Stitching Montage and Narrative
Interview by Jennifer Nelson, WTP Feature Writer
Teresa Meier is an artist and teacher from Oregon whose creative photography has been exhibited internationally and published in Communication Arts.
All her life, she has loved puzzles. She likes sifting through the pieces, analyzing their parts and finds immense satisfaction in seeing how all the pieces fit together. For her, a photograph and a concept is an elaborate puzzle that puts her in remote landscapes at dusk, wandering through antique stores, building in the woodshop, sewing a new costume, and recently, returning to hand-drawn illustration.
Her imagery is not meant to be viewed small, as she has an affinity for detail and vast, sweeping landscapes. She prepares these large works for printing through “stitching,” a Photoshop process that requires a custom-built computer.
She’s a photography instructor at the Art Institute of Portland and founder of Light Box Laboratories, a program dedicated to serving underprivileged and at-risk teens. She earned an MFA in Photography from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco.
Nelson: When I view your artwork—featured in November’s Vol. V #9—I think of Surrealists Salvador Dali and Magritte, but also of Alice in Wonderland. Can you comment on artists who may have influenced your photography and whether fairytales play into your creations?
Meier: Let’s not forget Frida Kahlo. Surrealism and magical realism as inspirations are highly influential in my work. I’m drawn to how the two genres can reveal intangible, complex truths through metaphor and unlikely juxtapositions. I love Magritte’s sense of humor and his ability to expand my awareness of things, to surprise and delight me. Kahlo, being a self-portrait artist as well, has also been very influential, though self-portraiture originally resulted from a lack of confidence and an inability to articulate myself. By working alone I was able to work at my own pace and solve visual problems without having to direct another person—this was crucial for me. I realized that I focus best when in motion and that my problem-solving process is very kinetic. I need to move myself and things around in space in order to to problem solve, and self-portraiture allows this process to happen uninhibited.
Kahlo did teach me that your life is a rich source of inspiration, a well of authenticity that others can relate to. So while my picture’s subject matter is literally me, I’m not the actual subject matter. Which leads me to fairytales—Alice in Wonderland is one of my favorites. I own multiple copies and illustrated versions of the story and die laughing every time I watch the tea party scene from the Disney rendition. I love the fun and insanity. I get a lot of joy out of fairytales and love immersing myself in them, but they also provide a way for me to make my story universal.
The elements of fairytales and myths are universal, meaning you see the same basic structure in these stories the world over. The content, of course, changes, but the underlying concepts and archetypal characters are always the same. Freud called it our collective unconscious, and there are many theories as to why this is, but that’s for others to worry themselves with. So by using the fairytale structure as a framework for the imagery it becomes universally accessible in its message. The concepts in the work are things that we all struggle with—home, family, identity. And while the content is specific to me, by presenting it in this way, people can relate. It’s this duality of finding the universal in the personal.
Nelson: I find it fascinating how you integrate into your work pictures from your childhood, including your tabby cat and family photos, juxtaposing them with vivid landscapes. Can you elaborate on how your childhood living in a suburb, yet venturing into rivers and forests, has impacted your artwork? As well as perhaps how familial relationships have influenced you?
Meier: My childhood was very chaotic and my family history very colorful and, ultimately, fragmented. It has indeed been a source of inspiration and an impetus for much of my work. That’s the wonderful thing about art—you make beauty out of chaos.
My family split up when I was five and we moved from the only house I’ve ever thought of as home when I was six. I have incredibly vivid memories from that house despite being so young when we left. I suppose they’re the only memories I have of home that are attached to a structure, so that structure stays in my memory, ready to resurface in my imagery. My brother and I drove past it a couple weeks ago—it’s been painted, but is otherwise remarkably the same.
The house is in Salem, Oregon, where we stayed and where I grew up, and resides in an older neighborhood. When we lived there, there were large fields and brambles for exploring, and a cemetery with a pond where we’d catch newts. We moved frequently for many years following to various new subdivisions, which I never liked in their oddly perfect symmetry, cookie-cutter houses, and lack of nature. I don’t know if it was out of a sense of displacement, but the north fork of the Santiam River became a refuge for my family. This little section of river became a substitute home, a point of return in absence of a house. As in fairytales, nature became a refuge and place of safety and peace. I think both experiences influence my art making. Nature is predominant in my imagery; however, I find myself imposing order and symmetry in a manner not unlike that which I found in suburbia. That duality there is something I’ve only just begun to explore.
Additionally, being the youngest of seven, I found myself in the odd situation of everyone else growing up and leaving while I was still working at it. So my work has this element of alienation and loneliness that we all encounter in one form or another. It’s something that tugs at my mind and leaves me in that rich artistic space where sorrow and beauty intersect.
As far as the tabby cat is concerned, when I was around ten my brother gave me a very young kitten whose mother had been killed so that he needed to be bottle fed. Naturally, we developed a very strong bond. I named him Tigger, and he stayed with me until I was thirty. So a very long time. He was a great source of comfort to me, and I couldn’t imagine telling my story without him in it. His companionship was a real gift in my life, and I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to. About two years before he died, my mum, concerned for me, gave me two new tabby kittens. Tigger seemed to enjoy them, so I kept them, and one is still with me. A couple years ago, I got her a large black cat whom we named Richard Parker. They follow me everywhere and seem to enjoy the picture taking, and I’m forever grateful for the company.
Nelson: Can you explain the printing process for your large prints, especially the Photoshop technique of “stitching”—one necessitating a custom-built computer that you call Thor?
Meier: I use an older digital camera that has the capability to make a decent 11” x 17” print in terms of resolution. However, I’ve never worked that small. When I draw I like to use big gestures, so again, I’m very physical and just use a lot of space when making art. I also push my materials (and most everything else) to their limits—I can’t help feeling for the edges of things. I also love detail, and making large prints allows me to indulge this in a way that wouldn’t work in small prints.
Photoshop has a panorama feature wherein you can stitch together multiple frames to create a very large image with the necessary resolution to create a large print. Montaging with these large panoramic files results in very big files, 30-40 GB, which require a lot of computing power. My amazing man is computer savvy and built a custom computer for me specifically designed to handle these monster files—we named it Thor as it’s a beast of a computer. Before this, I was working with a 32GB Mac where every adjustment I made took thirty to forty minutes for the computer to process. So it was painfully slow and I wasn’t able to achieve the precision necessary for the work. Like I said, I like to find the limit of things.
Oddly enough, I go to all this effort to give the viewer an impression of limitlessness. In printing large-scale and mounting the image without a border or frame my goal is to maximize the feeling of awe and push the viewer right up to the edge of what is reality and what is fiction. These vast prints envelope you and push their way into your world.
Nelson: How exactly do you incorporate hand-drawn illustrations into your artwork, as well as decide when to utilize illustrations?
Meier: I started a new body of work featuring plants and animals of the Pacific Northwest that incorporates illustration. I have been experimenting with drawing the animals by hand and then scanning the drawings into Photoshop and combining them digitally with photographs of plants. I love to draw and my photographic library of animals is limited, so they seemed a good subject to start experimenting with. And who knows if I’ll ever get the chance to photograph a whale…
Nelson: Evidently, you use social media such as Instagram to practice your art and find new ways to create compelling images. Can you comment on the importance of this to your development as an artist?
Meier: Images like the ones in The Witness Within series take a considerable amount of time, so I make simpler images in conjunction with these elaborate photo montages to ensure I’m photographing regularly. This practice keeps me inspired and constantly pondering how to solve problems visually. If you think of it in terms of physical exercise, it’s what I do to stay in shape. Creativity doesn’t just happen. It needs to be practiced and honed. If you don’t develop discipline and a strict practice routine, your skill will atrophy and you won’t progress. Instagram provides a space to share this work.
Nelson: I understand you earned your MFA in Photography from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. How did this program impact your artwork?
Meier: I studied neuropsychology as an undergraduate and didn’t have much knowledge of art prior to my MFA studies. The Academy provided the support, direction, and time I needed to develop as an artist. Ira Glass talks about the creative gap—the gap between what you envision in your mind and what you actually produce. I didn’t have a creative gap, I had a creative chasm. The Academy not only taught me about art, its history, and its makers, but it also taught me discipline, which allowed me to slowly start closing that creative gap. I honed my skills technically, learned to work with intention, and gained the knowledge and tools necessary to work professionally as an artist.
Nelson: Your artwork intends to tell stories. You aim to send viewers on a journey to discover their own personal narratives. Can you comment on the importance of literature and storytelling to your artwork?
Meier: Stories are simply a way of making sense of life. We’re constantly telling ourselves stories as we navigate various life scenarios. They’re incredibly useful tools for decoding complex information. As I was saying earlier, the fairytale is a universal story that instructs us about various problems or experiences of the human condition—love, loyalty, loss, aging, fear, happiness, home, family, and so on. While I borrowed elements from fairytales in general, I focused on one specific story structure, the Hero’s Journey, for creating a narrative within the series. Joseph Campbell’s writings go into detail about the Hero’s quest as well as myths and how the two impact and play out in our lives. His writings were hugely influential in my development and understanding of story structure. I also read a lot of Neil Gaiman, whose stories inspire me to no end.
Nelson: How does your teaching photography at The Art Institute of Portland in Oregon and other institutions inform your art?
Meier: They say if you really want to learn something, teach it. It’s true, what they say. Teaching pushes me to be better, more empathetic, more understanding, more patient. Mostly, I love the freedom of experimentation in learning, and teaching allows me to be around that and indulge the risk-taker in me. I only hope that my students learn half as much as I do when I’m teaching.
Nelson: Please comment on your founding Light Box Laboratories, a photography-based art therapy program dedicated to serving underprivileged and at-risk teens.
Meier: Light Box Laboratories began as Photosynthesis, a project I developed with Laura Stanley, a prevention specialist with Trillium Family Services in Portland, Oregon. During my undergraduate I worked frequently with children, playing with kids at domestic violence safe houses, gathering data from foster care homes, juvenile sexual delinquent halls, and language development centers. I also led crews of kids on outdoor conservation projects.
Having this background of working with kids and teens from complex backgrounds made for a natural transition to working with at-risk and underprivileged teens in an art-therapy setting. Photography is a perfect medium for encouraging self-expression and building self-confidence. One of my main goals with the program is to teach teens about positive coping mechanisms, giving them the skills to make healthy choices for themselves. My time spent working in psychology showed me that preventative-type programs are highly effective and completely underfunded and underutilized.
I’ve received generous community support for the program, including a great gift from Wieden+Kennedy that allowed me to purchase six new dSLR’s for the program. However, it’s still a struggle to secure funding and run the program on my own, so I’m currently working on collaborating with Speak Mentor, a program targeted at immigrant teen girls. If we strive for supportive communities that give people the tools they need to navigate life, we will have much happier, healthier, and more diverse communities in the end. As Robert Adams said, and as I believe with my whole heart, art can help.
Nelson: What aspirations do you have for how your photographic techniques may evolve in the future?
Meier: Wow. Well, I feel like I’m just getting started. My montages used to be such a struggle, but now they come more easily, and I think that shows in the images. They feel less forced to me, and the tools used to make the art are becoming less apparent in the final images, allowing the emotive qualities of the work to really come through. I’m certainly not finished with The Witness Within series and currently have four new images under construction in Photoshop and several more sketched out waiting to be shot.
I’ve been sort of displaced for a while and had to put all my tools in storage, so I haven’t been physically building things or sewing anything since I started the series. So I’m looking forward to getting back to that, because like I said, I really enjoy the physicality of actually constructing things.
As I explore different methods of presenting my portfolio, I find myself getting into bookmaking, which I think is a natural progression for a series based in fairytales. And, of course, I want to make a giant book.
I’d also like to do more work with animals in the future because I just love them, but I don’t have any concrete projects yet. I read that chickens enjoy Pink Floyd’s album The Final Cut, sloths could care less if you fire off a gun near them, and jellyfish, though they have no brain, need to sleep—these things intrigue me, and I’m not sure what kind of project these snippets of animal facts will amount to, but they feel like something interesting and fun and wondrous. And I think we all need a little more of that.
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