Haunting homecoming 

Holly Andres makes her MAM debut with a lasting look back

For Holly Andres, the devil’s in the details. In the Missoula native’s upcoming photography exhibit, Stories from a Short Street, her large-format view camera locks in on specific memories of growing up as the youngest of 10 children. There’s Calvin watching television, Amber lying alone on an uncovered mattress, Ashley checking herself in a vanity mirror and Abby setting the table for Sunday dinner. But in each image, the child seems almost secondary to the setting. Above Calvin hangs an imposing trophy buck mounted next to a classic western landscape painting; Amber’s bedside table prominently features two antique dolls in formal attire; Ashley’s dresser is stacked with vintage beauty products; and antique platters covered in colorful Jell-O molds, deviled eggs and sausage and sauerkraut fill Abbey’s dining room table. Andres’ attention to her subject’s surroundings, the props in the periphery, and to precisely recreating the feel of her childhood house three decades ago, is stunning.

“I kind of have OCD,” she says with a laugh. “A lot of time and effort does go into transforming the space before I photograph it. In a way, it feels more like an art installation because often times I’ll paint the walls, hang wallpaper, gather furniture and props, et cetera. The installation can usually take several days and then once I get the models in there it’s more just a documentation of the scene.”

Andres, a graduate of the University of Montana, now lives in Portland, Ore., where she teaches film and art classes at Portland State University and the Art Institute. She often stimulates her creative process by shopping second hand stores and scouring yard sales, looking for objects she owned growing up. Stories from a Short Street evolved by finding a doll here, a painting there, searching Craigslist to fill in the blanks, and then taking free rein of a friend’s home to carefully compose the various collected parts into portraits of her past.

“Some are based on specific things I remember, but others are more loosely based on a time period, a memory, or certain behaviors or values that were encouraged or reinforced when I was a child,” says Andres. “When I think about a scene I try to juxtapose certain objects to create deeper meanings and connotations and associations. They’re not the same exact objects I had at the time, but they still convey the same feel.”

Andres got the idea for the series when she unexpectedly recalled a traumatic childhood experience. The memory came back when Andres, in an attempt to overcome a longtime fear of flying, decided to see a therapist who specialized in hypnotization. She was asked when she first felt the type of anxiety and stress she experiences on an airplane, and that took her back to a home perm she received at the family’s kitchen table. Her sister was hurrying to finish just before dinner was served when she discovered lice in Andres’ hair. Perhaps it was the pre-meal timing or her sister’s dramatic reaction, but a pretty routine discovery with young children turned into “my whole family completely freaking out.”

“As I was hypnotized, I could remember the smell of the perm solution and the smell of the potatoes and gravy on the table,” says Andres. “I could feel the way the lights were shining on my face and the way the tips of my fingers felt on the tablecloth. It was so real. I wanted to recapture that moment before the frenzy, just on the cusp of when my sister found the lice.”

The result became “Fiona I,” a photograph that seems to emulate “The Last Supper.” At the center is Andres’ character, barefoot feet dangling under the tablecloth and a blank expression on her face as her sister perms her hair. Five siblings surround a table filled with a casserole dish, a plate of green beans and the aforementioned bowl of mashed potatoes. Everyone seems focused on Andres, except for a younger brother playing with a toy cap gun. There’s no sense of the impending chaos. 

“In all of the photographs I was looking for the feeling that something is unresolved,” she says. “I want the viewer to think what led to this moment or what followed.”

Andres’ work has always examined the darker moments in her life. For instance, Dandelion, a short lyrical film about the death of her mother, made the Best of the Northwest Film and Video Festival and received a Missoula screening in 2006. In Stories from a Short Street, the blank expressions on her models—even an image of the children hovering over a crate of newborn kittens is devoid of joy— leave some viewers haunted. But Andres insists Stories from a Short Street wasn’t meant to be such a stark study.

“When I started, my intention wasn’t to make the images psychologically dark,” she says. “But people have really had that response, and I no doubt see it. I feel like a part of that is that photographing children who appear as though they are not aware of the camera and not smiling gives it this sort of pensive or contemplative feeling that reinforces that darkness.”

In fact, Andres says she looks back fondly at her childhood in Montana. Despite having her work exhibited in major markets like New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, she says she’s most proud about her Missoula debut.

“Showing at the Missoula Art Museum is such a big deal for me because my very earliest memories about the power of art were from getting in the yellow school bus in elementary school and going on field trips to the museum,” she says. “It’s a really big homecoming for me.”

And the significance of her homecoming is not lost on Andres.

“When I look back at my childhood, it was filled with a lot of joy and also some dysfunction and pain, but I think we can all relate to that,” says Andres. “With this series, I was interested in conveying some of the secretive and dark elements of childhood, but also convey that it’s ultimately survivor-able.”

Stories from a Short Street debuts at the Missoula Art Museum Tuesday, Feb. 12. Holly Andres will speak at Artini:Strange Relations Thursday, Feb. 21, at 5:30 PM. The exhibit is on display through April 26. 
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