When Lucy Capehart opened the boxes containing her parents’ clothing from over 50 years ago, it was too real and too overwhelming for her to process. There, in one pile, was a black and white flower print dress that she recognized as her mother’s. In another pile was a suit coat of her father’s. Some of the clothing she recognized from long-ago snapshots of her family, some she recognized from childhood memories. Many times, though, she couldn’t be sure if she was remembering a piece of clothing from real events, or if it was a trick her mind played—memories she created from years of looking at photographs.
In 1960, when she was 7, Capehart’s parents were killed in a plane crash. She and her siblings were raised by her aunt, who preserved, boxed up and stored her parents’ things carefully. But besieged by grief, the family didn’t talk much about the incident for decades. Recently, though, Capehart’s brother discovered some old home movies. The feelings and memories they triggered led Capehart back to the boxes.
“When I first looked at the clothes, I was treating them as sacred objects—they held a lot of intimate power,” she says. “It was a little scary.”
Capehart was, of course, no longer that 7-year-old. She had grown up to study anthropology, fall in love with art and gain notoriety in Missoula as a photographer. Her fascination with the study of humans, along with her knowledge that creating art can help us better understand ourselves, convinced her to photograph the clothing. But the project immediately proved difficult.
“A straight photograph would have been too direct,” she says. “I had to figure out how to transform the pieces into meaningful art. It’s tricky to do art about your life and your family. You don’t want to abuse it or take advantage of it. It has to be treated very delicately.”
She found her answer in cyanotype print—a photographic printing process that doesn’t involve a camera, only chemically treated paper and sunlight. The process is almost as old as photography itself. Objects are placed on a blue paper, which filters UV rays from the sun over time. The opaque materials of the object filter out more light than sheer ones.
The result is a series of ethereal, shadowy blueprints of her family’s clothing—mysterious, poetic and oddly suggestive of the people who once wore them. Her mother’s black and white print dress looks strangely three-dimensional, occupied and personal. Her sister’s baby dress is delicate, indistinct and sheer, but at the same time somehow more tangible than a traditional photograph.
“Cyanotype prints are spontaneous and unpredictable,” Capehart says. “And very hands-on. I work in digital, too, but this is so satisfying and tactile. You are working on paper, with no computer. Clothing has such magic about it. It is enough to suggest the body. I wanted to make the prints have movement and life. They are more than paper doll cutouts.”
The final prints are currently on display at the new Radius Gallery in downtown Missoula, along with art from Melissa Bangs, Courtney Blazon, Susan Carlson, Rick Gendron, Karen Kemp, Louise Lamontagne, Bobbie McKibbin and Megan Moore. Gallery owners Lisa Simon and Jason Neal have created a simple and cleanly presented space with interior walls that can be easily rolled out of sight to make way for other types of events, such as readings and salons. “We want to showcase art that both embraces and transcends traditional notions of traditional Western art,” Simon says. “Across all of the works that we pick, you can always see the hand of the artist.”
Walking through the gallery and stopping at Capehart’s prints against the back wall, it is clear how Simon and Neal saw “the hand of the artist” and chose to showcase the work. But for Capehart, the project was about more than just the end product. What she learned about her life, both past and present, is changing the course of her artwork as a whole.
“It was a little scary at first,” she says. “Then it became very cathartic. I forgot about the scariness. It was great to make something out of something that happened to you in your life. It’s a way of having some control or at least attempting to work with memory instead of being bowled over by it.”
Capehart, who has traditionally captured other people’s identities through photographing their homes and possessions, is now turning the camera in a different direction. She may also be realizing why she was so interested in possessions—or “evidence,” as she calls it—as well as identity and memory.
“I never did personal work,” she says. “I focused on other people’s lives. Finally, after all of these years, I am getting to my story. It’s transforming something that represents sadness and loss and turning it into something new and alive. Now that I’ve begun, I’m branching out to me and my siblings.”
Though the prints are meaningful to her, though those who know the story are affected by the pieces, the viewer doesn’t need to know about the hard history, the 7-year-old girl or the carefully kept boxes. The emotion is hidden among the evidence, just as the bodies are implied by the clothing.
“I just want viewers to see the fragility of life—that nothing lasts forever,” she says. “Photography stops time. This dress is evidence of someone who lived a long time ago. I want viewers to have the experience of seeing the evidence of a human form. These are each about an individual, not a piece of clothing.”
For the inaugural exhibit that includes Lucy Capehart’s prints, the Radius Gallery hosts an open house Thu., Aug. 21, from 3 to 5 PM and a Grand Opening Fri., Aug. 22, from 5 to 8 PM. 114 E. Main Street. Free.