Plodding feet and murmuring voices mingle up the gallery stairs. Students Alvin, Ben, Chad and Matt have arrived from local community building organization Starfire and settle in front of laptops loaded with their digital photos as another day of art education begins at Prairie Gallery. Director David Rosenthal has been doing it since 2009.
This photography class is one of a dozen Rosenthal directs annually with local schools and advocacy groups. Programs, including New Voices, focus a lens on the community, exposing students to people outside of their social structure. This fall, New Voices links Milford High School students with City Gospel Mission, which provides transitional housing for people experiencing homelessness. The Milford students meet weekly with a resident at City Gospel to photograph Cincinnati’s architectural and green spaces and snap portraits of each other.
“It puts a completely different perspective on homelessness in Over-the-Rhine and a whole new appreciation for the things I have now,” says Josh Montgomery, a senior at Milford. Actually taking pictures became secondary for him to the experience of bonding with his photography partner.
“I feel like if I can somehow make a difference with this man’s life in some way,” Montgomery says, “I feel like I would have achieved my goal.”
Rosenthal’s curriculum fits the mission of Starfire — to strengthen the ties between people with disabilities and their community. Adults 21-30 in the StarfireU program have come to Prairie to learn the craft of photography. It hasn’t come without some challenges. It wasn’t always easy for every student to physically press the shutter release button on the camera or hold the camera steady enough to take even one clear picture.
At the SPCA, the struggle was emotional. A golden retriever kisses Ben’s lens and he snaps a photo. While the images conjure so much joy now, Rosenthal says one member had to step aside from the photo shoot because it was so difficult to see the dogs in cages.
Today they are making inkjet transfers. Their photographs are printed onto transparency material, then transferred onto watercolor paper coated in Liquitex acrylic medium. The ink is absorbed, the transparency peels away and the transferred image is a reverse of the original.
Alvin’s photograph is a landscape from Mount Airy with a twisted tree trunk and a distant evergreen.
He applies acrylic medium to watercolor paper, leaving clumps and uneven strokes. It’s not a smooth coat and the image produced by his directionless strokes is more interesting than anything a careful and even stroke can reveal.
Matt’s transfer, a green leaf against a thorny red vine, dissolves away into a series of strokes. Rosenthal suggests Matt and Alvin use more medium next time and it proves successful. Matt’s second image, a leafy fall array against blue chain link fence, looks like water lilies on a pond.
Chad’s aerial view from the Carew Tower observation deck has a marvelous bluish purple tint because the inkjet printer is running low. He peels away the transparency with patience and I worry it will be too perfect. But then Chad quickens his wrist. The ends come loose and take a corner of the photo with them. The right edge is jagged, as if the city’s boundaries are drawn with a bristle brush. It has the misty, atmospheric perspective of an airplane window.
Ben’s image, a reclining portrait of Chad with a playful smile, crinkles onto the paper. Ink lifts away, nearly taking the face off, but there he is. It’s Chad, the superhero, as Rosenthal calls the picture. I see it as a cartoon with high key, flat colors. Chad sees something else.
“I’m the president,” he says and takes out his phone to snap a picture of Ben’s transfer.
The work dries, waiting to be included in academic planners Rosenthal is making for the class. It is a book of their best photography, with space to fill with their class assignments or maybe their dreams and goals.
On Final Friday in Over-the-Rhine, Emery Theatre opens for a photography exhibit organized by Rosenthal. Twelve photographs by members of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition and local high school students were selected for the 2013 day-by-day calendar and for the exhibit at the Emery. On the cover of the calendar are the hands of a family photographed by Tommy Thompson of the Coalition.
“I never knew growing up that I was poor because I had my family and when I went outside everybody was the same broke that I was,” Thompson says.
He first experienced homelessness seven years ago when he says his home went into foreclosure. He lived out of his truck and never thought to call himself homeless. When the words finally came out he cracked, but refused to share his burdens.
“My father had a rule in the house — whatever you do, don’t stress your mom out,” Thompson says. He thought he just needed a job. “But when you lose everything and everybody, you need more than a job.”
So he found a calling. The Homeless Coalition hired him for their Speaker’s Bureau.
“It’s like talk therapy,” he says of his many public speaking engagements, sharing his story of homelessness. The truth he once denied now provides hope for others.
Thompson now communicates with pictures. A family on Fountain Square tells his story. Mother and daughter wear matching clothes and sparkle nail polish. He asked to photograph their hands, spread on a green table, fingertips touching; their sparkly nails sun-kissed. Who is this family? They are just strangers on the Square, but they could easily be Thompson’s family spreading their hands in welcome. Hands that say, “Come home.”
There are more programs to come at Prairie, but they all stem from a single idea.
“To bring art into communities which struggle with competing forces,” Rosenthal says, referring to the competing forces that isolate us and prevent us from enjoying the same privileges as others. “The point of the programs is to bridge these differences by bringing disparate groups to work together. To give those who usually don’t have a voice a way to present their viewpoint to the world outside of their own.”
And so, Rosenthal hands his students a camera and with it says, “You have a story to tell.”
PRAIRIE GALLERY’s (4035 Hamilton Ave., Northside) regular hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and
10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. More info: prairiecincinnati.com