Artist Grace Gordon-Collins reveals women’s' rebel dreams
by Robin Laurence
June 25, 2009
Unfiltered, a series of photographs by Vancouver artist Grace Gordon-Collins, pairs images to show women shifting from daily lives to fantasy ones, as in the above transformation of “Jill” from uniformed spa worker into rock star–like pro wrestler.
What is your fantasy self? What do you wish you could have been or done? What path, if circumstances had been different, might you have followed? These are the questions artist and architect Grace Gordon-Collins has posed to dozens of accomplished Vancouver women over the past three years. Some of their answers—warrior queen, WWE wrestler, Renaissance courtesan—might have surprised their parents. Nothing, however, fazed Gordon-Collins, who has spent hundreds of hours shooting photographs of women as they enacted their imaginary selves. And she has respect and admiration for what she heard and saw.
“What I have been struck by is the richness and daring in women’s fantasy lives,” she says. “These women are all so strong.”
Sitting in the North Vancouver architectural offices she shares with her husband, Gordon-Collins muses on the evolution of the series she has titled Unfiltered. The work, which also includes real-life portraits and statements from the participants, who range in age from 16 to mid 60s, is on view at the Diane Farris Gallery from tonight (June 25) to July 1. Although Gordon-Collins usually shows this series as makeover-style diptychs, in this exhibition the “before” shots will be set apart from the “after” images, challenging viewers to figure out who’s who. Which designer is the Bettie Page–style burlesque dancer? Which artist and photo-lab worker is the graveyard-haunting Chinese princess? Which sweet-faced academic is the powerful, arrogant man in the tuxedo?
Enacting unrealized desires is something of a motif in Gordon-Collins’s life. As an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba, shortly before feminism’s second wave, she was socially pressured into studying interior design rather than architecture.
“I’d always wanted to be an architect, but in my generation of women, when we went into university, we were counselled to go into ‘women’s professions’,” she recalls. Still, she parlayed her design degree into admission to the master’s program in architecture at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and then into a successful architecture career.
And that’s not the whole story. While at MIT, Gordon-Collins took a photography course from the esteemed modernist Minor White, and discovered another passion. She sidelined her love of photography and her intention to study it further, however, until the events of September 11, 2001, impelled her to act. Like millions of other TV viewers, she watched with horror the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.
“You could feel the souls of all those people that were dying in those buildings,” she says. “We all have hopes and dreams, and every one of those people, I’m sure, when they went to work that day was [thinking], ‘Someday I’m going to do this’ or ‘Someday I’m going to do that.’ And I thought, ‘Boy, you never know when that day is going to be your last.’ ”
She immediately enrolled in the photography program at Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design, graduating in 2004 and launching herself on a new career, in concert with her architectural practice.
Architecture, she says, richly informs her art. One stream of her photo work closely examines architectural elements. “There’s a part of me that wants to look at architecture and pare it down to almost its spirit, its soul.” The second stream of her photography, she says, is about the human narrative. “To be a good architect or designer, you really have to know what’s inside people in order to interpret that in their private dwelling. And to me the house is a symbol of self.” To identify that “self-dom” in her clients, Gordon-Collins says, she has had to ask some probing questions. “In the process, you find out a lot of their dreams or their fantasies.”
Unfiltered began three years ago, when an acquaintance, a psychologist who works with the elderly, confessed she’d always fantasized about being a motorcycle chick. “All of a sudden, boom, the penny dropped,” says Gordon-Collins. “Here was this gentle, lovely, soft-spoken woman, and she’s talking about the most aggressive [persona]—the antithesis of how society sees her.” Maybe, Gordon-Collins thought, all women have a secret desire to do or be something else—sexy, rebellious, outlandish, unimagined by family, friends, and colleagues.
Over the past few years, that has pretty much proven to be true. “I’ve worked with a broad band of women, both in age and occupation,” she says. “And I’ve been told that in giving them the opportunity to create their fantasies, it has given them a sense of completeness.”