Friday, September 10, 2010

12x12 Artist: MJ Alexander

MJ Alexander, Gloria Steinem @ 75, Silver Halide Print

Q: Tell us how you created this piece.

Alexander: I love this portrait of Gloria Steinem. 

At the time it was taken, in August 2009, I had been in residence with her and four other writers  Hedgebrook Colony on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, for about a week. 

Quick background: Hedgebrook is a retreat for women writers. Through a competitive application process, six women at a time are invited to be Hedgebrook's guests, from two weeks to two months. Each writer has her own A-frame cabin, and has no duties other than to recharge, rethink, reconnect and -- if she is so moved -- to create. There is a Japanese-style bathhouse in the middle of an old growth woods, and an evening meal is around an old trestle table in the farmhouse, usually followed by walks to the lavender fields next door or a bike ride to the ocean. I've been there three times, but even now find it hard to believe such a place exists.

Back to the portrait: Ms. Magazine wanted to feature Gloria on the cover of its Fall 2009 issue to commemorate her 75th birthday. Although an outspoken activist, she is extremely self-effacing and modest. She was reluctant to be featured by herself, insisting that the ideals behind the magazine are larger and more important than any one person. After much back and forth, she agreed to be on the cover, but only if the honor would be shared with another pioneer: her good friend Alice Walker, an early editor at Ms. 

This image was created at the beginning of our session, when we were laughing and settling in. She has expressive hands and long, tapered fingers. I asked her to bring them forward and she struck a classic activist's pose. I love the focus and determination she channels through a simple gesture.

After returning to Oklahoma from Hedgebrook, I traveled to Mendocino County to photograph Alice Walker at her compound. She was just as wonderful and welcoming. Their dual portrait was featured on the cover of the Fall 2009 Ms. Magazine.

Q: How is this work similar to or different from your other artwork?

Alexander: How do you portray an icon? For me, I always focus on conveying a portrait subject's unique vitality in the context of the continuity of tradition. For this image, I worked from the same palette as my series on centenarians and American Indian dancers to combine a 21st century perspective with antique tones and elements of glass-plate daguerreotypes, harkening back to early suffragists. My hope is to show the timeless, transcendent force of nature that is Gloria Steinem.

Q:  In what upcoming venues might audiences be able to see your work?

Alexander: A new portrait of Alice Walker will be featured on the October 2010 cover of WRITER'S DIGEST. This spring and summer, I was commissioned by the Cherokee Nation to create a set of 12 images of the tribe's ancestral North Carolina Mingo and Soco waterfalls for permanent display in the Cherokee Casino & Hotel West Siloam Springs. In November, a follow up to my book SALT OF THE RED EARTH: A Century of Wit and Wisdom from Oklahoma's Elders, will be released by Southwestern Publishing. The new book -- PORTRAIT OF A GENERATION: Sons and Daughters of the Red Earth -- will focus on the youngest Oklahomans, aged 18 and under, with interviews and portraits from around the state. An exhibit of images from the project will travel Oklahoma later this year and early next, with dates and venues to be announced. 

View and purchase artwork by 150 Oklahoma artists September 25, 2010 at the 12x12 Art Sale and Event.  Buy tickets, read more and see pictures at

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