By Emily Rosenberg
Hernease Davis, a photo-based artist, gave a presentation on her artistic process and art as a form of self care, in the Ecumenical Center March 1 sponsored by the Mazmanian Art Gallery and Arts & Ideas.
Her exhibition “...We’ll Have to Make New Love” in Mazmanian Art Gallery opened March 1 and will close March 30th.
Davis is a multimedia artist who uses photograms, cyanotypes on fabric, crochet, and sound
installations. She teaches in the MFA program of the visual studies workshop in Rochester, New York. Her work has appeared in numerous exhibitions, including the International Center of Photography in New York City, Tiger Strike Asteroid in Brooklyn, and now Framingham State.
She had also been featured in Front Runner Magazine and Lensculture.
Davis has been crafting her practice into a psychological space where she may safely confront emotional scars, Ellie Krakow, director of the Mazmanian Art Gallery said in her introduction.
Davis began the lecture by discussing her residency at Elizabeth Foundation in New York City. She said she and her fellow artists at the foundation were nicknamed the “quarantine cohort,” because they were the 2019-20 residents. As they prepared for an exhibition, the building locked down and they worked remotely for the first time.
In lockdown, Davis used her kitchen floor in her apartment to work on large canvas pieces, and a yoga mat in her living room to work on felt pieces, she said.
A cyanotype is a photo process, she said. She said what makes cyanotypes “unique” is that it requires UV light force to activate the chemistry that turns the surface a blue color. Then the photo is developed using water and non-toxic gasses.
A photogram is a photograph made without a camera by placing objects directly onto a light sensitive surface.
Davis said while discussing the process of making art, she likes to “accept the inherent mistakes and imperfections.
“I used to be a very meticulous – black and white – printer where controlling the process from beginning to end was extremely satisfying, and very important and it worked for me until it didn’t. And it kind of mirrored how my life was happening outside of the darkroom,” she said.
Davis then discussed her work “A Womb of my own (mistakes were made in development),” a series of photograms. She used the term “acute traumatic situations” to describe the experiences that led her to rethink her work.
She said the title of the series is a metaphor, but also describes what literally happened.
Davis pointed to a black and white photogram which expressed the outline of a woman’s body. She said this was created from a damaged photo negative from a roll of [lm she loaded incorrectly.
Initially, she was upset with herself but she decided to continue and made a contact sheet – a way of printing out the negative and viewing the exposures, she said.
“I realized that the frames that were the most damaged were my favorites.” Davis said. “I felt this visceral reaction of feeling like I failed myself, that I lost that image, but I now had an image that did not look anything how I expected.”
Some of the works in the series are contact prints, the size of her body, and large enough for her to lie down and “use the surface to deal with the acute traumatic situation” that was happening in her life, she said.
Davis said she blacks out her living room, and does what she needs to do such as pray, meditate, or listen to a podcast. Then when she is ready to lie down, there is a strobe light in the corner of the room that is wirelessly triggered. She said she does not plan what her body will do.
“It’s chronological but it’s also sort of like a journal entry,” she said.
Davis also discussed her piece “Charleston,” which she created in response to her anger about the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina in which nine African Americans were killed during Bible study.
Davis grew up AME so the description of the day was particularly upsetting because she could imagine herself there.
“So I made this piece in response to this rage that I didn’t know what to do with,” she said.
She added it was the first piece where she manually manipulated the paper.
Davis said often when she is creating photograms, she doesn’t know where the shadows are going or what it will look like until she develops it. Not caring about the order of the “chemistry” in the dark room process, freed her.
She also shared her crocheted blankets, which she said is another way she takes care of herself.
“It’s very soothing, it’s monotonous, it relieves my stress, it’s something I can do, for instance on the subway,” Davis said.
She said that improvisation in her crochet is another part of relinquishing and “letting go.” Some of her blankets use patterns, while others do not. She sings the song “Unraveled” by Bjork while crocheting to determine the width of the blanket.
Davis added the blankets are also like a self portrait because she crochets the foundation until it is her height.
The title of the show “...We’ll Have to Make New Love” comes from the Bjork lyric from the song “Unraveled.”
She said she views the lyric as a “return” to beginnings of the work she is making.
She added “Unraveled” is important to her because it helped her through her graduate school thesis.
“I sang the song over and over and over again to deal with my own anxiety and to deal with how uncomfortable it was to write about my own work,” Davis said.
“I can’t imagine feeling better about what this is but I know for me I will come through this and when I return, I’ll most likely be a very different person,” she said of herself as a graduate student.
Davis then discussed how she transferred her “intense emotional” space to display art. She said at exhibits she used pillows and blankets to create places of rest for people prior to the pandemic.
She finished her lecture by showing a video of a wall which she used as a canvas to repetitively write the names of two people who died at the beginning of isolation. Once finished writing their names, Davis wrote the names of the people who were close to them.
“This was a way to mourn,” Davis said. “It kind of embodies what’s happening in my work. There’s always something shifting, always something developing, always something changing and growing.”
Three students, senior studio art major Jenna Billiam, senior communications art major Carly Paul, and senior studio art major Jen Pencil then had the opportunity to interview Davis.
In response to a question about how long she had been developing her studio, Davis said she had worked on it for over 12 years and it has become a place of exploration.
She added sometimes it takes her time to make work. “I kind of stare at a wall for a really long time. I zone out ... sometimes it takes you some time to rev up and get your work done.”
Billiam asked Davis for advice on dealing with personal topics in their senior art exhibitions.
Davis said her parents do not approve of her work because of the trauma and situations it deals with. Her mother finds it “disrespectful.
“I realized there’s a lot of shame around choosing to be an artist and wanting to make them proud.
“And so I think if we do make such personal work, it’s more important – and also easier said than done – to do what is best for you. And to essentially dismiss and disregard any adverse feeling that anyone else feels entitled to have over your work.”