truly makes me tick at the base of my artist soul, and to paying attention to those ideas and the power they held in my life then, and now. I hope there won’t ever be a time when I forget those childhood days of fantasy and freedom. I hope they will continue to influence my work and to help me find new ways to render down my childhood into more coherent and meaningful work that speaks to my adult self. It’s an unexpected gift of those times, to be able to translate them through the lens of photography and to pull forth an imagination that seemed boundless then, and is only held back now by the constraints of time and far too many adult tasks.
AG: Speaking of fantasy and the sublime, I know that you have recently taken a workshop with Brooke Shaden. Can you talk about that experience, and how it has helped you further your own artistic vision?
VP: Ahh! My sweet Brooke! I first started admiring Brooke’s work about four years ago via Flickr. Her work had a sense of darkness and danger to it that appealed to my own ideas and imagination, and I could only dream to aspire to such a level of skill and artistry. While then I never thought I’d meet her in person, today, she has become a sweet, true friend and confidant along my journey as a creative. Brooke is a powerful little fireball of creativity and you can’t help but be inspired in her presence. One of my favorite things about Brooke is that she’s real. You never feel as though you’re being fed a line when you talk with her. From the first moments we met I trusted her, and connected with her. She is exactly who she says she is, no matter what. I love that.
Last winter an idea began to kindle for a new series of photographs. The idea came in bursts of images in my head and in a lot of confusing questions and directions. I wrote to Brooke about what I was thinking, and I’m sure it was a ridiculous thing to read because I typed with the hands of a possessed woman; my fingers flying across the keys just to get the ideas out. Her patient, focused and encouraging reply was like taking a deep breath. She helped me focus down on what I really wanted to say, and to develop the fledgling story inside my head into a series that is now in production. Without Brooke’s willingness to share her artistic insight and techniques for storytelling, without her constant reminders to pay attention to what I wanted to say, I’m pretty sure I’d still be wondering and dreaming about that series, instead of starting it. She’s been pivotal in helping me find my voice and more importantly in helping me to listen to it.
AG: If you could impart one kernel of knowledge or insight to your fellow photographers, whether they be beginners or 50 year veterans, what would it be?
VP: Oh my goodness. Without sounding too cliché in my advice, I would just suggest never, not ever, even for a moment, stop dreaming and finding your voice. Dreaming by day, by night, in the middle of the post office, at your kids’ gymnastics practice, while sipping your coffee, in the middle of reading a great book…everywhere. I firmly believe that dreaming is key to the photographer’s success in the ability to translate ideas and thoughts. While some of us are far more technical dreamers than others, I see dreams in all genres of photography. Even in advertising and television. It took a creative to dream all those things up. It took a creative to make them happen. Who is to say that you are not the creative who will make the difference on a job, for a layout, with a family who waited a little too long to have their portraits photographed, and most importantly, for yourself. It’s so important to continue on and just make the time to dream it all out. It costs nothing, but it means absolutely everything.