Third Eye – The Art of Ron Moultrie Saunders

We spend our lives thinking that what touch, hear, smell, taste and, most of all, what we see is reality.

Seeing is believing.

I know what I saw.

Ron Moultrie Saunders has spent the last decade of his artistic career debunking these myths. He uses the camera to extend our vision, exploring the nature of things with alternate eyes.  For Ron, this is introspective work.  After losing both parents within two years, his photography, which had been more “outward looking”, transitioned and became more “inward looking”.  He began to use photography more as a way to think about his place in this world, as opposed to a way to chronicle the world around him.

With plants, the photograms expose their inner architecture.  He calls the series: “The Secret Life of Plants” and it is an on-going project.  He ventures into uncharted territories.  And, like the physical explorers of earlier times, it is not just about seeing what is out there.  Exploration is as much about the explorer as it is about the object of the exploration.

Ron attended the University of Pennsylvania, graduating with a degree in Landscape Design in 1996.  His early work was very much informed by his design career with his photography focused on landscapes and travel.  In 2000, after his parents passed away, he began volunteering with children in the classroom as an art educator.  It was there that he started experimenting with photograms. It was a fun art activity for the kids. For him, however, the process was transfixing.  The way that light worked in photograms captured “an indescribable beauty and magic that exists in nature and within us”. He described to me a photogram of a strawberry flower.  The petal was white and the light went right through it in an almost gelatinous way; then, the tiny little hairs on the stems came out.  The smallest, unnoticed details can move into the spotlight.  It is not just seeing in an alternate view – it is, for Ron, re-envisioning.

Photograms are essentially a camera-less photographic process.  Objects are placed directly on the photo paper.  An enlarger is the light source.  A shadow of the object is captured.   Then, since the object is white where the light did not go through to the photo paper and black where it passed through; that image is reversed using the initial image as a negative in a darkroom.  The work is experimental.  Chance is embraced.  Unexpected results are, in many ways, the most revealing.  And, unlike many photographic processes, the feedback is immediate.

One gratifying side effect of his work with plants has been that it has inspired people to become more aware of what is around them. Friends are always bringing him interesting things to “photogram”.  One of his favorite gifts was oak leaves that had been partially eaten.  People think he made the patterns, but the patterns were, in fact, made by leaf eaters.

Ron is one of the artists featured in an exhibition at Arc Gallery opening this week.  The exhibition is titled: “FourSquared”.  As the name implies, there are 16 artists in the exhibition, each of whom was asked to produce 16 works.  It is a constrained format.  All the works must be small (12”x12” or smaller).  The works must hang together coherently, but also work individually.  For the exhibition, Ron has created 16 images of insects, plants, fruits and vegetables.  In addition to continuing with his photogram experimentation, this exhibition has further inspired Ron to experiment with alternative printing, as well.  The works are printed on bamboo.

Ron has also had several recent exhibitions of a new “body” of work (literally). Ron has been placing himself directly on the paper.  This series is called “Someday We’ll All Be Free”.  It has been a way to document his heritage and culture.  He utilizes his own body, various objects and the natural world to “symbolize his thoughts, feelings, and his place in the world as a Black American male”.

I often lead these artist profiles with an image of the artist working in his studio. The image that leads this article is definitely that.  “Middle Passage” is a work that was made by placing his own head on the glass laid over the photo paper.  He created a sense of motion by sweeping his hair over the glass.  And, the unexpected result of using the glass as an intermediary surface was tiny bubbles on the surface, almost as if he was swimming under water.  The name, “Middle Passage” refers to the passage over the Atlantic Ocean where slaves were transported from Africa to America.  Many perished and were disposed of at sea.  The work is one part of his very personal exploration of his history.

You can see Ron Moultrie Saunder’s work on display at Arc Gallery from August 25th – September 22nd.  To arrange a studio visit or to see additional work, please contact Corden Potts Gallery here.

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“Ok to Burn” – John Fitzsimmons

On the afternoon of October 25, 2003, a hunter in the Cleveland National Park became disoriented.  He lit a small fire to signal for help.  By the time that they announced the fire had been contained a week and a half later, almost 300,000 acres had burned, nearly 3000 buildings had been destroyed and fifteen people had lost their lives.  It was the largest fire in California history.

In 1970, John Fitzsimmons and Kat Flyn drifted to San Diego from New York City.  It was not part of any real plan, but John got a job as a teacher and Kat started the first vintage clothing store in that city.  The store was successful and John soon joined the business.  Some of the customers wanted to rent the vintage clothing rather than buy it.  The next thing you know, a small costume spin-off business was born, ultimately swallowing up the original business.  It was quite successful and thirty years later, they began planning their retirement.  They built their dream home just outside of San Diego, surrounded by towering pines, near the national forest, in the town of Cuyamaca.

As part of their business, Kat had designed some of the costumes and John had photographed some of the models.  It was artistic to a degree, but both dreamed of seriously pursuing art.  Kat, who was and is a talented assemblage artist, had taken boxes and boxes of materials from the business, storing them in the basement of their home.   A lifetime of artist supplies was assembled and ready to go.  Then, on October 27th and 28th, the fire reached Cuyamaca and all 120 homes in that community were incinerated.

Remarkably, both John and Kat not only physically survived the fire; emotionally, as well, they rose from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix.  John photographed the aftermath of the fire.  He took the photographs to a local gallery and had his first solo show.  It was a new beginning.

With no trees and no real prospect for trees, they decided not to rebuild in Cuyamaca.  Almost arbitrarily, they moved up to San Francisco.  They loved it right away.  Artistically, they moved to the SOMA Artist Studios, where they still maintain a studio, and they began making art.  Kat produces wonderful assemblages.  She also collaborates with John on his photography, making the trademark frames that work so well with his photographs of urban decay.

I have always been particularly drawn to that body of John’s work.  Last year, in the “Guerrilla Show” at Arc Gallery, I was ready to buy “Green Trailer, Salton Sea” when someone snatched it off the wall just in front of me.  I went to Open Studios in October hoping to find a similar work.  Then I noticed a photograph of three abandoned homes in Atascadero.  I had to have it.  The work, shown here in the banner for this story, was called “Ok to Burn”.  At that time, I did not know anything about their personal story.  It was only when I began writing this profile that the significance of the work become apparent.

John’s photography divides into two broad categories of work:  urban decay and fantasy.  The fantasy work has a staged element to it.  It is a touchstone back to the costume design business.  John cites contemporary influences such as Maggie Taylor and Jerry Uelsmann.  Overtly manipulated, the photographs are visual collages of imagery that explore themes of sex, bigotry, drugs, global warming.

The other works, which explore themes of urban decay, will be prominently on display next week in the Arc Gallery exhibition “FourSquared”, where John will be one of the sixteen featured artists.  These works have a political edge.  They revisit American glory, now left behind and rotting away.  Cars are abandoned and rusting.  Drive-in movie theaters are overgrown.  Houses are ok to burn.  Even the landscape itself is allowed to deteriorate from willful neglect in a series of works photographed in the Salton Sea.  The images are powerful, yet somewhat ambiguous; nostalgic, yet somehow bittersweet.  They evoke memories of the longing in Charles Foster Kane’s plantive last word: “Rosebud”.

You can see John Fitzsimmon’s work in the upcoming Arc Gallery exhibition: “FourSquared”, opening on Saturday, August 27th and continuing through September 28th.  He will be participating in San Francisco Fall Open Studios, the weekend of October 14th.  You can also contact John directly for a studio visit by appointment.