Thanks to Creative Loafing and writer Caitlin Albritton for their excellent, ongoing Femme Visuale series that profiles Tampa Bay women making art happen. The following excerpt is reposted with permission.
by CAITLIN ALBRITTON and first published May 31, 2017
When words fail us, visual storytelling permits an open dialogue between the narrator, the audience and the work itself. With an interest in stories from the past and historical photographical processes, it’s no wonder that Rebecca Sexton Larson has been working as the chief curator at the Art & History Museums in Maitland for the past five years. Catching up with the artist just as she transitions to her new position with the Arts Council of Hillsborough County as the Communications and Programs Specialist, Sexton Larson will be nixing a five-hour round trip commute to Orlando in favor for more time to work in her studio.
“All of my series are based some sort of storytelling element or narrative to them, whether it’s personal or one that I want the viewers to read into, but generally I’m more interested in having people read into the work. The very first works I did were these large, hand-printed pinhole photographs and that’s where my work started to turn into having a narrative. I was actually sewing the verses and clues into the picture, but I’ve gotten away from that. I’ve also moved away from working with color to just using the stark landscape then adding elements into it to project the story,” she says.
In Rebecca Sexton Larson’s dreamy photography, her composite images are developed from various personal stock pictures that are collaged together in PhotoShop to create one negative. “Hereafter” is one of her current series — three of which will be on display at the Tampa Museum of Art for the Skyway: A Contemporary Collaboration exhibition this June — that came about after her and her husband (who is also a photographer) bought an Airstream-turned-mobile studio about five years ago. They were contemplating a gallery, but didn’t know where they wanted it.
“We decided we could just take the gallery on the road. We teach classes and workshops out of it, mainly because we can have a PowerPoint on the screen over here, and have students sit over there. We can travel to multiple places, and then break to have lunch. Because my husband and I both do alternative processes, we have a pop-up darkroom which is one of those red ice fishing tents [QuickFish], so we have everything we need,” she says.
“We started going to these remote areas and camping. I was shooting tons of personal stock images that were mostly stark landscape series, leaving the foregrounds open or with trees arching over. I started playing with other images I had shot of structures, so I started building stories this way. This sort of goes back to my childhood. Since I was an only child, I would always make up stories to entertain myself,” she explains. “The series also came at a period when my father and several relatives passed away. I was the primary caregiver to my father and after he passed, the color had kind of exited from my work.”
Southern icons are noted throughout her work, since her Airstream travels have lead her from remote towns of Kentucky to cemeteries of South Carolina. Many of her works combine photos from distant geographical locations and compress that segregation into one picture.
“A lot of people see my work as depressing, or what comes after death, but they really aren’t. They’re just these magical environments that ask the question, ‘What if there’s a hereafter?’” she says.
Though Sexton Larson isn’t a Florida native (her father was in the military so they moved every two years), her “Forest Bathing” series is very Florida-esque, capturing lush, overgrown landscapes in black and white.
“Forest Bathing is based on a Japanese philosophy called shinrin-yoku that when you go into the woods, there’s a calming effect of being engulfed by the forest and environment that will bring your blood pressure down, boosts your immune system to fight disease and helps you focus better,” she says.
She is drawn to the bromoil process for creating her images, a historic process she uses in “Hereafter” and “Forest Bathing” series. Taking a black and white photograph, she bleaches out the silver print so there’s a faint image left. When put in hot water, the gelatin of the photo paper swells to the degrees of lights and darks so when she dabs litho ink on the paper, it inks to those varying degrees. She does this process up to seven times, then it will go back in the water to slowly build up values. Because of this, her images have a grainy, hazy look that captures a gentle uneasiness in her mystical scenes.
“Bromoil was an early process used by the pictorialists way back when. The supplies for that used to be readily available in the early 20th century, but not so much now. I think I tend to gravitate towards things that are disappearing or hard to get a hold of,” she says with a laugh.
Keeping her hand in the process of creating her photographs is important, and makes her works more like mono-prints than easily duplicated pictures.
“I have degrees in photography and painting, so it’s a marriage of those two things. I’ve always had a hard time of just taking a photograph and leaving it alone. It’s like, ‘Oh, we can cut this out, or we could sew this back in!’ Because of this, every piece is an original. I can’t do multiples like a regular photographer because each one is hand-manipulated. I can use the negatives over and over, but I’m never going to hand paint or ink the same way,” she explains.
Sexton Larson is a USF alumna, where she studied under Bruce Marsh and Jeffrey Kronsnoble.
“I was getting my degree in painting, but I was finishing about a semester early. My dad had this fear of me graduating with a painting degree and wondering what I would do with that, so I got another degree in photojournalism through the mass communication department,” she says. “That’s where I picked up the photography since I really didn’t study it in the fine art department.”
Throughout her series, a dark spirituality lingers in her images, which seems to stem from her previous occupations before working with museums.
“When I graduated from USF, I got a job at the sheriff’s office in training. I would produce videotapes for the training of deputies, so I was exposed to that aspect of the world. After I left the sheriff’s office, I went to Moffitt when they first opened their cancer center to work in their education department, and eventually became their first medical photographer. For three years, I would go into the OR with the doctors and would document surgical procedures,” she says. “From there, I decided to go back to my art.”
Though she experienced tough circumstances in her jobs, the passing of family members had more of an effect on the subject matter of her work since it became personal. Despite her own intentions in the work, she prefers an open-ended read.
“I like the ambiguity of the work, and I intentionally do that as a stepping-off point for people. Many of my works can go in several directions, like the ladder in the hole can be read two different ways. For me, it probably goes back to my sheriff office days. For someone else, it might be about rising enlightenment,” Sexton Larson explains.
You can also see Rebecca’s work in the Skyway: A Contemporary Collaboration exhibition at the Tampa Museum of Art June 22-Sept. 24.
Rebecca joined the Arts Council’s staff in May as our Communications and Program Specialist.