Interviews

Reanimating Women from Found Photographs

From images of funerals to portraits of women who underwent forced sterilization, Daisy Patton’s works allow “the person to come back from death for a moment.”

Daisy Patton, “Untitled (Pop. Rockville Center home Nov. 27 1936)” (2018), oil on archival print mounted to panel (all images courtesy of the artist)

Daisy Patton began by reconstructing her own family photos — and inserting a father she didn’t know — through painting. “They were like an alternative story. They were small, restrictive, and colossal failures. But they lead me here,” she says. Forgetting Is So Long is an umbrella series that includes portraits, recently shown at Minerva Projects in Denver, Colorado. She also has two forthcoming shows, one of large-scale garden paintings A Rewilded Arcadia at Denver’s K Contemporary this fall and the other of funerary paintings in This Is Not Goodbye at the University of Colorado Art Museum in Boulder.

Across these series, Patton starts her process with the anonymous people in found photographs. After she scans and prints the image to life-size, she paints blocks of color and pattern in ways that edit and extenuate the source material. Patton’s approach never stops running routes between the past and present, or from minimalism to the decorative. The paintings are rooted in the photograph, so there is a visual kinship. But while the photo captures a story already completed, the painting invites a dialogue, not only with the choices within the frame but the uncomfortable acknowledgement of one’s own fading presence in the memory of others.

In her latest series, though, Patton has taken a different direction in her process and storytelling. At the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colorado, she will be exhibiting a portrait series on victims of forced sterilization, and now, at You Be Lonely Without Me? in Art Gym in Denver, she has portraits of women who died of illegal abortions. In the latter show, she has accompanied the images with text describing the women and detailing the circumstances that led up to a back-alley abortion and the horrific events that followed. Like the forced sterilization series, which are portraits produced in needlepoint, the abortion series is emotionally crippling to observe due to the complete lack of humanity shown to these women during their most vulnerable moments. It’s hard not to think that such stories might reemerge under new political directives. In anticipation of these powerful exhibitions, I sat down with Patton to discuss her work.

*   *   *

Daisy Patton, “Untitled (May 15 1933)” (2017), oil on archival print mounted to panel

Kealey Boyd: Do you imagine narratives for the figures in the found photos?

Daisy Patton: I’m interested in an openness for viewers to insert their own narratives. How I hide or direct attention creates that reaction. For This Is Not Goodbye I specifically selected images where mourners are not present, so the audience completes the scene.

KB: Do you treat pattern, space, and color differently within the portrait, garden, or funerary series?

DP: My patterns tend to be floral when the scene is not a garden or funeral, so what do I do with an image that already has a lot of flowers? The scenes are visually overwhelming so the pattern becomes this addition, a cacophony of what is already there. In “Rockville Center Home” (2018), the photo was taken of the deceased from a whole room away. I make the pattern travel, encapsulating the chairs, getting larger as it moves closer to the viewer. The fun part of the funeral show is I can work larger than I ever have before.

KB: The photographed figures are life-size in your paintings. How come?

DP: For me, it’s reckoning with them as people again, a one to one. The point is to unhistorcize the person, to remove that divide of time, where we can have a relationship.

Daiy Patton, “Untitled (Pegasus and Gold)” (2018), oil on archival print mounted to panel

KB: Describe your pattern research.

DP: Many of the patterns are 19th-century wallpaper designs from Europe and America. Often, historical patterns are within a rigid framework. I’m re-wilding them by allowing movement. In the painting “Pegasus and Gold” (2018) she is regal. I maintained the original dress pattern from the photo, but allowed it to escape its boundaries. Lately, I’ve been making my own patterns. I’ve been collecting and photographing leaf and flower shapes. When adding pattern to a painting I’ll mark with a pencil where the pattern will go. If I need a consistent shape I’ll use cutouts. There is a strictness and tediousness to painting pattern elements, but it is beautiful.

KB: Does your funeral series, This Is Not Goodbye, blur the lines of past and present in a unique way from your other work?

DP: I have an affection toward their oddness. Victorian funeral customs are so strange. They have similar elements to still life paintings, with their own visual language. Floral arrangements in the shape of an anchor represent fidelity and faith; the pillow, which is still available, represents eternal rest. The assumption is the audience will know what it means. Today what we see as tacky were meant to process grief and insure the person was not forgotten. Yet here we are, they are forgotten. There is also uniformity of how funerals were made, documented, and performed. A funeral photograph is your last portrait, so personal quirks can be found. Like a woman buried in a wedding dress or the stereoscope photograph of a child which means it was meant to be seen in 3D.

Daisy Patton, “Untitled (‘For Darling,’ The Bride)” (2018), oil on archival print mounted to panel

KB: But does the concept of memory change between the context of a portrait or a funeral? 

DP: In “Untitled (A Bulgarian Funeral)” (2016) I wanted to obscure the faces since we don’t remember moments exactly. It’s imperfect. The harder we try to recapture a moment the fuzzier it becomes. Photos also have a way of overriding our own memories, especially the more the memory fades. The painting allows the person to come back from death for a moment. I know I’m painting with oil on paper so I’m sure in 100-plus years the oil will eat the photo print and the source will fade as well.

Daisy Patton, detail of “Melvina Hernández” (2016), embroidery

KB: In the untitled forced sterilization and abortion series, Would You Be Lonely Without Me?, the women are not anonymous, and you altered your scale and medium. Why did you change your approach?

DB: They are two different bodies of work but still under the practice of history and memory. These stories were being erased. In the case of the abortion series, it is hard to find information or gain a sense of the person from the grainy newspaper clippings. It requires rebuilding a person.

Daisy Patton, “Ann Keenan” (2018), oil on paper with embroidery

KB: What did you learn in your research?

DP: Five thousand to 10,000 women died per year when abortion was criminalized, but what does that even mean? I want to incorporate information about the women. In one research approach, I looked for one doctor responsible for several deaths in newspapers and archives. Joan Ethel Rollins, 20 years old, from Falls Church, Virginia was named as a victim in a newspaper. I then located her yearbook photo on classmates.com. In the yearbook, there were three adjectives about her, “Diverting, radiant and enticing.” With the topic of abortion, we don’t think about the lives and potential of the women. I found Vivian Grant in a New York Times article. She suspected she was pregnant but wasn’t, dying at 23 years old of a botched abortion. The website Cemetery of Choice is maintained by anti-choice activists and it is one of my resources. We are looking at the same data and getting different reactions. The website’s view is if the women had the baby they would have lived. Or they could see the women may have had wonderful lives if not put in a position for a back-alley abortion. Sometimes the women are afterthoughts in stories of their own demise — so tangential. I want to put the focus back on them.

Would You Be Lonely Without Me? continues at Art Gym (1460 Leyden St., Denver, CO), through August 3;  Daisy Patton: This Is Not Goodbye continues at the CU Art Museum at the University of Colorado, Boulder through November 17. A Rewilded Arcadia will exhibit at K Contemporary, (1412 Wazee St., Denver, CO) all of October 2018. The “Untitled” forced sterilization embroidery series will be on view at the Fulginiti Pavilion, Anschutz Medical Campus (13080 E. 19th Ave, Aurora, CO) starting January 2020.

comments (0)