Expose Art House: the power and peace of an artist residency

What began as a lucky break for a photography project I planned this summer turned into one of the most enriching investments in my artistic development I’ve ever experienced. Expose Art House, in Montgomery AL, run by artist Chintia Kirana, is a key piece of Chintia’s vision to enrich the artist community in Montgomery. It’s also an oasis that proved to be exactly what my work down South needed - and what I needed to be able to make that work to the best of my ability.

For most of the winter and spring of 2019, I researched for a personal documentary project I wanted to photograph in the Black Belt region of Mississippi and Alabama. The Black Belt is so-called for its remarkable rich, black soil, and in modern times so-called for it’s demographic make-up. The connection between that soil and the present-day demographics is a profound story I hoped to capture in a three-week foray to the counties that make up the Black Belt in northeast Mississippi and central Alabama. (I’ll write more on this project in another post.)

In addition to copious research on the geology and history of the region, I also worked out the logistics of this trip, including how to fund the travel. In large part, my business - photographing families and children in Washington DC - funded the documentary photography project I was to undertake. Doing personal projects is a normal practice for photographers of all types who want to push their skills, build their portfolios, and explore what intrigues them in the world. I’m no different, and I’m very fortunate that my family photography business allows me time and funds to pursue long-term projects.

In March, I attended the National Press Photographers Association Northern Short Course - an annual conference for photojournalists. One of the sessions of particular importance to me was Jamie Rose’s talk on funding personal projects. (Jamie is a founder of Momenta Workshops, as well as an accomplished PJ and documentary photographer in her own right.) Among the many insightful recommendations in Jamie’s talk was this nugget: if your personal work requires travel, investigate to see if there is an artist residency opportunity with housing in the area you want to go. I put a star by that in my notes, and when I got home, added “researching residencies” to my on-going preparation for the work I wanted to do.

I would come to learn that many artist residencies have specific requirements, costs, or limitations that made them not quite what I needed. But within a few google search variations, I came upon information about the Expose Art House in Montgomery, AL. Montgomery is not only smack dab in the middle of the Alabama Black Belt, it’s also a key city in the story of the Black Belt’s social history.

The application schedule was rolling, so there wasn’t a deadline, and the lengths of stay were also variable and not limited to certain dates. The residency provided a private room in a house that would be shared by any other artists currently on their own residency there. So I applied - CV, portfolio, and a letter explaining the work I wanted to do during the residency.

Within a couple of weeks, I received a reply back that I’d been accepted and the dates I proposed were fine! This was such great news. At no cost, I had a room in a house in Montgomery for two of the three weeks of my trip! (The other week I needed to be based in Mississippi, where I opted for a hotel because no residency opportunities were available there.) I felt extremely fortunate to find a good place to stay without the costs of a hotel - plus the Art House had a kitchen and washer/dryer so I could make my own coffee, meals, and wash clothes. At the time, I viewed the residency purely logistically - room & board while on the road for this project.

As the time drew near to travel, there was a lot on my plate and on my mind - the creative stretching happening around researching and shooting the project. The challenges I knew I’d face, and ideas for meeting them. The fear over the challenges I could not yet anticipate and how to solve for something I can’t foresee. But once I was on that airplane, headed South at last, a lot of the anxiety began to lift. Alongside my other reading and research, I opened a few articles on ‘making the most of artist residencies’. There was a lot of information and advice, including:

— take time to get to know the other artists and exchange ideas

— don’t be afraid to do nothing: part of the creative process requires thought and we often need to relax for that thought to flow freely

Until reading those tips, I hadn’t thought much about how to maximize the residency part of the journey I was on. I let the ideas marinate as I went about my work in Mississippi. After a week in a hotel (a week of bad coffee, “shelf stable” half and half, and weird eggs at the free breakfast bar, and $6 to wash and dry my clothes) I was feeling pretty good about heading to Montgomery and having a more home-like environment and a coffee maker. When I arrived at the Art House, Chintia met me to welcome me and show me around the facility. It was a spacious house on a main road through a residential neighborhood. The facade was French Country, and the big oak tree in the front yard dripped with Spanish Moss. Inside, the front room was a gallery space with white walls, rich dark wood floors, a generous bay window, and fireplace. It smelled of old wood. There was a small dining room, and a large bright eat-in kitchen. Coffee maker. There was a small library room, and a living room with a wall-sized window onto the back deck and large backyard. Later, I would watch the rain fall on a steamy Sunday morning from this window, and spy a surprisingly large woodpecker teaching her fledglings to drive their beaks into the bark of trees lining the back fence. Later, I would sit on the couch in this room with my laptop perched on the coffee table, choosing the photos to present at my artist talk in the gallery space at the Kress Building in downtown Montgomery.

My bedroom (and private bathroom) was a big room at the back of the house with another big window looking into the back yard. A queen sized bed with soft cool white sheets. A big closet where I could stash my luggage and put my clothes away properly. It was an oasis after a week in a hotel. It was soft and southern and spacious. Physically, and also mentally. I suddenly realized there was more to this space than just room and board. I had a home base. The front of the house had two more bedrooms - one of which was a designated studio space. Upstairs, bedroom and studio space. I found that the kitchen table was ideal for an office space, and made myself at home there, with my books and laptop and bullet journal spread out the way I like them. I stocked the fridge with fruit, salad stuff, eggs, and proper half and half. There was coffee in the cabinet.

As I went about my research, making contacts, phone calls, interviews; as I left each day to go out to shoot and came back each day sweaty and brain full of all I’d seen and learned, I found that the space was a home to me. More than a base of operations, and better than a hotel, it was comfortable and comforting. It gave me freedom to work on my own internal schedule and space to feel that internal clock nudge me along. And it was quiet. I could think, whether I was editing images, making notes, cooking or washing up. I remembered the advice in the article - don’t be afraid to do nothing. And so I found a rhythm of work and rest that made for days both productive and contemplative. It was a rhythm that’s simply not compatible with typical family life - my family life anyway, with 8pm bedtimes and reading Harry Potter, and rising at 7 to get out the door to school on time, with time with a spouse and predicable meals, and with business hours for my photo clients, and with way more laundry than the five t-shirts and three pairs of pants hanging in the big closet of my borrowed bedroom. It was my rhythm, when I’m alone and in the zone.

Just when I was starting to feel a bit too solitary, Savanna-based painter Jon Witzky arrived. Jon brought the sounds of another human being (even though there was another artist living on the second floor - he was quiet as the air and I barely saw him!) and he brought conversation. I was surprised over and over again by our impromptu conversations. Because until then, I’d never discussed my work much with *artists* — those people who make and teach and exhibit their art as their livelihood and calling. My people were all photographers, most of us working in the commercial field of family and wedding photography, with little or no arts background, feeling our ways toward documentary and art without formal training in either. Jon assumed from the start I was an artist, and in answering the questions he asked me about my work, I felt an artist wake up in my brain… a sense of myself within the work I was making, a surrender to the process of “me making documentary work”, an awareness of the role of my own perspective and intention and aesthetic. In learning about Jon’s paintings, I learned about the role of patience and exploration, of layers and mystery. Somewhere along the way, in those conversations, I came to realize that “shoot how it feels” (a phrase I hear a lot from mentors when discussing how to make more meaningful photographs) doesn’t mean “how the subject feels” but how I feel about the subject. And that unresolved feelings and ambiguity can have the most power. Jon was a sounding board for my own conflicted feelings about the story I was trying to tell, and in talking it through, I found ways to put those feelings into the photos I was making, and (I hope) bring a viewer along with me into a place that I find very complex and worthy of toiling over.

All of this happened in my mind, and in my work, because of this little house, this residency. This respite in which I could focus entirely on a project and let it consume my heart and mind.

Near the end of the residency, I gave an artist talk. It was a requirement of the residency to give one, and Chintia arranged the details through her deep networks the art community in Montgomery. The talk was on a Friday night, at a gallery space at the restored Kress Building on Dexter Avenue downtown. I called the talk “Rough Draft: Scenes from the Black Belt” because it truly was a rough draft - no photographer is a good editor of their own work and I had no real grasp yet of my narrative. That said, I was eager to show some of the work to people FROM the place I was photographing. I wanted to know, does this feel right? Have I captured it? Have I put you off, or would you like to see more? The talk was in discussion format, with a moderator, and it went really well. There were moments in which I observed other people wrestling with meaning in a photograph I had created - a photograph that for me was fraught with conflict and unease. It was for them too, and be present and listen to people voice their own confrontation with it was a lesson I will never forget. Good art leans into discomfort and in doing so, opens dialogs about things that might be hard to talk about. (I think ‘good art’ can lean into other feelings too, not just discomfort, but this was my lesson about recognizing the power of feeling uncomfortable.)

After the talk, though I had a few more things to photograph, I didn’t push too hard on reaching out to contacts and getting full days of shooting in. I spent time organizing the work I’d made (some 10,000 images - narrowed down to about 300 worthwhile photographs to consider for the final edit), writing captions, reading some materials my new friends and subjects had sent to me, watching a documentary film about the nature of photographing poverty. I let my body rest and my brain work. I watched woodpeckers in the trees. I went for a swim. I ate fried shrimp beside the Alabama River, and watched Hairspray which was disconcertingly relevant to some of my work.

I embraced the doing of nothing because I knew once I returned home, life would roar back into gear and this time of focus would end. I wanted to let it root before I had to carry it back home.

And so I feel that in the future I will make attending an artist residency a part of my ongoing practice. Sequestering space and time to focus on an important project and on my own development as an artist is important, and rewarded me in ways I could never have expected.

Me, at the end of my residency, lounging on Southern Sunday time.

Me, at the end of my residency, lounging on Southern Sunday time.

Katie Walls