Friday, June 21, 2024

Portraits of youth inspire coming-of-age stories in evocative art exhibit

“Tish” by Carolyn DeMeritt was captured in 1986 and is part of CAM’s permanent collection but also was the impetus to create a new series of work with local writer Margo Williams, who penned stories based on DeMeritt’s photographs. (Port City Daliy/Photo by Carolyn DeMeritt)

WILMINGTON — What’s it like to be a little girl during the formative years of emotional maturity? 

Two artists tackle the concept in an exhibit, “Flying While Falling,” on display through Oct. 1 at Wilma Daniels Gallery at Cape Fear Community College. CFCC’s English department chair and writer, Margo Williams, has joined forces with Charlotte photographer Carolyn DeMeritt to present 19 black-and-white photographs taken between 1986 and 1990, paired with 14 stories of flash-fiction inspired by the imagery. 

DeMeritt documented 10 girls, sometimes multiple times a year, from late childhood into early adulthood, in an effort to capture their spirited youthful essence and beauty, maturity and inevitable growing pains that follow. “When children are growing into adolescence, it’s fascinating in so many ways,” DeMeritt said. 

The finished series, titled “When I Was Little … I Thought I Could Fly,” traveled to various exhibits over the last 30 years, from the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington to Spirit Square in Charlotte.

In December 1987, Cameron Art Museum purchased one of DeMeritt’s pieces, “Tish,” for its permanent collection. In 2016, it was pulled from the vault as part of the exhibit “She Tells Her Story,” which paired a piece of female-created art with local female writers penning stories in response.

That’s where Williams and DeMeritt’s paths first crossed. Williams was asked to participate in the exhibit and immediately connected with “Tish.” The photo features a freckle-faced, soaking-wet girl, fresh from the pool in her swimsuit, with her hair slicked back and arms crossed. A neutral facial expression shows neither joy nor anger — perhaps a hint of solitude.

“As soon as I started writing about the little girl, her story just hit me powerfully,” Williams said. “And I felt that I knew who she was — and that I knew what her problems as well as her strengths were.”

Williams wrote “Girls are not Tadpoles,” an imaginary story about a day in the life of Tish, living through the summer heat of innocence. Some of her most prized possessions — a leather beaded bracelet her father made and a handful of tadpoles in some mason jars — are traded in for a lesson in bullyish friendship. 

As a professor of writing at CFCC, Williams said “ekphrasis” — using art as a literary device for inspiration — is a good way to challenge writers, something she not only embarks on in this project but also uses as a tool in her classrooms. Writing in response to “Tish” resonated so much with the writer, she decided to reach out to DeMeritt to evolve the one-off collaboration into a whole collection.

DeMeritt agreed and turned to Williams to help choose which photos to include in the series. “It was really about what Margo responded to in her writing,” she said.

The two ladies have been preparing the art exhibit for Wilma Daniels for years now, even working through a few Covid-19 postponements. Still, the excitement for the project never waned, neither did inspiration for its subject matter, according to Williams.

“As soon as I finished one story, the next girl’s story just came to me,” she said. “It sounds sort of cliché, but I felt like I was channeling the girls. They feel like some part of myself, as well as totally fictional beings. But it is the beauty of those photographs that brings the story to me.”

“Tish and Caitlin” was captured by Carolyn DeMeritt in 1986 and local writer Margo Williams penned “Falling in Love Like Little Girls Fall in Love” as part of a new exhibit at Wilma Daniels Gallery. (Port City Daliy/Photo by Carolyn DeMeritt)

Creating bonds

DeMeritt was a ceramicist before she began her passion for photography 40 years ago. A decade before Richard Linklater thought about filming his 2014 award-winning “Boyhood,” DeMerritt had the idea to capture her sons’ youth and growth into early manhood through a series of still photos.

She obtained a medium format camera with an “ancient old twin lens reflex” that produced a bigger negative for better detail, she said. DeMeritt signed up for a photography class at a community college.

“I stumbled into it not realizing it was a darkroom class — and I fell in love,” she said.

The photographs she ended up taking of her sons just weren’t working out, DeMeritt recalled. One day while visiting a friend, an impromptu swim party among the children turned into a photo shoot.

“I put a backdrop up in a tree and said, ‘Hey, get out of the pool,’” DeMeritt explained. 

One of her first images featured two young girls, Tish and Caitlin. They had emerged from swimming, leaned into each other, with loose hugs and slight smiles, to reveal a bond of mischief. 

“I was seeing my childhood in these girls in certain ways,” DeMeritt said.

Once Williams saw the photo, she knew it was a perfect followup to the story she wrote for CAM’s “Tish.” She churned out “Falling in Love Like Little Girls Fall in Love” (also the title of her flash fiction series) in response to DeMeritt’s “Caitlin and Tish.”

The story follows a tight friendship of two youthful girls who are learning what it means to have a voice, be a little rebellious, push the boundaries, and look out for one another. The story was published in the Journal of Arts and Letters in 2018 and went on to win the journal’s prize for excellence in the flash discourse category in 2021.

Each piece of fiction Williams wrote for “Flying While Falling” ended up between 300 and 500 words, to be read alongside the photos as stand-alone pieces. Though when processed as a whole and read sequentially, as Williams formatted in the exhibit, “it adds a layer of understanding to the stories,” she said. “You will see that they have a fluidity and that they interconnect, and the lives of these girls intersect.”

Williams called the process “magical” — different from her previous works as a playwright or novelist, which often demands more time and energy because it has more characters and scenes.

“Here I was revisiting more of the emotional side of the age rather than the actual things that happened in the stories,” Williams described.

The pops of fiction, she said, are metaphorical much like poetry. They also offer up snapshots of recurring themes of love.

“I believe that we learn about love at that age in a way that is different from early childhood love,” Williams noted. “And a lot of it is love for other little girls. You know, we learn how to navigate jealousy and passion, and all kinds of difficulties as you are coming of age. And I feel that no matter what age I become, even if I lived to be 100, I feel like that time in my life I’ll never ever forget.” 

Though the art forms were created 30 years apart, the women said the work is lasting. It also forged an artistic bond that continues to boost sisterhood, much like the imagery itself alludes to.

“My goal was always to let the girls have a good time,” DeMeritt said of her process. “So they would want to keep doing it. They would call me up and say, ‘I have a new cat — can you photograph me with my cat?’ or ‘My best friend’s in town.’”

“Flying While Falling” will be on display for a month longer at Wilma Daniels, but it’s not quite the end of the road for the project. Williams has a goal to write six more stories based on DeMeritt’s series. She also would like to see “Flying While Falling” picked up by more galleries and museums, and ultimately publish the works together in a book.

“I kind of envisioned it as one of those lovely coffee table books that start conversations,” Williams said. “And I think both men and women can relate to this, but I definitely feel that women will more strongly identify.”

“Flying While Falling” is open now at Wilma Daniels Gallery, Monday through Friday, noon – 5 p.m. There will be a Fourth Friday reception on Aug. 27 and a closing reception Sept. 24, both hosted from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Williams will be in attendance to talk about the work with viewers.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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