One of my favorite January rituals is choosing a calendar to hang in our kitchen. More than a place to keep track of events and appointments, the right calendar can be a thing of beauty to admire every day.
For the past three years, I've been delighted to find photographer Gail Howarth's calendars for sale at Artsplace in Fremont. I've been a fan of Gail's photographs since I saw a collaborative exhibit of work by Gail and painter Renae Wallace at Artsplace a few years ago.
This year, Gail is donating profits from calendar sales to Mel Trotter Ministries, a Grand Rapids nonprofit organization that works with homeless people. Gail is also undertaking a photography and writing project with the organization. I've invited her here today to tell us about her work and this new project.
One thing that has always appealed to me about your photographs is the way you create extraordinary images from everyday objects and scenes—an old chair in a barn, a pile of driftwood, a rusty bicycle in a patch of weeds, a weathered fence post. What is your process for finding subjects for your photographs, and what do you look for in a potential subject?
I feel as though my subjects find me. It is true that I carry my camera most of the time and that I often have a goal in mind when I go out for the day. However, what is on my camera at journey's end is seldom what I planned. I photograph a broad range of things, as you mentioned. I am attracted to things old and broken, beautiful landscapes, and interesting people. Often, I travel the same roads or walk the same paths and see nothing of interest. Then with a shift of light, I see the location or an object as though for the first time. This fascinates me and keeps in a state of wonder and awe. A potential subject is anything that tells a story. My hope is that my photography not only be beautiful but also conjures memories or inspires the viewer to create a tale about the image.
What are some of the most unusual or surprising places you've found good subjects?
I love old abandoned places. This is not unusual these days, as there is an entire genre of photography related to "abandoned places". However, it is where I am most surprised and intrigued. First, my storyteller's mind is intrigued by the possibilities of why a thing or place was left behind. Second, I am surprised by what is left behind. A girl's saddle shoe, the curtains, an apron over a bed frame, a lifetime of someone's greeting cards scattered upon the floor, a woman's purse, and so on and so on. Some images are heartbreaking, yet oddly beautiful.
I was surprised to read, in the text on the back of your 2017 calendar, that you started out with little or no confidence in your skills as a photographer. What helped you grow and develop confidence in your abilities?
I have always had an eye for composition, but I thought my photography was ordinary. Honestly, it was my friend's comments on Facebook that made me believe I might have something more than snapshots.
Then Renae Wallace, a painter from Fremont, Michigan, began asking me if she could paint some of my images. Of course, I was shocked, honored, and so pleased. That eventually turned into our exhibit at NCCA - Artsplace: Of Time, Transition and Reflection. Words cannot even begin to describe how wonderful that experience was. Renae is a gem. A dream came true when Lindsay Isenhart said yes to the project. Everyone at Artsplace was incredibly supportive. Faune Benson Schuitema even helped me pick all the materials to frame and mat my work. The community came out in earnest to support both Renae and me. It was then that I knew I was on my way and felt like a real artist.
How have your techniques and approaches to photography changed over time?
My technique improved once I learned more about all the settings on my camera. Instead of just taking a shot and hoping for the best, I learned how to set the camera for the best capture. Additionally, I started shooting in RAW versus JPEG and picked up a couple of higher-quality glass lenses. I learned Lightroom and Google NIK for editing. I do have Photoshop, but have not yet learned it. Perhaps this year.
My approach is different, as I take more time with setup and take fewer images versus taking too many images and then sorting through for the best one. That was very time-consuming. I also ask for opportunities to photograph things that interest me. In the past, I would miss many opportunities because I was too shy to ask.
This year, you're donating profits from your calendar sales to Mel Trotter Ministries. How did you come to be involved with the organization?
I worked as a practice management software trainer for Patterson Dental. When Mel Trotter Ministries Dental Clinic purchased the software, I became their trainer. Over the years, I would occasionally be called upon for follow-up training. I felt at home with this group and felt strongly that their mission was important. I was moved by their conviction to help and I would think, if I ever left my job I would want to be part of this.
In early 2016 I began to feel more and more unsettled in the career I had loved. As the year progressed, I found myself thinking more about photography and writing and less and less about my job. One day when I was training the dental staff at Mel Trotter, I mentioned to Janice Keesman, Director of Clinics, how I was feeling. I told her I was considering leaving my job to pursue my passion. I mentioned that if they ever needed help, I would still like to be considered. That resulted in many discussions, and finally a job offer. I work in the clinic three days a week and spend the rest of my time cultivating my life as an artist.
In addition to donating calendar profits, you're working on a photography and writing project for Mel Trotter Ministries. Tell us a little about that project—what you're doing and what you hope to accomplish with this work.
This is truly a labor of love. The project is so important to me that I do it on my own time. Mel Trotter Ministries is an organization that serves the homeless. It provides overnight shelter, meals, residential programs, job training, counseling, the dental clinic, chiropractic care, vision, legal services, and so much more.
The project was born soon after I began working in the dental clinic. Patients often said the same phrases to describe what was happening in their lives. They went like this: No one hears me. No one sees me. I am invisible. I thought perhaps I could help. With my camera and writing skills, I could give them a voice, a face, and increase public awareness of homelessness.
Mel Trotter Ministries publishes my pieces on their website. I will be including the blog posts on my own site soon.
Additionally, I would like to create an exhibit for ArtPrize and/or other venues to increase awareness.
How has your work with Mel Trotter ministries affected you personally? As an artist?
One cannot work at Mel Trotter and not be changed. First, it has deepened my personal relationship with God. It may sound quite absurd, but I did not expect this. I think the usual things you might think: I am more grateful, considerate and have deeper compassion.
But, I would also say, I feel a bit more of a burden of responsibility in caring for those less fortunate. I find it difficult to leave the building between 4:30 and 5:15 pm. That sounds terrible, but I have a tender heart and my mind has a hard time wrapping my head around the extent of the issue of homelessness. That is the time when the homeless women check in for the evening. They wait in line and security goes through their sparse belongings before allowing them entry where they will receive a meal and bed for the night. I often see the same women day after day. There is no age limit. Some are very young and some very old. Some appear to be frightened, angry, resigned, and yet others quite joyful. And I wonder, where are their families, why does no one care enough to open their doors to these people, and what does the future hold for them?
As an artist, I would say it has been a call to action. I am one person. What can I do? I can and will use my words and camera to do whatever I can to help.
The photos of yours that I've seen in galleries and on your calendars have focused mainly on places, objects and wildlife/nature, and not as much on people. Your new work with Mel Trotter Ministries is all about people. Is this a new direction for your work overall, or just for this particular project?
I like photographing people, but not in a studio setting. Lighting with flashes, reflectors, and the use of backdrops is a mystery to me. The project at Mel Trotter is an extension of something I started in November of 2016. I began asking people to think about for what they were most grateful while I photographed them. I used the light that was available and processed the images in black and white. The result is a very raw image. Some people cried while others beamed radiantly. The first person I photographed for the gratitude project taught me that what I was asking was not a minor request. I was asking people to become vulnerable and to bare a part of their soul. I am grateful to those who participated. To be allowed a look into someone's soul is an honor and needs to be treated respectfully. This is what I hope to bring to the Mel Trotter Project.
What directions do you want to go with your photography in the coming year?
I would like to pair writing with my photography more often. I will definitely be reviving my neglected blog. The folks at Mel Trotter have asked me to also photograph and write about the volunteer of the month and have begun asking me to photograph events. I am hoping that Renae Wallace and I can begin another collaborative project soon and am open to collaborative projects with other artists, but there is nothing in the works. Perhaps this is the year that I will finally learn Photoshop.
Anything else you'd like to add?
My work is available at NCCA - Artsplace in Fremont and at MB Woodworks & Company and Market 41 in Newaygo. Online I can be found at:
I am also starting a small gallery by appointment at my home in Holton.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.