By Tom Wachunas
“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” -Mae West
“The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in” –W.H. Auden
EXHIBIT: A Long Time Ago: The Fairytales of Mandy Altimus Pond, at Translations Art Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton, THROUGH JUNE 28. Gallery hours Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday.
The 54 marvelous photographs by Mandy Altimus Pond that comprise this exhibit are the culmination of more than two years’ work of interpreting three classic tales by The Brothers Grimm: Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty (the Grimm story being a variant of the original French tale by Charles Perrault). As photographs, each of the exquisitely framed full color images, while depicting significant episodes within the flow of their respective narratives, is nonetheless a thoughtfully constructed, discrete entity in itself – a crisply detailed, intimate and lyrically expressive gem of theatricality. Collectively, however, these are no mere imitations of Disneyesque animated folk stories.
That said, there is a compelling cinematic scope to Pond’s meticulous compositions, as if they could be film stills. In fact, she enlisted the help of some 140 volunteers to be everything from characters in the stories to all the adjunct personnel you’d expect in the making of an epic film, such as technical assistants, prop-makers, costumers and makeup artists.
What would prompt an artist to take on a project as time-consuming and labor-intensive as this grandly scaled game of ‘let’s pretend’? For starters, there is of course the universal, persistent appeal of fairytales. After all, who doesn’t love allegories – realistic or fantastical - of demons defeated, triumphant true love and heroically staking our claims to perpetual happiness? The magical power of fairytales is in their employment of metaphor to vanquish the Sturm und Drang of living in this world.
And here’s where I think it vital you take the time to read the stories (available as print-outs to borrow for your gallery viewing, as well as in a beautiful softcover book available for purchase) that accompany the photo ensembles. As Pond’s images represent a nuanced, personal recreation of these tales, her reworking of some familiar elements is, in varying degrees, both cosmetic and conceptual, though never fatuous. Inspired by her images, three authors – Jason Daniel Myers, Margy Vogt, and Andrew Kozma - have provided highly engaging, “alternative” narratives, all rendered in savory, sumptuous prose.
A few examples. In Myers’ Snow and Aysel, Snow White’s mother, Aysel, never recovers from the loss of her beloved husband, the White King. Myers writes, “…but for Aysel, there was no spring morning at the end of the long winter mourning.” She isolates herself in a tower and glides through her castle “…silently, slowly, like a grey glacial ghost.” She progressively abandons her daughter and becomes an Ice Queen who will give chilling new meaning to ‘eat your heart out.’ In Lullaby, Mr. Kozma’s version of “Sleeping Beauty,” the witch is an embittered woman, a ‘steampunk’ sorceress possessed by a “…terrible, unforgiving affection” for the beautiful girl she brought into the world – a magical gift to the barren parents for which she received no thanks. The obsessed woman’s elaborate plot of revenge comes to an end at the hands of the rescuing prince (“entrepreneur”) thus: “And when the entrepreneur’s sword slips through the crack in the armor the woman made so obvious, it is not that which kills her, but her love-full heart bursting in her chest like a berry in a bird’s beak.” Juicy stuff, to be sure.
Included in Pond’s written acknowledgements for this exhibit, there is a disarming revelation as to her efforts in bringing it to fruition. She speaks frankly: “During this project, I experienced big life changes. For a while, I stopped believing in fairytales and stopped planning for the final photoshoot. But with the help and support of my loving family, I forced myself to pick up the pieces and move forward. I realized this project represents my belief in happily-ever-afters, dreams coming true, and never giving up hope…” Shades of Cinderella?
I am mindful of a scene in Margy Vogt’s story here, My Melancholy Cinderella Memory, wherein the bitterly disappointed Cinderella, after watching her cruel sisters whisked off to the ball, takes a walk in the woods to seek solace. “From the solitude of a rounded rock in the river, Cinderella let the water bubble her troubles downstream. The breeze through the trees soothed her soul…”
If Pond’s earnest artistry isn’t a courageous surrender to an honest labor of real love, I don’t know what is. And in this world so jaded by aimless cynicism and tangible tragedy, art such as this reminds us that love and hope remain potent and necessary forces. The power of metaphor. If the shoe fits…
PHOTOS, courtesy Mandy Altimus Pond, from top: Eat The Weakness That Binds You; Hearing Cries of Help; Fleeing The Castle; Maleficent’s Triumph; Awake Happily Ever After