Saturday, December 11, 2010

Spotlight on Dorothy O'Connor. The Making of Crocheting the Ocean

Dorothy O'Connor
© 2010 Richard Ediger
How do you begin, when the dream in your heart wants to create the dark blue sea around you and sail away? Make the boat of course. That is what Dorothy O’Connor did when she created her new tableau image Crocheting the Ocean. If you have been paying attention at all to the rising stars of the Atlanta art photography scene, you will know that Dorothy has, for the past five years, created darkly mysterious scenes highlighting a lovely face in a lush dress and often a forest of leaves, vintage furnishings, and a deep sense of story.

Crocheting the Ocean
© 2010 Dorothy O'Connor
Many of us first saw Crocheting the Ocean at the Atlanta Celebrates Photography 2010 Auction in October, where Dorothy was honored as being among the select few “Ones To Watch” artists. Given a little time with the print we could see that the title was fairly literal to the scene. But why, oh why, has the angel in the golden garb embarked on the monumental, perhaps eternal, task that Dorothy has assigned to her? There certainly must be an engrossing backstory there somewhere. What is it, and how did the scene come about? After wondering for two months, I did the sensible thing and simply asked Dorothy.

She kindly invited me into her home to tell the story. After Dorothy warned me about the large gray furry creature at my feet that loves to nurse on unsuspecting visitors, we settled into a long conversation. A narrative image has to start somewhere, and with Crocheting the Ocean it was indeed the boat. “I got a hankering to build a boat,” she told me. Simple enough, but why? What is the symbolism here? The short answer is that Dorothy’s muse initially worked on her unconscious. She says that she had few conscious thoughts about the why – just the what and how. The why came later.

So, hammer and nails, paper-mâché and glue, and slowly a boat is built. It floats only on Dorothy’s ocean of imagination but it floats well. What will serve as the sea? Visions of blue yarn came bidding – lots of blue yarn. Dorothy says that she has always had busy hands, and a few evenings with a crochet hook should do it. But the ocean is big and to make one is hardly a weekend task. Many evenings and many balls of yarn later, Dorothy’s boat finally had something to float on. A few evenings? How about seven months of evenings? Yes, seven months. Oh to be sure, Dorothy has a life. It is just that her photography is her life and if it takes half a year to complete an artistic vision, so be it.

Oceans are wide too. But take a look at Dorothy’s scene. It somehow seems compressed and constrained. Rather than the vastness you might imagine, the walls close in. You are in a boat but the boat is in the boat’s captain’s quarters. It is a very Escheresque experience to be in the presence of the scene, trying to eke out meaning from the incongruities.

Dorothy’s scene is not static by any means. The golden figure in the boat is busy with the crochet hook. The ocean made with her hands flows effortlessly over the gunwale. It is as if the very fabric of the ocean is being created out of nothingness like some elementary particle popping into existence from the other-dimensional vacuum of space.

And who is that figure in the boat anyway? Is it Botticelli’s Venus, or the Queen of Heaven, or simply Dorothy? I think that Dorothy knows, but she’s not saying. She does say though that while the fabric of the ‘why’ for the scene is very thin, it may have something to do with all our wishes and dreams, realized or not, moving across the ocean of our lives. The boat is the bundle of what we want while the ocean – the unending ocean that is being continuously created anew – may be too large for us to beach the boat within the Land of Fulfilled Desires in the time given us. The clock on the mantle in the scene is there for a reason, reminding us of our limited time. What I find fascinating about Dorothy’s vision here is that she did not understand this symbolism until she had lived with the scene for quite a while. It was borne of experience rather than preconceived thought. You wonder why her muse is toying with her so.

Through the encouragement and generous funding by Louis Corrigan and the Possible Futures philanthropic foundation, Dorothy’s narrative scenes have had a life that is much longer than the blink-of-an-eye exposure of her 8x10 view camera. Mr. Corrigan, after seeing Dorothy’s work three years ago, made it possible for her to host a tableau vivant, or living scene, in her studio that replicates the narrative of her photographs. Dorothy said, “I am grateful to him for about a hundred million things.”  BURNAWAY lauded last year’s installment, and her to-date annual studio opening is one of the most anticipated events of Atlanta Celebrates Photography’s October bonanza.

This year’s Dorothy O’Connor tableau vivant was one for the perfect evening books. There was just the barest chill in the air to make the wood burning in the firepits a common gathering place for the Dorothy enthusiasts assembled in her backyard. While the trees twinkled with creative lighting and the tables groaned with food and drink, the attraction was the tableau. As one who knows how to build suspense, Dorothy kept the doors to her studio locked until exactly the appointed hour. Then they flew open and we crowded shoulder-to-wine glass in the small space to see the Lady of the Boat crocheting the ocean. I must say that seeing the living installation topped even the static photograph I saw in the ACP Auction. A wonderful touch that wasn’t in the photo was the Lady periodically taking her eyes from the vanishing point where she had been blankly staring, then glancing at the ticking clock on the mantle for a few moments before returning to move the crochet hook ever more vigorously.

I asked my wife Jill the next morning over coffee what she thought the whole narrative meant to her. The answer came easily, “The endlessness of eternity. We have to get it all done before our time is due.” This is eerily close to Dorothy’s own hints of the meaning of the tableau to her own inner self. Dorothy told me that she does not wish to ascribe meanings to her tableaux, rather she asks her viewers to assemble their own significance to her creations.

One thing that strikes you when viewing the Crocheting the Ocean scene for the first time is its complexity.  There are things in there – on the walls, floor, and even the ceiling that are easily missed in the photograph. Did you see an octopus in a jar in the photo? I didn’t initially but by golly it was there, as big as life. Where did the octopus come from anyway? Yes, it is real, and yes, you could cook it up into a nice insalata di polpo if you wished.

Dorothy and I talked about the detail in her tableaux. Her desire to retain all the nooks and crannies is why she uses a view camera. Yet only by spending time with the live scene in her studio can you gain the true appreciation of the artistic thought that has gone into creating the piece. I wonder if there is not a way to recreate the scene somewhere so it lives on for the continual enjoyment for those of us who love Dorothy’s sense of narrative. The same thing of course could be said for many other memorable pieces of installation art we have seen in Atlanta the past year. Perhaps we should put this bundle of desire into Dorothy’s boat and hope it reaches the Land of Fulfilled Desires before the spring on the clock unwinds.

Text other than direct quotations copyright 2010 by Richard Ediger.

1 comment:

  1. WONDERFUL article, Richard! Thank you for giving us such a colorful, behind-the-scenes peek into Dorothy's world.