One of the defining characteristics of the artistic persona is curiosity; curious to a fault some would say. J. M. W. Turner strapped to a mast, sailing into the experience of a storm at sea; the great Leonardo working over corpses in the night to study anatomy through drawing; Keith Haring boldly turning blank subway advertising panels into urban pictographs because they were there. Each of these artists asking, “what’s that all about?” and coming up with answers to carry into their work. Some artists follow curiosity on a more circuitous path with many jumps and turns before they find their voice. Morris Hirschfield, the Polish American painter honored by the Surrealists, was over 60 when he began to paint. Roman Golla, his countryman and fellow immigrant, was 47. Yet, each artists’ innate curiosity about the world finally rested in a blaze of visual expression. I think of them and so many others whenever I encounter a body of work by a like-minded traveler, especially those outside the expected path to artistic recognition.
A few years ago, while exploring upstate New York, I came across some interestingly wonderful work by the artist Dee Sprague in the town of Ithaca, situated on the south end of Cayuga Lake. Mostly self-taught and, like Hirschfield and Golla a bit of a late bloomer, Sprague can be best described as a merchant of mirth. She explores the sweeter side of the imagination, the prime real estate of imaginative play: mermaids, maidens, and magical beasts. She sells online as the ‘Mermaid Messenger,’ and as such has plenty to say. Her use of line is clean and simple, with every small shape deemed worthy of attention and every color visually resonant. Like other artists of focused vision, the Mermaid Messenger is aware of the art around her, and references a wide range of sources from medieval illuminations to American folk art. She has a fascination with eyes, the “lover’s eyes’” she calls them. They can be found watching and waiting from a variety of painted seashells, occasionally adorned with gold trim and, sometimes, pearls. I admire Sprague’s work because I find the Mermaid Messenger to be both inquisitive and unafraid. Yes, many of her works have an undeniable feminine thematic, with fittingly appropriate mythic and magical elements, but each emerges from an authentic populism that invites and enchants.
Now, I must say, I have only seen Dee’s larger easel paintings of grumpy pigs, mischievous rabbits, and maidens online. What caught my eye and drew me into dialogue with her work was a well-lit display cabinet in one of those DIY antique shop co-ops tucked within an industrial strip behind an upscale grocery in Ithaca. In just about any corner of America, two basic types of antique shops can be found, those with one owner and those that rent out booths to a variety of dilettante dealers. The former often provide deeper quality and knowledgeable staff, but the later are more prone to surprises, especially when they selectively broaden their dealers to include related work by those who create as well as those who resale vintage items. Among the Mermaid Messenger’s painted shells, small sculptures, and objects sat a choice collection of hand-painted Victorian cabinet card photographs described as “Altered Art.”
Cabinet card photographs are a ubiquitous offering at American antique stores, having been produced in the thousands for the better part of the late 19th century. Early on, the process was slow and often required the sitter to remain in a fixed position for one to several minutes. Neck and arm braces were standard, even when sitting, and given the difficulty of maintaining any degree of nonchalance for a protracted amount of time, many early cabinet cards project a somber appearance, as if everyone just drank the same sour milk. By the early 1890’s and on through the turn of the century, film speeds became faster, lighting more predictable, and casual expressions, even smiles, were easier to capture.
Duplicated for family members and originally kept in albums, cabinet cards often arrive on the antique market unmoored from any familial context. As the individuals depicted are no longer remembered by name, dealers, erroneously and odiously, feel they can maximize profit by pillaging albums to sell the photographs separately by genre; soldiers in one stack, children in the other. For those of us who value historical context, this practice is akin to vandalism, yet it is so common as to be expected.
Rabbit Moon, Dee Sprague, Mixed Media on Found Photograph, 2020
Individually set adrift in a world that neither cares for who they were or what their story may be, and with not the slightest chance of reconciliation, the Mermaid Messenger takes these orphaned images, looks into their eyes, and imagines their “happy place.” With paint and no small amount of wonder, she enchants them back to life to join her menagerie of mermaids, princesses, goddesses, and magical animals. Like children dressed for a school play, they swim, fly, and frolic their way into the viewer’s heart as the Mermaid Messenger asks, “And what do you want to be today?”
Be Mine, Dee Sprague, Mixed Media on Found Photograph, 2020
Harry Hoffman, Dee Sprague, Mixed Media on Found Photograph, 2019
What is artistic practice without curiosity? It is a mechanical toy, unable to wind itself. It is a spring bulb, left on the shelf of the shed in winter. It is a bird on the wing, with nowhere to land. When I sent Dee Sprague an email to ask her about the stories behind her work, she admitted they are often known, but sometimes completely transform during the act of making. The “altered art” images are every bit of a discovery game for her. Though some may find painting over photographs of people long returned to dust a tad discomforting, she thinks of what they would want after being left behind with a way too serious expression on their face. It is as if she sees them and says, “What joy can be found here? And then, of course, there is the question of art and its life-giving properties. The Mermaid Messenger, appearing after Dee Sprague’s youngest child started school, brought a renewed purpose to her life. The “altered art” works, are, perhaps, a metaphor. Wrestling with pigment, medium and a variety of materials to breathe new life into a long-forgotten image is nothing short of raising the dead. May the Mermaid Messenger continue to speak.
Maude Mermaid, Dee Sprague, Mixed Media on Found Photograph, 2020