WILMINGTON, NC—Local photographer Melissa Wilgis blends a love for the natural world and antiques in the creation of her photograms, now on display as part of Art in Bloom Gallery’s “Manifestations of Colour and Form.”
Wilgis recently purchased at an auction a bunch of glass negatives from the early 1900s, featuring more than 100 snapshots of the Green family. Though little information is available about them, Wilgis was able to extract from hand-written notes on crumbling envelopes that held the negatives how the Greens were corn farmers in Illinois.
“I can piece together a few details,” she said. “The Greens had a clear matriarch. There wasn’t an apparent patriarch. Maybe he’s the photographer?”
The artist could see in the imagery that the Greens were financially stable, owned a nice house and farm equipment, as well as had educated children who attended school.
“They grew lovely peonies in a lush yard,” Wilgis added. “They may have had a pet opossum.”
Wilgis decided to work with the glass negatives to build a series of photograms in her darkroom using black-and-white gelatin paper. Photograms were popular in the 1800s, a process that includes creating photos without a camera. Instead, Wilgis places objects on light-sensitive photo paper and then captures the imagery with rays of natural light.
She has collected random objects throughout the years — antique textiles, glass baubles, dried wildflowers — to complement imagery of the Greens in this latest exhibit.
“Subjects were deliberately chosen and combined in an effort to tell a bit of a story, but still leave some things open to imagination,” she explained.
Wilgis’ “Frogs” features the Greens’ children in a class photo, surrounded by white outlines of frogs. Turns out, Wilgis collects deceased critters and utilizes their elements, like cicada wings, dragonflies and snakeskins, to accompany her subject matter. A few years ago, her dad scooped up the frogs from his driveway after a heavy rainstorm.
“They had dried nicely in the hot sun the next day and have been perfectly preserved for years now,” Wilgis explained. “I love those little frogs and use them often. I knew they’d be a good fit for the classroom photo.”
Wilgis rearranged the frogs around the negative to find the right composition. She also ran a few test images to figure out the correct exposure.
“The final print was carried through the full black-and-white chemical process, rinsed, dried, and flattened with a heat press,” she explained. “It’s an image that makes me smile, so I hope it makes others smile as well.”
Wilgis’ love for photography began while in high school in 1989 and continued through college. She worked for Eastman Kodak in tech support, sales and marketing before leaving her job for the corporate world. It wasn’t until a decade later, upon taking photography courses at Cape Fear Community College, she picked up her passion again. She began working as a darkroom assistant but left after she became pregnant with her daughter five years ago.
“When my daughter was about a year old, my husband completed the darkroom in our garage,” Wilgis said. “Making photograms gained traction for me during this time because it was photography I could do without wandering too far from my young daughter. She was and still is my regular, full-time job.
Wilgis has 10 pieces in the show, and is sharing gallery space with artist Gale Smith, who works in copper metal. Smith is featuring 12 sculptures in the exhibit; nine are woven copper and three are “curlers”—assemblages that look like ribbon curls. Smith cuts copper panels of various gauges and paints them before sealing and mounting them.
“The most challenging thing with using copper is cutting [it],” she says. “It takes a lot of strength to cut through the sheets, and puts stress on my hands and wrists.”
Smith happened upon using metal as canvas after being drawn to the way old masters would manipulate it. She began researching the practice, and after experimenting with the addition of oils, loved how copper interacted with the paints, seemingly giving off a warm glow. When woven, the copper creates a sense of movement, like a wave; when curled, it’s as if the ribbons bounce and sway, much like they do on a wrapped present.
“I like to create larger pieces, like ‘Desert Sands’ (42-inch-by-36-inch), because I’m able to manipulate the copper in ways that emulate the draping of a textile,” Smith said.
Smith uses every inch of metal, too, including scraps, as copper doesn’t come cheap. It runs upward of $2.98 a pound.
Nine of Smith’s pieces in “Manifestations of Colour and Form” were created over the last seven months during the pandemic—a time she said was difficult to maneuver motivation.
“My artwork requires a lot of planning before I even start to paint,” she said.
“If I saw Gale Smith’s or Melissa Wilgis’ art anywhere else in the world, I would know who created the art,” Art in Bloom owner Amy Grant said. “Their art is alive and different to each viewer.”
“Manifestations of Colour and Form” will be on display through December 6, and is available to view in a virtual gallery online or in person at 210 Princess Street, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and by appointment.