Michaela O’Brien: Love Valley
When I first became aware of Michaela O’Brien’s work, Love Valley, one of my first inclinations was to discover something about the location for myself—albeit remotely. I opened Google Maps and tried to parachute in via Street View, but my attempt was instantly thwarted. Google has not dispatched its picture-making vehicles into Love Valley, and for a logical reason. Cars are not allowed on Main Street. I found this inaccessibility intriguing because it is so simple to go anywhere on the internet. However, some locations remain too isolated for complacent exploration. In the case of Love Valley, seclusion is part of the lifestyle. Michaela has entered this world by living on Main Street and spending time with the locals. She has uncovered and documented forgotten artifacts and images that speak to the history and culture of a place that describes itself as “a boy’s dream and a man’s reality”—the Old West in North Carolina. Her photographs generate a view of a community that prides itself in peculiarity. It indulges in an idealized past while attempting to find bearing for its future.
Michaela O’Brien is a documentary artist, photographer, and filmmaker currently based in Durham, NC. She holds an MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts from Duke University. Her work includes independent documentaries for broadcast, award-winning audiovisual installations, client-based archival research, and interactive videos for a variety of acclaimed museums. Her photographic and moving images works have been featured in galleries and film festivals worldwide. She is currently teaching in the department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies at Duke University.
Love Valley is currently listed on Visit North Carolina’s tourism website under the “quirky” section of “Things To Do.” Nestled in the foothills of the Brushy Mountains, the township, founded in 1954, allows only horse and foot traffic on its Main Street, a dirt road lined with less than a dozen buildings of rough hewn timber made to look a century old. This scene, that brings to mind a John Wayne movie, also conjures an eerie ghostliness at quieter times of day.
Founder Andy Barker’s boyhood dream of a cowboy haven is home to a population which hovers at about 100 people. Ellenora, his now 94-year-old Alzheimic widow, preserves a record of his utopian aspirations in a rarely accessed, dusty, wood-planked room where cabinets are filled with reels of film, medium and large format photographic negatives and piles of scrapbooks.
In this .2 square mile community, reenactment forms an important aspect of social life even as nostalgia contends with everyday realities. Residents attempt to shape and reshape the township around their founder’s vision of a Western town full of “good, clean fun.” In Love Valley, men, women, children, and animals each tussle for a place somewhere between an idealized past and an elusive future.
My time living on Main Street resulted in this fragmented narrative of frontier freedom. This assemblage is an oblique museum, an impulse to document, and a document of that impulse. In Love Valley, the complete story is eschewed for the remains: a constellation of biblical and patriotic gestures, and what lies at the heart of it all, the desire to start over.
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