Young at Heart
Secret Games: Wendy Ewald Collaborative Works With Children, 1969-1999 is a collection of photographs, stories and videos created by the grown-up artist Wendy Ewald and the young students she has worked with over the past thirty years. But the photographs on the walls of the Kemper Museum aren’t the sort of images our society has come to associate with children. They contain no bright colors; they are sometimes violent, often poetic and always brutally honest. Ewald’s work is about sharing, but there are no purple dinosaurs or big yellow birds.
Ewald began teaching photography to children when she was barely an adult herself. In 1969, she spent the summer after her high-school graduation working as a day-camp counselor on an Indian reservation in Canada. She wanted to record images of reservation life, and in addition to taking her own pictures, she asked the kids in day camp to photograph their homes and families. She quickly realized that, though they had been taken by untrained hands and eyes, the children’s work captured something that her more refined photographs did not. “The children’s pictures were more complicated and disturbing than mine, and closer, I realized, to what their life was like,” Ewald writes in the catalog accompanying her exhibition.
Perhaps 100 of these small black-and-white photographs appear in the Kemper’s show. The old pictures, slightly faded and worn with age, are grouped together on two big panels like a collection of snapshots tacked on a piece of poster board at a wedding or retirement party. Many are scenes of family or friends; they capture emotion in a fleeting smile or a disdainful glance from a disapproving loved one. In one picture, a shiny, round teapot rests covered in shadow on a windowsill. Two dilapidated houses in the background frame the teapot, and a telephone wire runs behind the lid. Angled from below, the shot creates the surreal impression that the teapot is larger than the houses across the street.
Ewald’s experiences on the reservation were only the beginning of her collaborative work with children. She would go on to spend seven years teaching photography to young people in rural Kentucky before receiving a Fulbright fellowship to continue her work in Colombia. Since then, Ewald has received several grants and commissions allowing her to photograph and teach in nine countries, including Mexico, India, South Africa and the Netherlands.
“I am a collaborative artist,” she tells the Pitch, “so I am making work as my students are. We are fellow artists.”
Yet Ewald also describes her students as companions. In the catalog, Ewald writes about the friendship she developed with Denise Dixon, a student from rural Kentucky. “Once, Denise and I talked for hours, stretched out on her bed, about her dreams and premonitions. We were like accomplices in a secret game. We knew, as photographers, that sometimes we had to trick adults into letting us take the pictures we wanted.” By placing cameras in the hands of children, Ewald allows her students to grow as human beings and as artists. “The students learn to express themselves in another medium that is easy to manipulate,” Ewald says. “They can also gain a sense of self-confidence by learning a new skill — one that the adults don’t know and often covet. They also gain control over what is photographed — a rare occurrence in many of their lives.”
In “Phillip and Jamie are creatures from outer space in their space-ship,” Ewald’s friend Dixon photographs her younger twin brothers, Phillip and Jamie, sitting side by side on an easy chair. The chair and the room’s décor are vintage ’70s: The chair is covered in velour printed with pictures of pheasants and flowers, and dark wood paneling covers the wall. As they sit in similar positions, the two boys wear identical outfits — long-sleeved T-shirts and dark denim jeans. Each rests one hand on an arm of the chair, the other in his lap, and their bare feet stick straight out toward the camera. But something about the twins’ faces seems odd: The two toddlers are wearing nylon stockings over their heads. The pantyhose distorts the boys’ features, squishing their noses and eyes and flattening their hair against their foreheads. Although they seem to be smiling underneath the nylon, the two children look foreign sitting in their living room. And though the image illustrates the boys’ lighthearted fantasy, uneasy undertones surface — they are, after all, sporting the haute couture of bank robbers. Did Denise Dixon catch the disturbing nuance in her younger brothers’ nylon-enclosed faces intuitively or purposefully? Either way, without the technical knowledge and encouragement she gained from her collaboration with Ewald, this bit of play and its subtext would have gone unrecorded.
Ewald has discovered that, regardless of their culture and geographical location, the kids she encounters share some basic things. “Being a child is a lot more complex than adults are willing to realize,” she says. “We rarely listen closely enough to understand that children see good and evil, peace and violence, beauty and ugliness for what they are.”
In “Sebastian was punished for eight hours,” Dominga Gonzílez Castellanos depicts a Mexican Tztotzil Indian boy tied to a stake. A coarse, thick rope winds several times around his arms and the trunk of his body. His face twists into a painful grimace as his shoulders and head slump downward. A rickety wooden fence and a pile of firewood appear against the cloudy sky and the gently sloping terrain in the background. Like the photographs made by the Canadian Indian children, this picture is composed in an unusual manner. In the upper left, the child and the stake slant stiffly and awkwardly to the right. The edge of the photograph slices off the top of the stake and the top part of the young boy’s head, calling attention to his violent expression.
This work exemplifies one of Ewald’s favorite assignments: She often asks her students to take pictures of their dreams and fantasies. In this case, the dream is a nightmare. “When the students did photograph their dreams, most of the photographs were nightmares or violent dreams no matter the culture,” Ewald observes. “They [children] many times do not censor images or ideas as adults have learned to do.”
Through her work as a teacher and an artist, Wendy Ewald has helped to create a body of work that challenges conventional ideas about the nature of childhood and collaborative art. “I hope that the viewers will see a new way of making art that is more complex than an artist recording a single vision,” Ewald says. Given the opportunity, Ewald’s students develop more than just pictures.