Memory's tokens: How the Ghost of You Clings opens at Ybor's Silver Meteor
Kym O’Donnell creates photographic talismans of imagined pasts.
By MITZI GORDON APR 7, 2016 8 AM , CREATIVE LOAFING TAMPA
Each tinted image opens a portal into the gossamer past, beckoning viewers beyond the veil. Cross over and wander memory’s landscapes with Tampa-based artist Kym O’Donnell in her photographic project, How the Ghost of You Clings, at Ybor City’s Silver Meteor Gallery.
Drawing its name from a lyric in Eric Maschwitz’s song These Foolish Things, written in the 1930s for screen actress Anna May Wong, the exhibit features O’Donnell’s signature hand-painted photographs and ephemera crafted into lovingly composed mementos of theaters, fairgrounds, and graveyards. The exhibit presents photographic tokens in vignettes, clustered on shelves or tucked into vintage photo folders.
“I love the tangibility of negatives and small photographic prints,” O’Donnell says. “I’ve collected found photographs for years and am drawn to albums and tiny pieces that can be handled.”
The Silver Meteor exhibit keeps with O’Donnell’s appreciation for tangible tokens, each shot in studio and on location, then developed, printed, and colored by hand — “things that you can handle, so they’re almost like talismans,” O’Donnell says. “They trigger memories of places I’m longing to go back to.”
Working firmly with 35mm and pinhole film cameras, O’Donnell develops and prints in her Ybor darkroom, composing characters in otherworldly realms, referencing classic cinema imagery, building narratives fueled by nostalgia and Shangri-Las songs.
“I first began working in a darkroom in 1996,” says O’Donnell, who studied film and theater acting in Sarasota, discovering an FSU film school soundstage through the university’s partnership with Asolo Theatre. “I became interested in filmmaking at the same time that I was realizing how little autonomy an actor has. I didn’t write or direct films or plays, so I was continually waiting to be cast in someone’s production.”
Attending film school full-time seemed prohibitively expensive, so O’Donnell decided to create stories in still photographs, using her theatrical knowledge to evoke a scene or set a tone.
“I wanted to make photos that looked like the type of films that I yearned to be in,” O’Donnell says. “Working with film feels appropriate to me, since the subject matter that I am drawn to is almost always based in the past.”
She moved to Tampa in 1996 and spent several semesters in the darkroom at Hillsborough Community College before renting a darkroom at the former Experimental Skeleton artist collective space on Florida Avenue, quickly becoming a member of the group. Through them, O’Donnell met curator Jade Dellinger, now the director of the Bob Rauschenberg Gallery at Florida Southwestern State College in Fort Myers.
“What’s interested me most about her work over the years is her commitment to that [analog] approach as an artist,” Dellinger says. “With so many opportunities to use technology, she really seems to prefer to roll up her sleeves and be hands-on in the darkroom, nothing done digitally.”
Dellinger continues to follow O’Donnell’s projects, even becoming a photo subject a few years back.
“I can’t think of very many other artists, particularly in Tampa, that have been so dedicated not only to that medium but also that sort of approach,” he says. “She’s remained committed to this, developing these really interesting narratives that question the way we think about time and memory.”
O’Donnell joined independent photography collective Fountain of Pythons in 2011, and exhibited with the group in 2015 at Artist-Run, a satellite fair during Art Basel week in Miami. Her work has also appeared in exhibits in Thailand, Poland, and Yugoslavia, and she was recipient of the Hillsborough County Individual Artist Grant in 2010 and 2016.
Using silver emulsion, O’Donnell coaxes images onto tile and metal, new landscapes for her players to inhabit. Much of the latest work is drawn from her travels during the past three years, ranging from Paris to Wisconsin to visit cemeteries, grottos, and museums of theatrical props.
The new show also shares O’Donnell’s lingering preoccupation with the standard tune These Foolish Things, its lyrics listing reminders of a distant love.
“I grew up with a strong interest in the past,” O’Donnell says. “It used to annoy the hell out of my mother. I would drag out her 1960s high school yearbook or old photo albums and pore over them. I remember her once exclaiming, exasperated, ‘You can’t live in the past!’ — which is funny, because that’s usually something that would refer to someone trying to recapture their own past. I was always much more interested in a past I never knew. It was like some tantalizingly unreachable travel destination. You could read about it, look at pictures, listen to the music, feel like you knew it, but never actually be there.”
Her exhibit at Silver Meteor offers a rare passport, and it’s a trip the audience won’t regret.
How the Ghost of You Clings opens with a free reception Saturday, April 9 from 7 to 11 p.m. at Silver Meteor Gallery, 2213 E. 6th Ave, Ybor City. The show continues with hours by appointment through Sunday, April 24, 2016.