At the time I graduated high school, I had grand plans to attend college in far away places like...San Francisco...Denver, or...Boston. I spent a lot of time trying to get to those places and wishing I was living in a more cosmopolitan place.
I diligently studied the U of A bible (the catalog for my entry year) and set about taking the classes that were prescribed according to my major. There was an entry level drawing class that I ended up having to take at night because the others were filled by the time I got to register. I think that might have been the only art class I got to take that semester other than my first art history class.
That drawing class was taught by a cocky red-headed graduate student whose name I no longer remember. What I do remember was having to go to his studio at the end of the semester to retrieve my grade. He told me I was a "B" student, but since I had not missed a class and that I worked extremely hard, he would "give" me an "A." He asked me what my major was and I told him proudly it was art. I remember him saying that I had a very hard road ahead of me and that I might consider something else (i.e. I was not that good at what I had picked for a profession).
I never remember him talking to me personally in class or even really noticing that I was in class. I worked hard to complete my assignments and catch up with the other students who clearly had previous art experience. I didn't feel like I was valued or even mattered and his words of "encouragement" upon "giving" me my final grade did nothing to bolster my confidence. His cold words were intense motivation to me to work the hardest I could to do the best I could. I guess in some weird way, I wanted to prove I was just deserving of an art degree as anyone else.
When I first started taking art classes at Bama, painting and drawing were the only concepts I had of what "art" actually was. Being from such a small area in Alabama and growing up in a fairly rural area, my exposure to art was extremely limited. It was relegated to the illustrations in the family Bible, my illustrated children's books, the ceramics I did with my grandmother in the summer (hence the interest in clay, I suppose) and the painting of my grandmother that hangs in her dining/sewing room.
So, I was going to be a painter.
That is, until I took photography...Walking into the photography department was enchanting. I immediately saw an array of images hung on the pinboard walls. Students were lounging around in sunken couches instead of desks and chairs, chatting with each other. There was a buzz in the lab that I had never experienced in the other labs on campus. This lab on the third floor of Woods Hall looked lived in and it looked inviting. I had no idea I had found my space and my language.
Over the years, I grew close to my photography professor Gay Burke. She was a force to be reckoned with. She was the first person to insist I was a "woman" and not a "girl." That statement from her made quite the impression on me. She insisted I eat better even though she chain smoked American Spirit cigarettes. She pushed me to push myself and always inspired me to seek out new inspirations and to question the things I was most comfortable with.
Pretty soon, I realized I liked taking the source photos I was creating to help me with my painting a lot better than I liked painting. I felt that I was an individual--that my vision mattered. She knew my name! I can't say that about the painting classes I was taking. I never felt like my professors knew my name, much less cared if I came to class or created something special in class.
Gay made me feel special as a student. She stressed curiosity and pushed me to be the best printer I could be. After all, I had shifted gears and wanted to be Richard Avedon's printer upon graduating. Little did I know that the digital revolution would change everything about my future. And Richard Avedon would die pretty young.
She never showed me this polaroid photo of her posing for Walker Evans. But she did instill a love of Walker Evans and his work. I only found this image after I found out she had died on May 1st of this year. I cannot begin to express how very sad I was to hear of her passing. Just as I thought about a beloved uncle who passed late last year, I thought she would be around forever. Only now, do I realize that I won't get to show her this latest body of work I have created that will be exhibited at the University of Alabama's Sarah Moody Gallery in late August. I was looking forward to having her see the work and hopefully hearing that she thought it was "interesting"--a word often used to describe imagery she thought was either very, very good or too bad to begin to even critique.
As Gay's obituary chronicled, she was the mother of Alabama fine art photography. She was my mentor and my inspiration to become a photography professor. I can only hope that my career (and those of the many students she mentored) as a fine art photographer and as a teacher honor her legacy.
Looking at this photograph of Gay, I am reminded of the painting of my grandmother made so many years ago in Paris...both are glimpses into a life that I will never quite fully understand. Both are representations of beauty, grace and fiery curiosity. Both show someone at the prime of their life--with a full life just waiting in the wings.
My time in Selma has allowed me to rediscover myself as an artist and hopefully recommit to my career as a teacher. I think Gay would be proud, and I know she would so very be happy for me.