Annie Donovan: The States Project: Florida
Today, it is my pleasure to share the work of Annie Donovan. I met Annie two years ago at a workshop in Colorado, where we worked in teams to make short documentary films. The class was intense and small, so we all had the opportunity to get to know each other well. By the end of the week, I saw Annie as a talented and thoughtful artist with a sharp sense of humor. We’ve since stayed in touch, and I’ve been able to watch her current work take shape.
Annie incorporates her passion for pigeons and interest of flight into her installations. Her work alludes to broader notions of escape, freedom, and community. In her artist statement she writes, “When looking, it is important to see slowly; to inhale and to hold; to touch and to feel; to soak in all the information that is being offered before oneself. An experience is all of these and more, an impact on one’s life that will affect them for eternity – whether it be known consciously or subconsciously. Since I was a little girl, birds have always fascinated me. The idea that they are able to hop into the sky and go wherever their wings take them is inspiring and has taken me my entire life. Having bred and raised pigeons for fourteen years, I have been captivated by their uniqueness in the bird world, and their ability to take flight. Through the use of photographic imagery, visions of experience will be communicated and shared with the viewer, illustrating the yearning that I feel to join the birds in the sky.”
Annie Donovan is an interdisciplinary artist based in the south + east. Originating from Dallas – Fort Worth, she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from UT Arlington in 2010. After taking a year and a half off from school to experience the real world and make photographs with instant film, she was accepted into the Master of Fine Arts program at Florida State University. During her time at FSU, Annie was able to master her photographic technique, as well as acquire skills in other mediums such as bookmaking, woodworking, and digital technologies. Graduating in May of 2015 with her MFA, Annie plans to pursue her dreams of creating art, hanging out with her cat, flying free with her pet pigeons, and exploring the globe with her camera at her side. She currently lives and works in Tallahassee.
You moved to Florida from Texas to attend grad school at FSU. Do you think you will stick around? What has been like living and making art in North Florida?
I love Florida! I’ll be in Tallahassee at least another year to recover from graduate school and give myself time to focus on the bigger picture. I grew up in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and being in Tallahassee has felt like a nice vacation from the craziness of life in suburbia. Being in a college town has been quite interesting, and the vibes of Tallahassee have always been positive. North Florida is definitely an interesting place. There are tons of outdoorsy things – like camping, hiking, and swimming, which I love to do. The art side has been pretty tough, however. The closest cities with larger art galleries and museums are hours away, and there are no good art supply stores, or contemporary art communities anywhere close (that I know of at least). Back in Arlington, if I needed some book making supplies, I would just hop into the car and 30 minutes later I’d be at the book arts store in Dallas. There’s also a huge photography community in DFW that I really miss going on photo adventures with.
I understand you keep pigeons? How did you get into keeping birds? Is that how you became interested in the idea of flight?
For as long as I can remember, birds have always intrigued me. I remember back when I was in preschool, we were asked a few times what we wanted to be when we grew up. I always answered “A bird!” and sometimes “A Cowgirl!” … But what little girl growing up in Texas doesn’t want to be a Cowgirl?
My passion for pigeons started with stories my dad used to tell me when I was younger. While growing up, he and his brothers raised pigeons. They had a breed called Tumblers, which are bred for their ability to do backflips while flying. He would tell me stories about how they would toss them into the air, where they would fly high into the sky, and then tumble to the earth, nearly hitting the ground before flying up to do it again.
I have never really thought about being influenced by flight when I was younger. It’s always kind of been there in the back of my head. I used to bird watch avidly from my bedroom window and gaze in awe at the speed of the wild birds flying in and out from their perches to the feeder. I used to pretend to be one of them and zoom around the yard, flapping my arms in attempt to join them in the sky.
How did you get turned on to photography? What art(ists) are you most excited about currently?
Growing up my mom used to tell me how she took a couple of photography classes while she was in college and how much fun she had. She would let me play with her Yashica SLR while I was birding through my window, and I would pretend that I was a professional National Geographic photographer making pictures for the magazine. My older brother, Eamonn, also was really into photography while he was a senior in high school, and he really inspired me to get into it. (That and my high school photography teacher, Mr. Hamm, got me into the class when I was a sophomore, as it was strictly an upperclassman elective; he was always supportive and inspirational).
I have always been intrigued by installation art, especially after receiving the opportunities to visit the Venice Biennale, Art Basel Miami, and Prospect in New Orleans. There is one piece I saw recently in Houston at the Menil Collection called The Infinity Machine by artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. It was quite spectacular and really swept me off my feet. The guide takes you into a dark room with a flashlight, where you are instantly surrounded by a loud whirring sound and are completely dwarfed by hundreds of backlit mirrors rotating in the center of the room. It was almost like looking into a tornado, but at times I could see my own reflection spinning and spinning and spinning…
In addition to that, I’ve been looking at a lot of Bill Viola’s video work and have had the chance to visit a few of James Turrell’s Skyspaces. It is so fascinating to stare up at the hole in the ceiling in the Skyspaces as the LEDs change the color of the sky. It’s such a beautiful idea, so simple and complicated at the same time.
One of my favorite pieces of yours is your Liberation video. Can you talk a little about the making of that piece and what it means to you?
It started with the work I was making prior to it. I had a hand-raised bird named bb that I had been taking a lot of self-portraits with. I was making multiple exposures with my 4×5 camera in the studio to create the sense that I was photographing a flock. Completely unrelated to the Liberation video and photographic series, I started to Google search for local pigeon racing clubs because I wanted to find a mate for bb. The closest ones that I found were about three to four hours away from Tallahassee in all directions. It was very discouraging, but I sent three or four different clubs an email anyway. I explained my situation of being in Tallahassee and being a graduate student with little money to afford a bird (some Racing Homers are worth well over $1000). I crossed my fingers but did not expect a reply. However, a few weeks later I received a response from the President of the Tampa Bay Racing Pigeon Combine, Erio. He offered to give me a bird for free if I paid for shipping. I was ecstatic at the prospect of a new bird. I wasn’t too keen on shipping as it causes them stress and offered to pick up the bird from his house on my way back from a trip to South Florida. He agreed, so I picked her up on my drive home.
A few weeks later, I decided that I wanted to incorporate more pigeons into my work instead of the two that I had. I emailed Erio, asking if there were any racing pigeon releases that he knew of in my area. He immediately responded, inviting me to attend the Combine’s releases and encouraging me to get in contact with their bird Liberator, Sergio. I was excited, especially since it had always been a dream of mine to train my homing pigeons to be racing homers and to attend a pigeon racing release. I had absolutely no idea what to expect from the releases, aside from a few videos I had seen online.
It was a lot more exhausting than I had anticipated. Once I received the release schedule and GPS coordinates from Erio, I learned that there was a release every Saturday starting September 27th through December 6th. They started in Alachua, Florida and went to Lake City; Fargo, Georgia; Alma, Georgia; Lyons, Georgia; and Louisville, Georgia. The days were long. I would have to wake up the amount of time it took to get to the location, plus an hour and a half beforehand to get on the road. I made a point to arrive at least an hour before the actual release so that I could reroute if I got lost and to give myself time to set up my cameras. For the most part, I had no less than four cameras on tripods shooting video, plus my Mamiya 645 in my hand to make still photographs. One release typically took me a minimum of six hours of drive time, and by the time I got home I was so exhausted I slept until the next day.
Looking back, it is definitely an experience that I will never forget. Despite all of the travel I have been doing lately – going to SPE conferences, and exploring the southeast both alone and with company – I feel that I have acquired travelling skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It takes a lot of endurance to be able to wake up at 1 AM, drive 5 hours in darkness to a place you have never been, get lost several times, wait an hour for an event that lasts maybe a minute, and then drive back five hours, all in one day. I put a lot of time into the piece, and I feel that it shows. It’s about the suspense of waiting and watching the morning light appear over the trees or the shopping center. It leads up to the explosion of release as if a lot of anticipation or stress welled up inside of the trailer. The sense of satisfaction and relaxation I receive when the birds race into the sky then fade into the distance as they fly home makes me feel proud to be passionate about birds, their beauty, the time it takes to care for them, and the time it takes to help others see and feel the wonder of it all. I feel that the piece brought me closer to understanding my own passion for pigeons and the enjoyment I have always had grown up with them.
I remember you telling me a couple years back that you were trying to make a sensory deprivation chamber, and I’ve always kept that in mind when looking at your work. I guess it’s my own notion of your art attempting to be an all-consuming, psychological experience for the viewer. Is this something that motivates you at all?
I feel that, in a way, the idea has motivated me since then. Sensory deprivation hypothetically encompasses someone and takes them into a place where there is nothing but themself and their own mind. In my art, I have always strived to recreate an experience that I experienced myself, or something that I was so intrigued by that I wanted others to feel just as intrigued as I did. I think ideally, I would like to create an experience that displaces a person in a similar way, however, without depriving them of their senses, but rather indulging them with their senses. Maybe it could be called a sensory indulgence space? Chamber sounds way too antagonizing, and I want people to feel happy and free.
I know you consider yourself an interdisciplinary artist and photography seems to be one component in an expanding studio practice. Does straight photography have a place in your future art practice? What way of working are you most interested in right now?
Straight photography will always have a place in my heart and my roots. I think it definitely will always be a part of my art practice. The way the camera can capture the world and the way that it can manipulate point of view fascinates me. Right now I am interested in the way we have the ability to change our view of reality through the lens, both figuratively and literally. I have been tinkering with the idea of creating and working with handheld objects, which is entirely new to me, and I am very excited about it.
Do you have current projects that you’re excited about? Could you take us through some of your recent work?
There is one project/idea that I am pretty stoked about. It’s still pretty basic, and I am still tinkering around with a lot of potential ways to make it come together. It combines the use of darkroom enlargers, laser cut materials, lenses, and the idea of looking at the world in a different way. I’ve always wanted to make my own camera, and in a way, I am doing just that. I apologize if I am being vague, but since it hasn’t really come together, I don’t want to speak too much about it. You’ll just have to stay tuned and keep checking my website for updates.
What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming shows you’d like to plug?
I do! I was accepted into The Book as Art 3.0: No Jacket Required book arts exhibition at the gallery at the Art Institute of Atlanta-Decatur in Decatur, GA. It runs from July 24th through September 18th and is in conjunction with the AJC Decatur Book Festival that is going to be held on Labor Day weekend. If you’re around the Atlanta area, you should check it out! There are going to be some pretty fantastic book pieces there, and I am excited to be included in the exhibition.
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