The first of Dana Lynn Harper’s “Field Guides” was born three years ago.
The colorful, three-dimensional form, constructed from textured yarn and orange and yellow flagging tape tied to a fishing basket, emerged over time, born of the grief the artist experienced following the death of her father.
Harper said early versions of these spirits, or souls, were more abstracted and monochromatic, taking shape in atmospheric, metallic collages she started crafting after her dad passed away five years ago.
Gradually, though, these creations started to become more outsized and colorful, shifting from the page and taking sculptural form – bulbous spirits that evoke colorfully furred bowling pins. Nearly two dozen of these are currently strung from the ceiling of the Vanderelli Room for Harper’s exhibit “A Little Too Much,” which opens at the Franklinton gallery on Friday, Dec. 9.
“My dad, it’s not like he was okay with dying, but he was at peace with it. Those last couple of months, he said he was the happiest he had ever been, which I found strange. But it made sense. He was at home, spending time with his family, and he didn’t have any obligations,” Harper said. “I’ve been making work centered on mortality since my dad died, but it took me some time to not be super sad. So, the work before was really quiet, where here I’m thinking of death as a release from life and the spirit lives on. … It’s a more joyous take, and it’s the first time I was able to be like, ‘Let’s use color again.’”
The multicolored spirits also capture a sense of vulnerability that Harper said she has gradually allowed to bleed into her work – a turning point arriving during her time in graduate school when she was serving as a mentor to a younger female artist.
“And one time we were just talking, and she said, ‘You know, just because you’re a woman, you’re not obligated to make art about womanhood. You’re not obligated to do anything. … You just have to exist,’” said Harper, who, at the time, was working on a series built around hollowed out eggshells, which she described as a commentary on the outsized role of motherhood in determining a woman’s value. “And nobody had ever put that so plainly to me. … And that opened me up because I could just be like, ‘Okay, I’m going to follow my desire.’ … It’s coming to this realization that the most influence you can have comes from sharing your story in a vulnerable way. And that’s how you change the world, because you find people who genuinely connect with the work, and then hopefully they’ll feel brave enough to go and make something of their own.”
The “Field Guide” installation, which fills the center of the gallery and presents an alternate world in which visitors can be lost, is complemented by two different series. The first, a collection of portals – some painted and others sewn from fabric or sculpted and then bejeweled with gemstones – hangs on the east wall of the gallery. A second series stretches across the north and west walls of the space and is composed of patterned drawings done by Harper amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Compared with the “Field Guides,” Harper said these drawings required a more academic approach. “It was like problem solving, or a math equation,” she said. “It was like, ‘Okay, if I have these colors, then I need another color to do this.’ And then I was also using jelly roller pens and puff paint – a lot of materials that some people don’t consider art materials – and reclaiming them.”
While Harper embraced a more mathematical mindset, most of the patterned drawings are constructed around organic shapes, and the artist said the series also became an exercise in “allowing things to be imperfect.” “It was focusing on the joy of painting and of color,” she continued, “because when you get lost in things being perfect, all of that joy goes away.”
The portals, in contrast, have a more direct tie to the “Field Guides,” existing as an extension of Harper’s exploration of the afterlife, and the portal that exists between this earthly life and the next.
“I’m thinking about how you enter the world, and then how you exit it,” she said. “The portals, in some ways, become these headstones, and death is the ultimate portal into something new. ... And then I also see them as places for me to escape, because I am an escapist, and a lot of times I think, ‘What if the world was different? What if I lived somewhere I was treated as a real person?’”
It’s this escapism that fuels Harper’s fondness for large, room-devouring installations that can make visitors feel as though they've stepped into an alternate dimension. “Ultimately I’m creating that escape for myself,” Harper said, “but then I’m inviting people in to have that same sense of release.”