The Wise Words of Photograph

Jane Waggoner Deschner's embroidered photographs

The early Twentieth Century brought a significant everyday innovation: For the first time, anyone could economically, and creatively, photograph and archive his or her life. In addition, artists began appropriating everyday materials and re-purposing them. Art could be made from anything an artist chose to use.

During undergrad art school, my medium was photomontage from slick magazines—find, cut, arrange, paste. In grad school, I was asked to think more critically. I learned that I preferred the honesty and familiarity of vernacular photography (especially snapshots)—anonymous photographs taken by anonymous photographers of anonymous lives. For over a decade, I have collected, studied and interacted with early- to mid-Twentieth Century snapshots and studio portraits, movie stills and news photos (my archive numbers ±20,000). Duchamp would label my artwork manipulated ready-mades.

I begin with old found photographs and work with them in a couple of ways. Most often I embroider text and/or images into the original artifact. In one series, I stitch together snapshots to make sculptural garments (for example, a life-size t-shirt). Sometimes I make large digital prints of photographs I’ve worked with in Photoshop.

Why do I stitch? Both embroidery and vernacular photography are marginalized mediums. For centuries, embroidery was the primary creative expression practiced by everyday people. Embroidery inscribes words and images; sewing binds photographs together. Stitching by hand into these photos, I puncture and suture, wound and heal, simultaneously, meditatively, an intimate interaction between paper and thread grows. When I began embroidering into photos in 2007, I reveled in the intimate touch of my hand and the connection to generations of ordinary needleworkers and amateur photographers.

The quotes and images I embroider give me a chance to moralize, in sampleresque form, on thoughts and lessons my aging maternal self wants to share—accountability, acceptance, love, honesty, respect, compassion, gratitude and generosity. Using a quote from a famous person brings with it the weight and credibility of that person’s reputation, stature, fame and accomplishments.

I buy large lots of photos on eBay; I’ve become acquainted with several dealers who save piles of mundane images for me (the unique ones go to collectors). I mine are several great quotation websites, plus I record good ones whenever I run across them. I have folders on my  computer labeled by the quoted (Vonnegut, Palahniuk, artists, etc.), by subject (war, music, happiness, etc.) or just by randomness (misc. quotes I, more quotes, etc.).

In creating my work, I gather and bring together previously unrelated elements when I appropriate others' photographs and words into my work. First, I find a photograph or quotation that resonates then search for the quote or photo that will make the piece work. Lately I’m often adding a drawing. I scan the photo into the computer, typeset the quote and add the drawing. I print out a pattern, lay it over the original photo and poke the holes I then stitch through. After selecting the type and color of thread, I put my feet up and stitch.

Susan Sontag wrote, “The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: ‘There is a surface. Now—think—or rather feel, intuit—what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way.’ Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.”

Billions of family photos have been shot and this image bank presents the universality (and interchangeability) of our everyday lives. Throughout nearly twenty series with hundreds of artworks, I am uncovering what this rich repository can teach about the interconnectedness of human nature. Through juxtaposition of familiar text and everyday image I offer the viewer a new reading, a new interpretation—the opportunity to deduce, speculate and fantasize.

Currently, I’m working on three projects for two shows I’m excited about; two of the projects have to do with “resilience.” One is based on large portraits of women who are obviously distressed (as victims or in mug shots; I know nothing about the photos’ origin). The other uses a large lot of photos I bought of the famous British pianist Clive Lythgoe who lived his life in a way that inspires me. The third project is adding more t-shirts to the garment series. Several pieces were destroyed when a giant rock destroyed my studio and home in 2010 (this disaster, I believe, has led to my current examination of resilience).

Looking back at my career as an artist, I recall the advice that was given to me in grad school, by the artist Ernesto Pujol, “When you know why you choose the images you choose, you can choose more and better.” When I research and study why I’m attracted to old photos or stitching by hand or the life of Clive Lythgoe, my art becomes better, deeper, more resonant.

In 2011, Jane Waggoner Deschner’s work was twice juried into exhibitions at the Lexington Art League in Lexington, KY, and was in invitational shows in Arizona, Missouri, Montana and Wyoming. Upcoming exhibitions include Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO; the Missoula Art Museum, Missoula, MT;  Lawrence Art Center, Lawrence, KS; Northwest College, Powell, WY; and Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, CA. Deschner has been awarded residencies/fellowships at Ucross Foundation; Virginia Center for Creative Arts (including a LEAW Foundation Grant); Jentel Foundation; Kimmell•Harding•Nelson Center for the Arts; Red Deer College, Red Deer, Alberta; and Ragdale Foundation. Early in 2012, she will be a resident at the Santa Fe Art Institute. She earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2002. She lives in Billings, MT, where she works as an artist, graphic designer, curator and educator. More of her work can be seen on her website www.janedeschner.com.

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