There’s a back story to everyone’s life, but few know photographer Theresa Airey’s.
She dreamt of studying art but married at 19; her first child was born ten months later.
After two more children followed in quick succession, the young mother began to fear the education she’d longed for was near impossible.
Eventually, she did it. Lessons with one of America’s great photographers, environmentalist Ansel Adams, followed.
“I always wanted to be an artist, but my parents wouldn’t hear of it,” said Mrs Airey, who moved here 24 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland. “They had suffered through the Great Depression and Second World War. ‘Artist’, in their vocabulary, was synonymous with ‘bum’. My parents, with all the best intentions, wanted me to be a secretary so that I could dress nicely, work 9 to 5, have coffee breaks and earn a steady income.
“Trying to live up to their expectations, I got a job as a secretary after high school but I hated every minute of it.”
She stayed there for a year, becoming a stay-at-home mom after she and her husband Don had their children.
“My creativity was expressed in the clothes that I sewed for my children and myself however I fed my desire for art by taking night classes at our local college on painting, sculpture and drawing,” Mrs Airey said.
“I enjoyed this time of my life as a mother and homemaker, but as my children grew up I grew bored and needed more.”
She finally got her chance at education at 37, eventually earning a master’s degree in photography and fine art.
“At first, I thought that I was too old to go to college and embark on a career. But, I also knew that life would keep moving on, that I would be 50 some day with or without an education and a career. So I went for both. My husband was behind me 100 per cent when I announced my intentions to commence collage and study fine art. Although I worried about how I was going to fit my academic schedule into a calendar full of field trips and PTA meetings, it all came together — meals were prepared, lunches were packed, clothes were washed and dried.”
She found Adams’ book, The Negative: Basic Photography Two, in the library. According to Mrs Airey: “It changed my life. I was so inspired after reading it that I went through directory assistance to find the author’s phone number in California, and called him,” she said. “Ansel happened to be walking by the phone when it rang and he answered. I introduced myself and told him that I really thought he knew his stuff. He chuckled softly when I told him that, as he knew that I did not know who he was. I knew nothing of his fame or his work outside of that small book.”
As she was about to head to the West Coast to visit family, she naively asked whether she could join him for a lesson.
“He kindly explained that he had just finished his annual workshop, but that his top assistant, John Sextant, and friend, Henry Gilpin, would be offering a workshop soon and that I ought to sign up for that one and he would put in a good word for me,” Mrs Airey said. “I was disappointed but I called John Sexton as soon as I hung up. Unfortunately, the class was full and I was wait-listed. Then, the night before I left for California, I got a phone call. There had been one cancellation and, although I was fourteenth in the queue, they offered me the spot because of Ansel’s recommendation. Ansel told John that I was most enthusiastic and full of energy.”
She learnt a lot about fine art photography from the pair, who also introduced her to Adams and his wife, Virginia.
“Ansel told me that I had a very creative eye, but that I needed to learn how to print,” Mrs Airey said.
He invited her to send her portfolio before Christmas promising he would accept her into a June 1980 workshop “if it is good enough”.
“It was the very last Yosemite workshop that Ansel ever taught,” Mrs Airey said. “He was struggling with a weak heart. Even that year, when we all went on our field trip up in the mountains, Ansel stayed back in his hotel room.
“That night when he spoke to us, his voice cracked, ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I stayed back in my room, it is a nice cool air-conditioned room with great views of the mountains in the distance, but my heart was up there with all of you.’ There was not a dry eye in the whole auditorium.”
Adams died four years later, age 82. In the meantime, Mrs Airey completed her degree and started teaching at Maryland Institute College of Art and at Towson State University.
“But when my husband was offered a partnership in business here, I gave up teaching as a career, moved here and began writing books,” she said. “I still teach globally — my next workshop is in Italy; I just finished one in Hawaii. I travel quite a bit and teach wherever I get a chance. People see my work on Facebook or they’ve been a student and tell somebody [about me] or schools offer me a workshop date and I go. [So I’m hired] mainly through word of mouth and [my association with the] Professional Photographers of America.”
Mrs Airey’s art has hung in galleries here and around the world. She is best known for her ability to use the computer to “cross the boundaries” between traditional printmaking, painting, drawing, photography and digital art. Her work is now on display at Gallery One Seventeen, Front Street
Theresa Airey’s latest body of work, Scent of Beauty, is now on display at Gallery One Seventeen.
The images are the result of “a new photographic technique” she developed last year while recuperating from an operation on her foot.
Because of her limited ability, she started photographing what was at hand — hibiscus and other flowers in her garden.
“I began to see that they were just as interesting in the aftermath of blooming,” she said. “I loved the desaturated colours that appeared after the full blooming and the way the petals began to shrivel and turn.”
The technique she used in post-editing emphasised the flowers’ textures and colours and “brought out their beauty”.
“I began to see whimsical images in the dying blooms — a stork, a fish, a seahorse, a dancer etc — which led me into making a series of images,” Mrs Airey said. “Thus came this body of work entitled Scent of Beauty.”
Forty-eight pieces of her work are now on display at the Front Street gallery through July 27.