The Need for Creativity and Imagination

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1910 photograph of Frances Griffiths with the Cottingley Fairies

Recent advances in the speed and amount of information creates an overload that leads us to believe the world is in turmoil and change more intense than ever before. Tapping into fantasy and the imagination is one way of turning from anxiety and toward enchantment. The art and architecture we find around us helps to clarify and replace disconcerting memories and images.

Susan kae Grant, a photographer and friend of Stephen B. Chambers Architects, is one artist who takes her inspiration from collective memory and filters the imagery through the modern sensibility of her lens.

Ms. Grant meticulously creates three-dimensional settings from street, field, and alleyway detritus and re-purposes them to conjure up dream-state photographs. Hula hoops, baby dolls, plastic bats and rats, rusted wire fencing, sticks and fabric are hung by thin wires from the ceiling and, through the use of strategically placed lighting, these found objects cast eerily soft long shadows onto an enormous sheet of white paper that she photographs. The result is inventive narrative photography with the appearance of late eighteenth century silhouette portraiture.

Artist and professor, Susan kae Grant, in her studio

The resulting prints suggest dense childhood memories, dreams, and schemata, which whimsically spring from the imagination of a mature, self-actualized woman. Ms. Grant mines her subconscious and transports us, the viewers, into a world fecund with poetic imagery and playthings juxtaposed with objects of fear. We recognize these reveries as similar to our own nighttime excursions into involuntary underworlds of past and present snapshots of memory.

The day after visiting Susan’s fascinating workplace, I read the NYT obituary of Geoffrey Crawley, the English photographic scientist. Mr. Crawley systematically debunked the 1910 Cottingley Fairies Hoax. It occurred to me that Ms. Grant’s process of making art and the fairy mystery share a common thread.

“Niki” photograph by Susan kae Grant with permission

The atmosphere in 1910 Britain was every bit as jarring as it is today. The mystery in Cottingley emerged when two English schoolgirl cousins claimed to have taken photographs of fairy folk residing in the glen near their homes. It started with Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths deciding to play a prank on their parents by borrowing a glass-plate camera belonging to Elsie’s father. They developed a photo, which showed a swirl of whitish figures surrounding Frances, the younger girl. Their parents dismissed the image as childish trickery. The girls stuck to their story and, on another occasion, snapped a second photo of a gnome who appeared in the same glen.

The images remained a private family affair until Edward Gardner, a leader of theosophy in England, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a trained physician, intervened. Hoping to advance spiritualism and the cause of the Theosophical Society in Britain, which believes in the existence of spirit life, Gardner and Doyle declared the images to be absolutely real. Impassioned champions of the photos, the men engaged a darkroom technician to create better negatives that produced more realistic-looking fairies. They asked the girls to ‘take’ three more photos and the men began to use them in lectures and magazines to illustrate this epoch-making proof of human beings encountering fairies in everyday life. It took the rigorous empirical testing of Geoffrey Crawley 60 years later to deflate this tall tale of the Cottingley fairies.

But, his writings dispelling the hoax, display tenderness about a nation captivated by an idle boast of magical creatures during a time of tumultuous war and enormous change brought about by global modernization of society. Mr. Crawley gently states, “of course there are fairies, just as there is a Father Christmas, the trouble is making them corporeal. They are fine poetic concepts taking us out of this, at times, too ugly real world.”

We need the Cottingley fairies and artists like Susan kae Grant more than ever. They remind us that our spirit world needs as much nurture as our material one. The poet Denise Levertov once said it this way, “one is in despair over the current manifestation of malevolent imbecility and the seemingly invincible power of rapacity, yet finds oneself writing a poem about the trout lilies in spring woods.”

“Flying Tiger” photograph by Susan kae Grant with permission

Susan kae Grant hanging and layering props in her Cedars area of Dallas studio to create a large-scale ‘in silhouette’ photograph

Susan Kae Grant inspires the imagination and artist in all of us to persevere, allow our dreams to inform our consciousness, recognize the beauty in the discarded elements in both the real and subconscious worlds. Just like an airy skybridge between two elegant pieces of architecture, the intersection of the two is a magical place to invite dreams.

Susan Kae Grant received a B.S. in 1976 and a MFA in Photography and Book Arts in 1979 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a Professor and Head of the Photography & Bookmaking Program at Texas Woman’s University and teaches workshops annually at the International Center for Photography in New York City. Grant’s photography is in permanent collections of various national museums including the George Eastman House; the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography; the J. Paul Getty Museum; the Victoria and Albert Museum; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Susan is represented in Dallas by the Conduit Gallery. Her website is:

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