Blushing, 24” x 20” color photograph. Jane Calvin, copyright 1996.

STUFF IN THE ATTIC

Jane Calvin ’59 doesn’t take photographs. She makes them.

By Alicia Bessette

Jane Calvin’s photography studio is her attic. It’s appropriate, since her photographs portray toys, old dresses and shoes, used domestic appliances such as television sets and telephones, 1950s movie posters, magazines, playing cards, kitchen utensils, beat-up furniture, and books—all things people retire, render to attics and then to junk and antique stores.

That’s where Calvin retrieves them and puts them to use again. A fine art photographer from Chicago, she exhibits in galleries and museums across the country, including recent shows at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Chicago Cultural Center. Her work has been shown as far away as Greece and Japan and is in the permanent collections at the Detroit Institute of Art and the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts.

From a payphone at an artists’ refuge in rural Illinois, Calvin discusses her current props: small, rusted farm implements she describes as pointed, barbed “uncomfortable looking things that people used to hang corn on to dry, I think”—also saws, knives and animal traps. “Usually,” says Calvin, “when I go out for more props to photograph, I’m not looking for specific objects. I let things draw me in. They generate ideas.”

Calvin is not a commentator or a capturer of real life or truth, as many photographers would call themselves. Rather, she is a creator. In her words she makes photographs, she doesn’t take them; she is a maker of meaning, not an observer of it. “I construct imagery,” she says. “I invite the viewer to attach his or her own meanings and stories to the photographs.” In effect, Calvin asks viewers to come to terms with their own memories, with all that stuff they’ve thrown into the attic, through haunting, satirical and evocative images layered on top of one another within one frame.

Looking at her photographs is like looking into a kaleidoscope that’s been frozen still, or at a prism that’s been flattened. She achieves the effect by projecting slides onto props which she sets up in her studio. Then she photographs the resulting assemblages, making a very layered image. Sometimes it takes weeks to produce just one.

“My work is intellectually challenging because it’s dense and complicated and layered,” she says. It’s also challenging because it dishes up the past and explores issues difficult for many people to ponder: female identity, childhood experiences, love, gender and sexuality, mystery and menace.

Recently, too, Calvin has been incorporating text from etiquette and grammar books in her photographs, exploring the themes of rules, conventions and self-expression. “One of the things that interests me is that when you put text in a picture, the visual changes the verbal and the verbal changes the visual. How you look at things in the picture changes according to the text and vice versa. In some of the pictures you can’t exactly read the text; you just get fragments of ideas.”

A fragment of an idea was exactly what started Calvin’s career in fine art photography. She took a drawing class in her late 30’s. Art was always something she enjoyed; she was a history of art major at Bryn Mawr. “My drawing teacher told me to take a photography course,” she says. “I thought that was funny because I didn’t even own a camera. I said, ‘Is my drawing that bad?’ But he thought I would like it. And having the camera frame little bits of the world was really interesting to me. I kept on getting more and more involved, and I just loved it. So finally I went for an MFA. I had chosen photography as a medium—or rather, it had chosen me.”

Science was an early influence
“Although I’m not a scientist, it seems to me that good ideas come in the same way to artists and scientists—by accident, seemingly from nowhere. Intuition plays a part,” Calvin says. She has probably absorbed more knowledge about science than she realizes. For seven years she assisted a curator of land snails of the South Pacific at Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. She describes her work there as “extremely visual,” making charts and graphs, sorting shells. “We identified species by looking at the shells of these little tiny snails under a microscope. How the shells looked—shape, size, color—was so important. Once the curator dissected them he would lay them out and look at them and compare them visually.” These images stayed with her when she first started making her signature photographs in her 40’s. Her very first props included plants, dead fish and small, dead birds. “Organic stuff. At one point I was taking pictures of rotting food. Rotting food is quite beautiful, with the mold and everything.”

An intuitive quest
Like her photographs, Calvin’s psyche seems layered, multi-dimensional. Just when you think she’s arrived at her last sentence, she pauses and then starts talking some more, finishing the thought to the end. Her way of speaking is intuitive, spontaneous, meandering. Her approach to making art is similar. “Art has to evolve as it goes along,” she says. “If I knew how a picture was going to come out before I started to do it, there would really be no point in doing it. You start with intuition and work from there, figuring everything out as you go.” And that, she says, is a departure from what she calls “Bryn Mawr thinking”: “Bryn Mawr is one side of me, the intellectual side. I will tell you something about self-discipline: I learned it at Bryn Mawr. I never had it before college. I never needed it. Also, no school has seemed difficult since Bryn Mawr. No school experience at all. Nothing. Self-discipline is so important to an artist. Take art colonies, for instance. They’re really beautiful, and they look like resorts. But it’s a bunch of people working in their studios. And nobody’s telling them to do anything. You could stay here and sleep for four weeks straight. It might help your art anyway! So it’s really up to you to do the work, to push the work. Bryn Mawr gave me a sense of how that works; it forced the issue.”

Teaching
Calvin has been teaching photography part time since 1985 at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Beloit College, Illinois Institute of Technology, and Columbia College, an open-admissions school in Chicago. The biggest challenge facing a teacher of photography, she says, is teaching anybody how to make art. “That’s a strange situation to be in.” Another concern is “deciding what you’re really preparing the students for when they get out. Art is not very practical in many ways, not only job-wise but in the lack of available facilities. So we try to give them usable skills—some students learn how to assist commercial photographers.” One student approached Calvin wanting to assist her and has since taken on the role of Calvin’s agent and publicist, creating press kits of her work to send to galleries and museums. “Together,” says Calvin, “we’ve gotten me quite a few shows like this, all over the country.”

An artist’s life
Calvin finds that life, like her artwork, has multiple layers. “An artist’s life,” she says, “divides up into three areas. One is making the art. Something that you just have to keep doing, keep working at it. Another area is the career part of it. Getting the work out, teaching, something to make money and put you in the outside world. For example teaching puts me in contact with what’s going on in my field, and that’s very important.” Calvin also keeps abreast of her field by curating, which she did most recently at the Rockford Art Museum in Rockford, Illinois. Another of Calvin’s recent forays is working as an audio-visual designer for playwrights and theater owners, creating advertisements and slides to be projected on stage. And the third area, says Calvin, is managing a personal life. “Those three things you just have to keep balancing.”

Lately, Calvin has been thinking about her future. “My career goals are to expand my presence in museums, public spaces and other non-commercial venues,” she says. She’s also a role model to her daughter, a photojournalist. Although their photographic styles differ, they enjoy going to exhibits together and bouncing ideas off each other. “I am understanding of her struggle to make a living from her art,” Calvin says. “And I am proud of her.”

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