Ewald’s camera is direct yet sympathetic. Her motive is to ennoble. The result is life-affirming. As each of these bright young faces stares directly into the lens, the gaze is neither solemn nor happy. But every child appears hopeful.
Ewald has coupled many of her head-on portraits with equally crisp shots of the backs of the children’s heads. She revels in how light burrows into the course texture of their hair, whether close-cropped or elaborately braided. Like Edward Weston’s classic tightly cropped photographs of peppers and other objects 75 years ago, these heads become sculptural objects of beauty in themselves.
Ewald, however, is not just about portraits and texture (although that, alone, would make for a superb showing). She is a storyteller with a sly approach. She has disconnected her photographed subjects from any kind of connection to their homes or school lives, however loving or dysfunctional they might be. These children stand alone, unsullied by the rough and tumble of life. They become universal symbols of hope and childhood. But we know something about them: In some photographs Ewald includes personal belongings — a stuffed animal, an action toy, a basketball or a pair of sneakers.
To this bravura performance Ewald adds another element, quotations scrawled artfully on the photographs in thick, felt-tip pen. These provide verbal links with the children’s self-awareness and aspirations. “I want people to think of me as cool and smooth-thinking,” reads one. Says another, “I play at the basketball court with my uncles and my cousins.”
Richmond is a city famous for grand monuments — monumental banners even, like those that hang on the flood wall downtown. But none of those public art pieces speak as eloquently as these photographs attached to city walls. Is it the clarity of a black-and-white image against the rusted and worn surfaces of a neighborhood struggling for a comeback? Is it the quiet dignity of the children’s expressions? Is it the shock of seeing so elegant a conceptual art project in so inelegant a setting?
It is all of the above. But most importantly, another, bigger idea cries out: Each individual counts, especially a child. In the innocence and promise of children lie the hopes of society. The Hand Workshop and its patrons should be applauded for this presentation. It makes the recent public art project, “Go Fish,” appear insipid—the equivalent of paint-by-numbers or decorating Easter eggs.
“In Peace and Harmony: Carver Portraits” proves the power of unleashing a major talent with a big idea and letting him or her fly. Ewald has plastered poetry—visual poetry—along the streets of Carver, giving some of its young residents 15 minutes of fame. SA guide to “In Peace and Harmony: Carver Portraits” can be obtained from the Hand Workshop at 1812 W. Main St., 353-0094, where another Wendy Ewald exhibition is being shown, “On Site/ Artists’ Projects: Wendy Ewald,” through July 25. The Children’s Museum of Richmond is showing Ewald’s “The Arabic Alphabet” through Sept. 6 at 2626 W. Broad St., 474-2667.
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