“I’m not a surfer or a skater, just a picture making, roller skate enthusiast from the US Deep South but I suppose what served as the catalyst for this email was my deep appreciation for the first page and last page of the magazine. I could hear the sincerity in your voice and I just wanted to let you know that I read it and whether or not that counts for anything I don’t know but I thought I’d tell you anyways… best of luck in the future.”
It’s funny where a random email can lead.
Turns out that picture making, roller skate enthusiast was Frances Berry. We were stunned. Not only by the kind words sent our way, but the beauty that graced our eyes whilst uncovering Frances’ work moments later. Picture maker may seem and odd title but it’s perfectly appropriate. Frances work blends multiple media, in which painting, drawing, photography and digital media co-exist, producing a wild, kaleidoscopic collage of colour, history and deep rooted nostalgia. In fact, when Frances discovered our magazine, she was in La Rochelle, France, exhibiting ‘Memory Machine’, a visual installation consisting of film projections on transparent material, exploring how memory and photography are often synonymous.
“Not to sound like an art dick, but with film, there’s that tangible quality of time passed. It’s the reason why there’s that whole disconnect between digital and sentiment. Digital’s too clean, it’s too stark, too sterile, too removed of all human experience. Photography is a shit approximation for how we experience the world in the first place. It’s flat, it’s static, it’s dead, essentially. I grew really sick and tired of that digital phase and I’m not enough of a purist to going back and shooting film so I started doing this.”
As Frances speaks to us from her glass front studio in down- town Memphis, Tennessee, surrounded by murals, roller skates and various art utensils, she contemplates that she may well have become somewhat of a performance artist.
“I’m always on display. I live in a fish tank essentially. I tend to do my best work, especially mural work or drawing when people are watching, like as a performance.”
By her own admission Memphis isn’t exactly a cultural hot bed but her studio looks out to Mulberry Street, specifically the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was fatally shot. Naturally many tourists find themselves peering through her window whilst she works.
“I know I’ve got constant energy right under the surface. So my work is like the manifestation of all of that energy. I just go into auto pilot. It’s like when you go on a really long drive and you have no memory of it. That’s exactly what it’s like when I’m drawing. The moment I start thinking about it, it goes to shit.”
Frances wasn’t always a cross-media picture maker however.
“I’m constantly in flux. My Mum always says I have 2 speeds. Stop. Go. I mean shit, 5 years ago I was a formalist photographer.”
Despite entering graduate school as a formalist photographer, Frances sold her cameras the first semester and quickly returned to her digital roots, only to become equally disillusioned.
“I’d spent all of graduate school doing conceptual critique of photography kinda stuff and so when I got out I was like, fuck all this pseudo-intellectual bullshit. I can’t pedal this garbage anymore and so I started painting and drawing.”
Having grown up in Mississippi, graduated in Alabama, and cur- rently living in Memphis, there’s no escaping Frances’ southern roots.
“People only talk about my work in the context of being a Southern woman artist, like I need all these qualifiers. It’s not my work that can’t stand out on it’s own. It’s me that can’t escape this place, this region. Everything about me is so Southern. I call it exotic bird syndrome. Apparently seeing a highly articulate, talented woman from the South do something is like seeing a dog walk on their back legs in a suit.”
For all her talents as a visual artist, the characteristics that stands out the most is just how intelligent and articulate she is. Which leads us to question what it’s like living in a part of Amer- ica that overwhelmingly voted Donald Trump for President.
“I don’t care much for politics. I mean all politicians are demagogues. The whole Trump thing, everyone acts like it impacts us on a daily basis. It doesn’t. Our local politics affect the fuck out of us and nobody gives a shit. Everybody’s so quick to go to Trump. Trump only matters as much as we allow him to matter. When a kid is throwing a temper tantrum you don’t yell back, nor do you meet their irrational demands. Either response only serves to further embolden the bad behaviour.”
She goes on to explain how she would’ve voted Bernie Sanders had he overcome Hillary in the primaries, before referring back to the hysteria of modern politics.
“I’m very post feminist, I praise the church of rational thinking, I don’t believe in hysteria of the masses. Every time I see people rallying, I tend to step away. Immediately there’s red flags all over that. Hysteria makes people do crazy things and that’s what Trump is.”
It’s probably why Frances’ art never delves into political territory, she doesn’t want to give it the attention it craves and by her own admission, she’s still figuring out how to merge her creativity with her socio-political outlook.
“At the end of the day I am a very pensive person. As much as I talk, I think and read a lot. I’ve yet to figure out how to nego- tiate the relationship between the mural, the painting and all of that, with my more conceptual thoughts. They both satiate my appetite but not in the same way. One is sweet, one is salty. One is a meal, one is dessert. You wouldn’t be happy eating dessert for the rest of your life, but you also wouldn’t be happy going without dessert for the rest of your life. I just do whatever I happen to feel like.”