Working draft 

Photographer Marcy James puts her creative process on display

For the past six months, Marcy James has engaged in a long and involved conversation with her bedroom wall. Right next to her bed, situated right about at eye level and stretched from one end of the room to the other, she's positioned a long piece of black paper. Every night before she goes to sleep, she takes a long look at that piece of paper. Every morning when she wakes up, it's the first thing she sees. And when James wakes up at night—and she says she always wakes up in the middle of the night—she's drawn to what's essentially become her oversized sketchbook.

"I got this idea when I first moved my studio into my house," explains James. "Whenever I'd wake up in the middle of the night, I'd just run downstairs and jot down my ideas at my desk. Then I thought, why run downstairs? Why not just do it right here?"

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James' sketchbook is no longer a blank piece of gigantic black paper. Like some John Nash mathematical equation written on a library window, James has filled the expansive canvas with a glorious mishmash of thoughts, questions, notes, half-finished images, fully developed ideas, mistakes, experiments, discoveries and scribbles. At first glance, it's too much—like a promising yard sale with no clear place to start browsing. But with a closer look, there's a rhythm to the lines connecting an image of a time capsule in the upper left corner to a note about "very important things" written four feet away, and a sense of purpose to the meticulous row of photographs of abandoned homes in Bonner that stretches across the paper's bottom edge, loosely under a question: "Who photographs the neighbors?" Spend enough time studying James' illustrated train of thought, and her new exhibit, aptly titled Sketching, actually includes five or six different exhibits—plus one intensive study on her creative process.

"I'm willing to just put it out there—good, bad, ugly," says James, who works as the curriculum director at Rocky Mountain School of Photography. "That's the thing with this—there are a lot of things I'm not excited about on this wall. It's a bunch of sketches, so it's not supposed to be all work that, you know, worked. It's not supposed to be finished. Some of it I like. Some of it I would actually call done. But, I mean, some of these thoughts? They're just...moronic."

Luckily for James, her mistakes are just as intriguing as her successes. In one section of the black piece of paper, she's photographed the contents of her refrigerator alongside a second image of the refrigerator's closed doors. Next to the images reads a note: "Project halted. Found someone else already photographed inside people's refrigerators. Good idea, but he forgot the doors." In another section, photographs coated in heavy wax didn't turn out quite to James' liking. In yet another section, a photograph didn't mount correctly to a new rubbery surface she's experimenting with. No matter—it's all there, sometimes with a note like, "I should take you down, but that would be cheating."

"You don't get to erase your sketchbook," explains James. "That would defeat the process, and this is a celebration of process."

Not all of Sketching is a mistake. For years, James has been enamored with the thought of "No Man's Land," a figurative place and state of mind that she's intent on capturing with her photography. It was the focus—and title—of her 2007 exhibit at Gallery Saintonge, and the theme reappears here with four featured images of broken Americana placed toward the center of the black piece of paper. Boxed photographs hang off to the right side of the exhibit, displaying long-lost family photographs found by James at a second-hand store. She's hand-sewn a pattern into the black-and-white images to give them a "sense of connection" and hung the boxes with fishhooks to play off the idea of "catch and release," or in this case, develop and discard.

click to enlarge Marcy James created her latest exhibit by hanging a long piece of black paper on her bedroom wall and using it as a sketchbook whenever she had a new idea. The result is an oversized illustration of her creative process, including mistakes, works in progress and finished pieces. “I’m willing to just put it out there—good, bad, ugly,” she says.
  • Marcy James created her latest exhibit by hanging a long piece of black paper on her bedroom wall and using it as a sketchbook whenever she had a new idea. The result is an oversized illustration of her creative process, including mistakes, works in progress and finished pieces. “I’m willing to just put it out there—good, bad, ugly,” she says.

"What happened to have these family photos end up for sale?" she asks, pointing to one of a smiling man wearing a tuxedo. "These were important once, but then they weren't. At some point, they had no one to give them to."

The boxed and sewn photographs appear right above her "Who will photograph the neighbors?" written title.

James further explores the concept of loss in the upper right corner of the black paper. Nine small photographs of a shoreline are grouped together with a note about "looking for you." It's inspired by the loss of a loved one, and was enough of an idea to evolve from James' sketchbook into three standalone pieces also included in the exhibit: one of the sea, one of sky and one of the road. It's not the only part of Sketching James expects to live on in a future work.

"I don't see an end yet to any of these projects," she says. "I think there's more to do on all of them, and I'm really curious to take them to the next place."

In the meantime, she's willing to unveil a little bit about how she works. In one sense, she says it's a daunting task for a photography teacher to let her students see unfinished, unrefined and in some cases unexplainable work. But in a braver sense, James is hoping to set an example.

"I can't tell you how many people tell me, 'Oh, I don't have space to make art' or 'Oh, I don't have time to make art,'" she says. "Well, I don't have space. I'm in my bedroom. I don't have time to do my own work, either; I have a full-time job. I make my art in the middle of the night. But I care about it enough to let my art infiltrate my domestic world...Maybe that's enough to spark something in someone else's mind. Maybe it gets them to sketch something."

And what if it doesn't translate to others? What then? James has thought of that. She's had her doubts. In fact, in a corner of the black piece of paper, she wrote in big letters, perhaps in frustration, "Where are you going?" But after seeing Sketching, it's clear the answer doesn't matter. It's only important that she went.

Marcy James' Sketching will be on display at the Catalyst Café for a First Friday reception Sept. 3, starting at 5 p.m. Free.

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