Just before our last fellows of 2012 left, they got stuck in the elevator at the Dora Maar House. Some former Dora Maar fellows may just now be thinking, hey that’s a good strategy to not have to leave….
But the pompiers (firemen) were called. In France you call the pompiers for anything and everything. Trained as Emergency Medical Technicians, they are called for medical emergencies, for car accidents, for chemical spills, for alpine accidents, and also for wasp nests, for cats stuck in trees, for being stuck in an elevator, and yes, for fires. They arrived quickly. They had the key (literally) for opening the elevator. Within moments everyone was released and the brave troupe of pompiers had coffee in the Dora Maar kitchen, taking turns admiring the garden. Now I know what to do if you are stuck in an elevator. There is a key. It’s very simple and all elevators have the same standard key.
I just wish other things could be as simple. So many situations could use that standard key. We have been reading applications for the next round of fellows. It is both an exciting but also a heartbreaking exercise. I start out amazed at the work and effort of people all over the world, creating, forming, thinking, writing about all kinds of things. It makes me hopeful—the thought of all that wild curiosity and creative energy, struggling and pushing boundaries. Then I realize that most of these people who work so hard are going to get a rejection letter.
There is no way to write a nice rejection letter. There are shades of nicer but in the end it’s not a nice thing. Maybe an overdue bad speeding ticket or a nasty letter from the IRS are worse, but a rejection letter belongs in that generally unpleasant group of messages arriving by mail. I wish I had a standard elevator key to writing the nice rejection letter, just as, I am sure, so many of us wish we had the elevator key to writing the perfect application.
My 11 year old daughter Eliza has been inspired by one of this summer’s fellows. While photographer Suzanne Opton took portraits of local farmers, Eliza worked as her translator. This was thrilling for Eliza, who even at age 7 had a unique photographic eye. (I am remembering a series of Polaroid portraits of her dead hamster). When Suzanne works, she poses her subjects and sometimes the farmers weren't sure what she was going after. "The line between poetry and absurdity is thin,” Suzanne explained. “You have to push it all the way to the edge to find the line." The experience pushed Eliza’s passion to a new level. She sold three of her (and her siblings) old DS gameboys and trolled au bon coin-- the French equivalent of ebay-- looking for that camera she had to have. She found it at a good price and I agreed to chip in as part of her Christmas and Birthday presents.
The Nikon DL 100 arrived with two lenses and it is way more complicated than any camera I have ever owned. It came with a thick well-thumbed French manual. Eliza is working her way through the book, but sometimes her frustration is evident. "Why," she asks, "does it have to be so complicated?" When I mentioned Eliza's difficulty to Suzanne in an email, she wrote: "One needs to know very little in terms of equipment in order to make a good photograph. What one really needs is TIME, and that's exactly why the Dora Maar residency is invaluable."
I passed the message onto Eliza that it doesn’t have to be complicated but that it does take time. And she might not figure everything out. If you are stuck in an elevator, I have the key. But part of being an artist is frustration, rejection and not having the key.