abandoned spaces & stone masons

In 2004 I received an art residency grant from the Greater Columbus Arts Council to spend three months in Dresden, Germany. The time I spent in Dresden changed my life. I say this without equivocation, embellishment or exaggeration. It is the simple truth. My experiences in Dresden nourished an alternate understanding of who I am – as a person and as an artist. These emergent understandings of who I am immediately began to impact the manner in which I approached my photographic work.

The time I have had to devote to photography has always been secondary (or tertiary) to my job and life – it has always been relegated to the cracks and crevices of my life. This has been a long-standing source of personal frustration. The Dresden residency answered this complaint. Not only did the residency permit me time to think outside the box of my daily work as a trade unionist but, and more importantly perhaps, allowed me to forget the box itself. No longer did I have to relegate my photography to an hour or two on the weekend or a week or two of vacation. On the contrary, every day I awoke in Dresden and had only to consider what I intended to do photographically. The box was jettisoned. And, in so doing – I began to develop an alternate sense of myself. I began to see myself, for the first time, not as a trade unionist who dabbled in art but as simply an artist – irrespective of what I did on a daily basis. Hence, my self-perceptions as an artist began to deconstruct/reconstruct.

The impact of this process of personal reflection, challenge/change on my work cannot be overstated. Typically, I approached my photography loosely … I photographed when time allowed and chose convenient photographic subjects. And, while I have routinely worked on a series of related images and themes, time and convenience (and where I happened to be at the time) shaped my work. Visual choice, content and production have been a direct outcome of convenience and moments of opportunity.

This equation became nonsensical in Dresden. Time offered no constraint. The only constraint was internal … my imagination. When I first arrived in Dresden I had no photographic project(s) in mind. My overwhelming fear was I would be visually overwhelmed by the novel and would, therefore, find it impossible to make meaningful photographs.

This was the case during my first weeks in Dresden. Everything was visually interesting. Everything seemed a worthy photographic subject. However, as the novel became not only more familiar but also nurturing and the constraints of time were shed, I began to think and see as an artist. It was during this process of deconstruction/reconstruction that I found myself gravitating both intellectually and visually to two ideas for photographic projects. The attraction that I found in both projects emerged not only from what I have historically found interesting (as a trade unionist) but also from the very yin/yang process of deconstruction and reconstruction. The very process I found myself internally undergoing found a visual parallel externally in the work that I sought to produce.

The first project involved photographing the interiors of abandoned factories, houses, and apartments. As a trade unionist I am keenly aware of the devastating social consequences of plant closings. The industries of Dresden, and Eastern Europe as a whole, were ill prepared for the market economy tsunami immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Seemingly everywhere I went in Dresden and throughout the former East Germany, I found visual testaments to the socio-economic costs involved in this transition. Not only did I find these sites interesting in the sense of political economy, I found them stunningly visual and haunting. I became overwhelmed by the melancholia that hung in the dust of these rooms. Rooms that were so filled with life and activity were now so silent. Only dirt, refuse, space and light remain. Only ghosts remain.

The idea for the second project developed as I wandered through the streets of Dresden and thought of the total devastation of the city in World War II at the hands of the United States. I was amazed with the dedication and scope of the reconstruction efforts in Dresden. Altstaadt has been rebuilt to its former baroque glory. It has been a miraculous feat of love.

As I watched the various ongoing reconstruction projects, I began noticing a specific group of craft workers whose work I found to be emblematic of the reconstruction. It is through their labour that the preservation of the past in these stone buildings was made possible. This was work of the Stone Masons. Their craft, their trade was the first of the building trades in human history and literally laid the foundation of human civilizations. As I watched the preservation work of these skilled artisans, I realized that the direct knowledge of past generations of stonemasons guided their hands as they worked. Past, present, future are mediated in the hands of the Stone Mason.

It is said that all art is personal. I think such was the case in the selection of these two photographic projects. While at the time I failed to understand the connections between the choice of these projects and what I was personally experiencing, in retrospect it is so obvious – the abandonment, the decay, the deconstruction of East German factories, homes and apartments and the elaborate, painstaking reconstruction work of the stone mason are part of the same process. The very process I was (and am) personally undergoing.

As I stated earlier, I found my time in Dresden to be a fundamental life-shaping event. Not only did it prompt me to reassess how I want to personally structure my own life, it also allowed me to time to think of myself solely as an artist. Both are significant developments. Both are fundamental. And, for recognizing my work and providing me with the opportunity to pursue the residency program I wish to thank the Greater Columbus Arts Council.


One Response to “abandoned spaces & stone masons”

  1. Dallas,
    I just stumbled upon your site via a friend’s recommendation. This is the first page I have read/viewed and already I can tell I am going to enjoy it here.

    Thank you for writing this–I find it inspiring and understand completely where you are coming from. In fact, I felt very much the same way when I was in Berlin some years ago. I think it has partly to do with being out of one’s comfort-zone – sometimes embracing “otherness” forces us to look at things up-side-down in order to see them right-side-up. I am glad you found inspiration in Germany.

    I am also happy to find a fellow brother unionist who happens to be an amazing artist as well! I am a proud former member of UAW Local 1596.

    Take care, keep shooting!

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