The Power of Imagination Through the Lens of Kathy Curtis Cahill
By Genie Davis
Make Believe is on view at Keystone Art Space through February 4th
Photographer Kathy Curtis Cahill has created a magical atmosphere through her exhibition Make Believe at Keystone Gallery. Using dolls as her subject, Cahill’s artistry is all about transformation. She turns the dolls themselves into believably life-like child surrogates; she presents her subjects dressing up and transforming themselves into super heroes, mystical creatures, and animals and she transforms her viewers’ perceptions of childhood.
In an earlier series and exhibition, Memories and Demons, Cahill’s work was darker.
“This exhibition is a direct counterpoint to previous work dealing with childhood trauma. I’m dealing here with imagination, which kids use to escape trauma. They escape by pretending they are someone else, somewhere else,” Cahill asserts. “The imagination is extremely powerful. These works are all about the joy, the amazing freedom of the world children have before age five, before you’re rated, judged, and classified in school, when you’re just stimulating your imagination at home and before there are rules of behavior that are defined.”
Make Believe is a much more playful, happier series, and yet a ribbon of dark undercurrent remains, creating a poignancy that will attract and arrest viewers. Determined to raise awareness about the vulnerability of children, Cahill, an Emmy nominated film and television set decorator for over thirty years, uses her dolls to inspire, illuminate the joy and escape of childhood fantasies.
Her evocative work here was primarily created in a variety of settings in Los Osos, Calif. “No one pays attention to you when you walk out the door with a camera, a tripod, and a bag full of dolls,” she laughs. “In Los Angeles, someone is always asking what you are doing, and telling you not to shoot near their house.”
Cahill “always uses natural light, and bounce-board diffusion.” Working alone, she waits for inspiration to strike before staging and photographing her subjects. “There were times I would be very inspired, and other times have nothing,” she relates.
The artist is looking for the “real” when she creates her photographs. “I did fake for years as a set decorator,” she explains, but here she is looking for something deeper. “I like to find the right doll and the right light. The dolls are cast.”
A large installation takes up one wall, featuring her doll subjects artfully arranged on shelves, along with some stuffed animals and other children’s toys, many of which she used for props in this series.
“One of the reasons to put the dolls in the show is to answer viewers’ questions about manipulation. I don’t change or alter the dolls. Antique dolls were not created in a cookie cutter fashion.”
Cahill notes “Dolls and stuffed animals are the first things we identify with ourselves other than our mothers. They come alive; you imbue them with that quality of life. Each of these dolls and animals symbolizes a child to me, and when I look at them it makes me happy. It reminds me of the joy of being a child.”
Dressing her doll subjects in costumes also brings Cahill pleasure. “It’s the ability of a child to put on a hat or a jacket and become something else, playing dress-up in dad’s shoes clomping around being the authority figure, or putting on mom’s high heels. Seeing the dolls helps people see how I translate that into my pictures.”
Throughout the exhibition are spaces created to resemble 1950s era living room furnishings as well as more modern, 1970s era furnishings. Both relate to the two strong threads in Make Believe. Works represent both her childhood playing with her brother, just 14 months younger than she was, and her own son’s childhood from these time periods. “Anytime you see a work with two children that’s me and my brother,” she explains. “I feel my strongest work relates to my memories.”
The artist’s work is hung throughout the homey setting as if the photographs were family photos placed casually around their home. The exhibition is full of stand-outs. There’s “Grrr,” a beautiful image of a child surrogate/doll dressed in a bear costume – something Cahill’s son used to do; and “Trick or Treat!” an incredibly life-like image of two children in skeleton and witch costume cheerfully trick or treating on a doorstep. “Soldier Boy” shows a small boy playing with army figures, much as Cahill and her brother used to do. To enter Cahill’s world is to recreate viewers’ own childhood magic.
Explore this evocative work at Keystone Gallery, open daily, at 338 S. Ave 16, Los Angeles.