For more than 30 years, Durham resident Wendy Ewald has been working with children to create artwork of stark beauty and deep insight. She has collaborated with children in Mexico, South Africa, the Netherlands, India, and Durham, N.C. A retrospective of these works, Secret Games: Collaborative Work with Children 1969-1999, is opening at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 19.
Ewald’s work extends an idea initially offered by James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, when he described his collaboration with Walker Evans: “The photographs are not illustrative. They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative.” Ewald’s early work was a unique collaboration. As a photographer-teacher in rural Kentucky, she developed long-term relations with her student artists, some of whom produced works of startling originality, beauty and terror. These works from 1975-1982 mark a revolutionary shift in photography and writing, yet they’re drawn from old mountain traditions. Telling stories that cross artistic traditions and wander through a routinely grotesque world, these are works of “dreams and premonitions.”
Her collaborations with two children in particular haunt us: Denise Dixon and Johnny. Dixon wrote the stories and directed the photography for her pieces, while Johnny and Ewald’s work was a more complicated collaboration. Dixon’s dreams present her as Dolly Parton, a Marilyn Monroe-like snake-handler, and a fancy dancer reaching wildly for the “Red Star sky.” Her premonitions employ her younger twin brothers to enact stories of mystery and murder. All are narrative moments that drop us into the middle of a Faulknerian short story.
Johnny’s story draws you deep into the poverty of the mountains without once letting you think that he’s impoverished. As he tells it, his family narrative is as rich as any famous writer’s description might tell it: “Uncle Herbert, he’s dead. Cancer killed him. One time he was working for somebody when he was about 12 and he was cutting a juice wire. When he jerked back, he cut his eyeball right through. He just pulled it out and went on. I got a picture of him holding me in his arms.”
Ewald’s photos of Johnny, his brother Charles, and their home, were staged by Johnny but shot by Ewald. We look at Charles hog-tied with some writing on his back–the kind you find on school desks and in notebooks declaring who loves whom. We see Charles hanging over quilts strung on a line, holding a small caliber revolver. Charles and Johnny pretend to fight in an image that could also be an embrace. Finally we come to a picture of Johnny and Charles sitting like gifts before a Christmas tree, underscoring the gifts that we as spectators have been given in the previous images.
Ewald is the director of the Center for Documentary Studies’ Literacy Through Photography Project and artist-in-residence at Duke’s John Hope Franklin Center. She has recently produced a book, I Wanna Take Me a Picture: Teaching Photography and Writing to Children, and will have an exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art in 2003.
Kathy Hudson is Exhibitions Coordinator at Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Center. She ran partobject gallery in Carrboro with her brother, Diego Cortez.