Q+A with Issue 85 Cover Artist Kelly Hider

Kelly Hider, from the Bury Me in the Garden series
Kelly Hider, Birthday, 26″ x 24″

Girl/Power Triangle (featured on the cover of No. 85) harkens back to a series you did in 2011 which sprung entirely from a cache of one family’s photographs you’d found in an antique store. You augmented them — adding painted shadows, sequins and/or picture frames, in a way seems coded somehow. Looking back on the series now, can you read a language in those marks? Why a shadow here, a sequin there? 

You’re referring to my MFA Thesis work, Bury Me in the Garden. A general answer is that the visual language used to manipulate the images becomes a way for me to embellish the already cryptic narrative the photos lay out. The shadows exist to create a tangible measure of foreshadowing.


I would study this box of discarded photographs multiple times, and while instances of a blissful domestic life were all accounted for — weddings, family vacations, birthdays, etc.— I was unable to discern the events that led to the photos being abandoned. A death or divorce are reasonable guesses, but I will never know for sure. I asked the woman who owned the antique store if she knew any history about the photos and how she acquired them, and she didn’t have an answer or didn’t want to disclose. Lacking any clues within the photos, the India-ink-painted-shadows become the nondescript foreboding elements; like the shadow of a monster creeping up behind a figure in cartoon, only when they turn their head the shadow vanishes. The viewer is able to see the shadows, but the figures in the pieces can’t foresee their own destiny, like how one can clearly understand an issue better with hindsight.


While the sequins sometimes take the form of shadows or ghosts, they visually counter the dated quality of the yellowed, 1980s photos, and bring the scenes back to life in a way. Resurrecting them, albeit in a sort of pathetic, class-aware way. They are cheap, plastic rhinestones and used sparsely. I think of them as bandaids — a quick fix. It is not nearly the level of embellishment apparent in, say, Mickalene Thomas’s portraits.


Kelly Hider, from the Bury Me in the Garden series
Kelly Hider, from the Bury Me in the Garden series

Some appear untouched (Scratching the Skin, Drinking from the Soil) with your only decision being to give it a frame. Am I missing something, or is that indeed the case? If so, what set them apart? 


That is correct. The surfaces of those pieces are not embellished for two reasons. One is that the way they were cropped when I found them already creating pretty potent statements that are in line with the themes in the other pieces. In Scratching the Skin, the space left next to the girl when the photograph was taken is odd, and leaves me to imagine a presence there. By keeping the cropping true to the found image, the space next to her is emphasized. In Drinking from the Soil, the head of the figure is cut off abruptly, and the pre-existing shadow is a strong visual element. I didn’t have to create these things, they were already there. Another reason to leave them unadorned points to the selecting as part of my process. There were hundreds of photos in this archive, but choosing the 20 or so to bring into the studio to work with is a significant part of my studio practice and is similar to any photographer’s editing process.


If you look closely at the frames used on Drinking from the Soil and Scratching the Skin there are rhinestones glued directly onto the frames in places where the gilding is broken or falling apart. Similar to the purpose of the rhinestones on the photographs, they are trying to “fix” the broken frames. I should add some detail images on my website to make that more clear.


Kelly Hider, Baby with Gold Thread, 23.5" x 36"
Kelly Hider, Baby with Gold Thread, 23.5″ x 36″


In the found collection, were there flat photos of wallpaper? If so, what was up with that? If not, where did An Empty Living Room and Gathered in the Kitchen start out?


No, the wallpaper wasn’t found in the box with the photographs, but I added them to the series. Many of the shadow forms were created using floral and organic patterns collected from domestic patterns found on wallpaper and fabric dated to the same era as the photos. People seem to respond to domestic patterns similarly to old photographs; they conjure memories and feelings related to their childhood or past. Similar to isolating the photographs, it seemed like an interesting idea at the time to isolate a couple of the patterns and treat them like the images. An Empty Living Room is embellished with rhinestones, and in Gathered in the Kitchen, one of the flowers is obscured with black paint. They are altered remnants of a forgotten domestic setting, and allude to people who inhabited the rooms, and lived and interacted with one another together in a house, without using figures at all.


Discarded and separated from anyone who could look back on them in memory, the original point of the photo’s existence would forever be unfulfilled. These were inert objects when you found them, essentially nothing, but your systematic tending-to recategorized them as art: on one hand. 


On the other hand, you straight-up painted some kind of Elvis rose over dude’s face.


The most common action in my work, in both the Bury Me in the Garden series and in the work I’m making now, is obscurification. It’s become a little redundant, but I’m always discovering new ways to do it that are slightly different and still interesting. I think of all of my work as an exploration of death and resurrection, and that action just says it all. But in the Bury Me in the Garden work, I did become emotionally attached to the anonymous family depicted in the photos; covering them up was a way to protect them, like with a blanket in in the piece, Butter & Eggs, or shielding their eyes from witnessing something terrible, like in Sorrow Floats, a.k.a “dude with the Elvis rose,” or I refer to that piece sometimes as the “Rhinestone Cowboy.”


Kelly Hider, Whirling Dervish, 32" x 31"
Kelly Hider, Whirling Dervish, 32″ x 31″


Give me a ratio: as you were working on the series: Did you feel like savior or vandal?  


Equal parts: 30% vandal, 30% savior, but also 40% thief. I felt like I was pretty respectful of the images. More so than with my own personal family photos — which is where I started defining my artistic practice manipulating photos early in graduate school. And I found the photos for sale in a store — not in the trash, and they didn’t end up thrown into a fire, so they were fair game. But I add in ‘thief’ because even though the new narrative I’ve created is coded and ambiguous, it is a personal story too. A transference of personal emotions. It didn’t dawn on me until the project was over how much I had used their photos as a blank or mirrored canvas to mediate my own experiences. It’s quite the opposite from the new work. I am much less emotionally invested in this work and have been approaching the images more formally. It’s allowed me to take bigger risks in each piece, and to create more complex narratives.


So, onto your new work; can you elaborate on that?


I’m still working through the series, so all of the meaning has yet to reveal itself, but there are allusions to mysticism, and the supernatural, which is pushing the domestic foundation of the images into a surrealistic realm. Another breakthrough has been using Photoshop editing tools beyond the necessary logistics (“cleaning up” dust, resizing, etc.), and instead using them in innovative ways to create the conceptual statements in each piece. For example, in Selection 1, I’ve used the selection tool to indicate the absence of the figure that used to be seated in front of the garden backdrop. The selection was then enhanced with black and white glitter flocking on the surface. Another example is Girl / Power Triangle, featured on the cover of Number. I’ve used the clone stamp tool incorrectly to create the gestural mark over the top of the figure.


Kelly Hider, Selection 1, 24" x 36"
Kelly Hider, Selection 1, 24″ x 36″


What is the source material for this most recent series?


The archive is actually my grandparents’ collection of slides taken during the 1950’s and 60’s, that were scanned and converted to digital by my uncle as a gift to his siblings. The figures in the pieces are mostly of my aunt and uncle. My initial intrigue in looking at the archive was purely visual; I was attracted to the hyper-color saturation and high contrast qualities of slide film from that era.


Are you familiar with Jason Lazarus’ project, Too Hard to Keep?


(I wasn’t until you asked and I Googled it.) It’s an interesting project. The donors know that their photos will have a new life and be part of a collection of similar photos, which might be a comforting way to purge. It also reflects current trends of people being extremely public about their lives through photographic curation on social media — the donors know that their hard to keep photos might be showcased on Lazarus’s website or in a gallery. I’d like to hear Lazarus’ reasons for choosing to be curator of such a collection.


The state of photography in 2011:


Photography has of course changed many times since its inception. And with each technological advancement — the Brownie, Kodachrome, digital photography, and the camera-phone, the technology becomes more accessible and it feels like a radical shift each time. But the way that people use it to manipulate the ‘truth’ hasn’t. Early examples by Henry Peach Robinson, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Timothy O’Sullivan have had innumerous successors over the century, not excluding Instagram users of today. Artists and everyday image-makers using isolated photographs to manipulate the viewer’s understanding about an event, person, or idea is the foundation of my attraction to using photography in my work. I see the hand-created surface embellishments in my works as a response to photography as a highly manipulative medium.


Keep up with Kelly Hider’s work on her website