Photography Gallery

Deborah O'Grady: Crossings / Fragments

May 1 - June 13, 2010

Curated by Piro Patton

“There is another reality.  We’re right in the middle of it all, in the middle of this other reality.  It’s just that some people realize this other reality, and some people don’t.”

Betty Nitka, Lake Miwok elder, in an interview conducted in 2000 in Middletown, California.

These wise words are especially true when one considers the landscape.  Most of us are stunningly unaware of the stories embedded in the places in which we live.  Generations of people trod the ground where most Californians live, work and play today.  The stories of these people, both sacred and profane, create the screen through which crossings/fragments considers the landscape of Lake County.

“Crossings” is a term used to describe a particular letter-writing technique used during the 19th century when paper was dear and there was so much to tell.  Pioneer Lake County settler Susanna Roberts Townsend wrote letters to her family back in Boston and New York, with a beautiful script using both the horizontal and vertical axes of her precious paper.  These letters tell of the joys and hardships of the early settlers of this area – the birth of her daughter, the floods and plagues that followed, her thoughts on the Civil War that was raging in the east and the way people around the lake divided themselves into “secess” or abolitionist supporters.

“Fragments” are bits of Pomo mythology, torn away from the printed page and re-inserted into the landscapes from which they were born.  These myths, collected by Samuel A. Barrett in an anthropological publication from 1933, reveal the world view of a people whose consciousness was not separated from their surroundings, from the plants, animals and geology of their homeland.  These are sacred stories made sadly sterile when removed from their proper context.

One of the great ironies contained in the juxtaposition of the crossings and the fragments is that Susanna Townsend, who lived in this region during a time when there were still traditional story-tellers and people who knew how to harvest native plants and animals for their sustenance, made no effort to know these people or to learn from them.  They are never mentioned in her letters home.  They had been hunted, captured into slavery, and even slaughtered by the US military*, and so it was probably unthinkable to her that there was wisdom in their life ways.  The mandate of the white influx into California was always either to “civilize” or eliminate those first nations people.

So, in “crossings/fragments,” I would like to think that by allowing these stories to re-surface, we might be able to live with more awareness of this Eden that is California, to have more reverence for the history of this land and more respect for its elders and first citizens.  It is in this spirit that I have created this series.

Also in the gallery, a DVD  form of Dreaming Coyote – Dreaming the World

This piece was created for the “West Coast – Left Coast Festival” of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, held in November 2009, for projection in multiple locations in the Walt Disney Concert Hall lobbies.

My work has been seen most recently in Los Angeles, at Walt Disney Concert Hall, in Cologne, Germany and Washington, D.C., at the Encuentros Abiertos de Fotografia in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Maryland Art Place in Baltimore, Maryland, the Stockholm Konserthuset in Stockholm, Sweden, the Internationale Fototage in Mannheim, Germany,  the Berkeley Art Festival in Berkeley, California, the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center for the Humanities, the San Francisco Camerawork Gallery, The University of California at Davis and Photo San Francisco.  I created visual projection pieces for the world premiere production of the opera “Bitter Harvest” for the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and a suite of animated still photographs for the world premiere production of  “Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio” for the Phoenix Symphony.   I am currently working on a book of portraits of Navajo Code Talkers of World War II for Rio Nuevo Press, due out in early 2011.