More than words can say

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Charlene Geiss gives an impromptu lecture Wednesday to eighth-grade advanced art students from Pagosa Springs Middle School while installing her “Passages” exhibit at Open Shutter Gallery.

By Ted Holteen Herald staff writer

On an average day, the Open Shutter Gallery is the kind of place where time flies if you walk in off the street to take a look around. This month, you might want to budget an extra hour to browse.

The current exhibits – Craig Semetko’s “America: E Pluribus Unum” and Charlene Geiss’ fascinating “Passages” – are as intriguing as anything that has come through the Open Shutter in recent memory. And that’s saying something because the Main Avenue gallery has an established reputation as a premier showcase for some of the finest photographers and photojournalists in the world.

The draw was exemplified earlier this week. While Geiss was hanging “Passages” on Wednesday in preparation for tonight’s public opening, a group of teenage girls wandered in. Within minutes, they had flocked to the Red Room, where Geiss’ collection of personal journals and photographs are on display. Geiss suddenly found herself conducting an impromptu lecture to a captivated audience.

“They absolutely made my day,” Geiss said.

The girls were part of Gail Hershey’s eighth-grade advanced art class from Pagosa Springs Middle School. Their enthusiasm likely be shared by all who view “Passages.” Geiss has been nearly a lifelong journal-keeper and has taught the art of journaling for the last quarter century. Much of that was at the Diarist Workshop in Santa Fe, where she taught her students to “write for health.”

The exhibit includes about 50 of her journals as well as photographs of the books. They essentially still-life photos, with the more interesting books standing in for the traditional fruit bowl.

Each is its own work of art; Geiss had each custom-made by an artisan book-maker, and they contain words, photographs, illustrations and mementos from a lifetime of global travel. Some of the books represent single voyages, including trips to India and Corsica.

“They became so visual because if you just write about issues and processing emotions and feelings in a diary, the book becomes dark and isn’t something you want to go to,” Geiss said. “With my background in psychology, I realized putting in imagery that was pleasing to the writer would change how the writer felt about the book and it wouldn’t be so dark. Most importantly, it gives it balance – imagery is about joy.”

On the topic of joyful images, the collection that Semetko hung last week in time for Spring Gallery Walk is one of the most entertaining I’ve ever seen at Open Shutter. Semetko’s story has been told; in 2011, he set out on an epic road trip, camera in hand, and photographed the good, bad and ugly of the U.S.

“It’s the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever done,” Semetko said May 10 during his brief visit. His travels rarely stop but he’ll return next week to explain “E Pluribus Unum” to a more attentive audience than the throngs that turn out for Gallery Walk nights.

As a former comedy writer, Semetko’s ironic and satirical eye make great photos. He has shot in the streets of Brooklyn, at a pornography convention in Las Vegas and at the famed Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. Semetko also is a student of history, especially as it pertains to photography, and he paid homage to some famous images, including Grant Wood’s painting “American Gothic” and Martin Munkacsi’s iconic photograph “Boys Running Into the Surf at Lake Tanganyika, 1932” with tribute images of his own.

The project unofficially kicked off July 4, 2011 – Independence Day – in Independence, Calif., and ended Inauguration Day, Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C. A photo of the Obamas dancing hangs in the show.

“The Latin phrase “e pluribus unum” means ‘out of many, one,’ and has been a de facto motto for the United States since its inception in 1776,” Semetko wrote. “In choosing it as the working title for this project, I wanted to show the diverse culture of America, while never forgetting that out of the many we are still one – each of us an American. The images you see here are a small representation of the 30,000-plus pictures I took while driving over 50,000 miles.”

Both exhibits will remain on display through June 20.

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