Faces fascinate Durham photographer, mixed-media and textile artist Anna Nickles.
“People look at a face and create stories about what they see,” Nickles said.
“I think we can’t help it. We have to look at a person and figure them out,” she explained. “We want to create an identity, think about whether we would like them. Would they like us? Are they good or bad? I think it is biological.”
When Nickles was studying photography at Eastern Carolina University, her classmates would get quite animated as they created their stories about portraits she was showing during class critiques. “I wanted to do a series to play off of this,” Nickles said.
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Fifteen mixed-media portraits, created by Nickles for her senior photography project at ECU, are on display at Mercury Studio, 407 N. Mangum St., through Dec. 31 in an exhibit called “Keep Your Face Always.” The venue is open 9-5, Monday-Friday and will be open for the Third Friday Durham art walk this week.
The 17 inch by 22 inch pieces are unnamed. “I did this deliberately, so I don’t give anything away,” Nickles said.
Though each piece is as apart from the one next to it as one snowflake is from another, they do share the characteristic of having been printed using the Van Dyke photographic process. One coats paper with a light sensitive chemical and using a negative that is the same size as the finished print, exposes the negative on the paper under UV light.
“It kind of neutralizes the images. It made my images look like drawings,” Nickles said.
Once she finished printing her images, she continued creating by altering each photograph.
Nickles spent several weeks using a craft knife to cut out a pattern over a portrait of a young man. “It took me a month and a half to get the feeling back in my thumb after doing this,” Nickles said. “People have looked at this piece and said that parts of him are falling apart, he is fragmented.”
Many of the pieces in show actually portray people that Nickles does not know. “So the alterations are not done to express who they are,” Nickles said.
One print is of a man with a mohawk and a piercing. “I took silk thread and made a spirograph pattern off his eye. I wanted to create a new composition that worked off the composition created by the Van Dyke Process,” Nickles said. “I approached the prints as if they were a piece of fabric almost. It is totally tied to that project of finding a composition within.”
She is referring to a class she took in the ECU textile program, taught by Christine Zoller.
“We took dyed fabric, explored it to find composition within it, and then did different things to bring out the composition,” Nickles said. “So we were taking things that were random and abstract and bringing elements of balance, unity, asymmetry and symmetry out so that it looks like some type of organized composition. This changed a lot of the work I was doing.”
Nickles had graduated with a psychology degree from UNC-Asheville in 2000 though she had intended to study art. “The problem for me with that was that my brain did not wrap itself around drawing, and that seemed to be what art was. I could not make my hand do what my brain saw.”
So she switched gears. Upon graduation, Nickles went home to Ocracoke and worked at Island Artworks, run by Kathleen O’Neal. “She is an amazing jeweler, and I helped her,” Nickles said. “This is where the inner conflict really set in, knowing art was what I wanted and needed to do and how was I going to make that happen.”
With encouragement from many people, including O’Neal and photographer Ann Ehringhaus, Nickles decided to go to ECU for an undergraduate degree in textiles when she was 28.
“I really appreciate the universal quality of textiles. Every society, culture, place has a textile history,” Nickles said. “Growing up a female in the South, textiles was one of the areas that showed up really often in my life.”
But because of one photograph she took, Nickles graduated from ECU with a degree in photography as well as one in textiles. (She also learned that she could draw, thanks to the instruction of two consummate professors.)
“I was over a my friend Meredith Morovati’s house in Chapel Hill and her five-year old daughter Ivy asked if I wanted to see her in her Bugs Bunny costume,” Nickles said. “She was running around in it, leaned against a wall for a second, and I took a photo. It made it in the ECU undergraduate annual exhibition, where it won best digital photograph,” Nickles said. The head of the ECU photography department, based on this photo, let her apply for the program even though she did not have all the prerequisites.
This “Keep Your Face Always” series is part of something bigger that Nickles wants to explore.
“In doing some research about men in military service, when they experience a loss of a limb or injury to their face, articles talk about how amazing their spouses are for staying with them,” Nickles said. “Your face is the one thing about you that is going to change, but an abrupt change is something people have a really hard time dealing with. I want to find a way to explore this. We put so much on our face.”
Deborah R. Meyer writes about the arts in Durham each month. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org