Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: artist vision

Under the Cover of Darkness: Capturing the Journey

Say you’re an African-American photographer that’s won a MacArthur grant for your evocative portraits. And your images depict young people and the black experience in Harlem and the South.

from the series Harlem, USA by Dawoud Bey

Your photos of everyday people illuminate a sense of the inner person…

from the series Harlem, USA by Dawoud Bey

as your images allow their personalities to shine through.

Then you decide to recreate the experience of escaped slaves making their way to freedom. You focus on capturing their journey on the Underground Railroad. You’re inspired by a Langston Hughes poem that ends, “Night coming tenderly, black like me.”

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black by Dawoud Bey

You know that escapees found their way to freedom under cover of darkness. The tender blackness of night offered hope and the chance for a safe passage to freedom. But how do you photograph that? For a night journey can also be a time of mystery, danger and the unknown. So how do you capture that in a series of photographs?

Capturing the Journey

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

This was the challenge for photographer Dawoud Bey.

MacArthur Foundation photo

In a NYT profile, Mr. Bey explains:

“I wanted the photographs… to pull you back to the experience of the landscape through which those fugitive black bodies were moving in the 19th century to escape slavery.”

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

For me, the photos create a strong point of view. They present a glimpse of what you might see if you were moving stealthily across unfamiliar terrain.

Dawoud Bey:

The photographs recreate “the spatial and sensory experience of those moving furtively through the darkness.”

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

I can see how this image evokes a sense of that clandestine journey. I can imagine hiding behind a sheltering tree, scanning the darkness for the way forward. Driven by hope, feeling the danger.

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

Or in this one and the one below, seeing the obstacles you might encounter as you move under cover of night, making your way through the shadows.

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

The Underground Railroad that slaves traveled to freedom was a clandestine network of secret routes and safe houses. Escapees that followed it’s path, aided by freed slaves and abolitionists,

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

hoped to reach Canada or a free state where slavery was outlawed.

Encountering “Station Hope”

A way station on the route to Canada lay in Cleveland, Ohio. There, inside St. John’s Episcopal Church, stood “Station Hope.”

St. John’s Episcopal Church

Dawoud Bey:

“St. John’s was the final Underground Railroad station that fugitive slaves, who had made their way to Cleveland, would take refuge before making their way to Lake Erie and then on to freedom in Canada.”

It still stands today, and was chosen as the exhibit site for Dawoud Bey’s photo essay, Night Coming Tenderly, Black.

Night Coming Tenderly, Black exhibit in the church pews. Photo by Field Studio

MacArthur Foundation photo


“To have the work shown in a space that had once been inhabited by fugitive slaves was deeply meaningful.”


Portraying a Tender Space

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

“It is a tender space through which one moves. That is the space I imagined the fugitive black subjects moving through as they sought their own self-liberation…”

Lake Erie, gateway to Canada, from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

 “moving through the dark landscape of America and Ohio toward freedom under cover of a munificent and blessed blackness.”

You Become Part of the Experience

I wanted to write about this photo series because, if you spend a little time with the images, I think you can see what Dawoud Bey was trying to express. They have a quietness about them, which I like, and a sense of movement as well. Knowing what the photos are trying to convey, I find they help me imagine what it must have been like to take that perilous journey to freedom. I wonder if they work that way for you too?

If you’re curious about his earlier work, a while back I wrote a piece for The Vision Thing on some of Dawoud Bey’s portraits. You can find it here.

So  what are your thoughts about these photos? Leave a comment and let me know.

Art & Creativity Inspired by Nature: Janis Goodman

I’ve always been curious about the creative process and what inspires it – that’s one of the reasons I write The Vision Thing. So I thought I’d ask some of my artist friends about their take on inspiration, art and creativity.

Janis Goodman head shot

photo of Janis Goodman provided by artist

This will be the first of several posts, starting with artist and educator Janis Goodman. Janis is Professor of Fine Arts at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, DC. She’s a working artist and often experiments with new approaches to her art. Over the years I’ve seen her canvases change quite a bit. Janis also appears regularly on PBS affiliate WETA-TV to review arts and culture in the Washington, DC area.

She spends summers in Maine to hike, kayak and paint. She told me she finds lots to inspire her in that rural setting. As she meanders along the rocky coves near her cabin, her eye is often attracted to the ever-changing patterns in nature – and especially water.



Rather than record her encounters with nature in a realistic way, she tries to find the essence of those experiences and re-image them in her art. So the swirls and eddies on the water’s surface that she observes from her kayak become abstracted as lines, shapes and color in her paintings.

Janis explains:

I was working with paintings of water – the tides and currents – how they ripple and move, and are constantly changing. I’m trying to capture the instability of everything and the way we perceive and observe the world.

"Summer Landscape"

“Summer Landscape”



There’s a strong feeling of movement in her paintings and it’s that constant change – those moments of flux and uncertainty – that she’s trying to capture. Her work is unpredictable that way. If you spend time reflecting on one of her abstractions, inevitably something new is revealed or begins to take shape in a different way.

Painting represents change over time – that’s what’s exciting. It’s continually changing and you hope it adds up to something cohesive.


photos of Janis in her studio by Dan Bailes

I asked Janis what she saw as the core of her creativity.

I’m always questioning: why is something like this instead of like that? I think it starts with curiosity, then feeling a sense of permission to go forward, to reach out and embrace the motivation to do the work.

"Movement and Migration"

“Movement and Migration”

Her paintings evolve as she works on them, she starts with one idea and that leads to another and another.

You jump into the abyss and hope the painting will tell you where to go. I’m usually up in the air and never know where I’m going to land. It’s scary.

Curiosity is the catalyst that launches her creative process, combined with a keen sense of observation. As she spends time on the water or takes a walk through the woods, she becomes more open and connected to the natural world. It’s that quality of mindfulness, and her interpretation of what she experiences, that she tries to capture with her brush.


Janis has a remarkable sense of composition. While everything seems out of balance, somehow it works. I asked her why.

Composition is a lot about intuition. My work is always asymmetrical and I really like unequal balance. I’m conscious of the energy force (created by that unequal balance), or what adding something does to the energy force.



It’s like the energy around magnetic fields – you want all of the elements in a conversation. Balance helps your eye take everything in, but not necessarily in one go. As you spend a little time with the work, balance allows you to digest the whole picture.

What does the creative process mean for Janis? Is she driven by passion, a need to communicate something, ego or what? I wondered how she would respond.


This is not about enjoyment. This is hard work. It’s not easy to do – it’s problem solving – to me that’s really interesting. I love doing it, I couldn’t see doing anything else. Still, I’m very stoic about it – when I’m finished and looking at one of my pieces I might say to myself, “Yeah that came together” or “Where did that come from?”


Most of my artist friends would say it’s work – it’s problem solving. Painting is: you create the problem; you solve the problem. It consumes you – you go into unchartered waters in your head.

"Bee Hive"

“Bee Hive”

You keep digging, like you’re going to get to some truth – of course you never get there – but it’s like one of these days you will and it’s going to knock you on your ass.

"Dream of Odysseus"

“Dream of Odysseus”

Maybe it all just comes down to being curious, mindful and in sync with yourself.

I know if I haven’t been in my studio in a few days I go crazy. You spend so much time with yourself you need an honest dialog with your work – if the work isn’t talking back to you, you shouldn’t do it.


Janis begins with a blank canvas, something at once terrifying and exhilarating. Powered by curiosity and a confidence born from experience, she’s able to pick up a brush and begin. I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.