MOP Denver: Julia Vandenoever: Being Grayson
Co-curated by Samantha Johnston, CPAC Executive Director & Curator, and Benjamin Rasmussen, Co-Founder of Pattern Denver, Small Talk is a photographic collection of short stories by nine artists exploring people and places, collaborations with loved ones, and detours taken from larger projects that were paused by the pandemic. Today we feature one of those stories by Julia Vandenoever, titled Being Grayson.
“The pandemic changed the way that we communicate and connect. Unable to meet in person, we had no one with whom to discuss our lives, our obsessions and our discoveries. So instead, we made “small talk” through the creation of bodies of work, a tangible yet physically distanced way to speak each other.
This exhibition explores people and places we found interesting, collaborations with loved ones and detours taken from larger projects paused by the pandemic. If our broader practices are the creation of large, sweeping bodies of work, Small Talk is a photographic collection of our short stories.”
Featured Artists: Carl Bower, Daniel Brenner, Brendan Davis, Ryan Dearth, Juan Fuentes, Benjamin Rasmussen, James Stukenberg, Rebecca Stumpf, and Julia Vandenoever
Small Talk will be on view at the Temple Buell Theatre Lobby March 2 – 31.
There will be a panel discussion on March 23 at the Studio Loft at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House.
On a morning drive to school, Grayson told me, “I’ll show you the other way dad goes tomorrow. The way is different than yours, but it’s the same.” His words latched onto my heart. Different is not always easy and acceptable. Different can be uncomfortable and awkward. We learned early on that our son did not fit into many expected boxes. Following multi-step directions, sitting for longer than 10 minutes, and talking constantly landed Grayson in the principal’s office regularly. The “bad kid who just needed to try harder” label was a misconception because at age 7 Grayson was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia.
As a child with ADHD and dyslexia, Grayson’s whole world operates on a separate frequency. Both of these are neurological, which means his brain is wired differently. There are no outward physical signs. The differences are shown through behavior like disorganization, forgetfulness, and impulsivity. Daily activities such as getting dressed, doing homework, taking a shower, or eating dinner have their own rhythm and pace because time is irrelevant. One morning, we were late for school when Grayson grabbed 10 pairs of socks, put them all on at once, and squeezed his feet into his sneakers. I could offer no words to convince him that he would be uncomfortable. Everything stops when Grayson gets a sticky thought. He needs to experience things to believe them, and what seems illogical to us feels necessary to him.
Being Grayson is an exploration and celebration of Grayson’s process, a process that is often misunderstood. For me, guiding him along his path at times has been isolating. The act of photographing both his and my experiences is cathartic and promotes understanding and acceptance of the mystery of his logic. We’ve learned how to have a dialogue. By slowing down alongside him, not asking him to change, I see his beauty and gifts to the world. There is space for Grayson to be Grayson. -Julia Vandernoever
Julia Vandenoever is a photo-based artist whose work is generated from a personal perspective exploring themes of memory, identity, place, and home.
Raised in New England, she received a BA in Art History and a minor in photography from Smith College. Her career began working for Wendy Ewald’s Literacy Through Photography program where she cemented her love of storytelling. Next, as a photo editor, she helped shape the visual aesthetic and storytelling for iconic magazines including Backpacker, Skiing, and Outside for more than a decade. Now Julia is a full-time freelance editorial, commercial, and fine art photographer.
She has served as a visiting artist at Guttman College in New York City and was recently awarded a Colorado Artist Relief grant and a Boulder Arts Week grant. Julia has exhibited at The Humble Arts Foundation, The Griffin Museum of Photography, The Center for Photographic Art, Colorado Photographic Art, Boulder Creative Collective, SE Center for Photography, and the Center for Fine Photography. She had a solo show at the Center for Photography at Woodstock of her project Still Breathing. She was a 2021 and 2022 Critical Mass finalist as well as a PHMusuem Women’s Grant finalist.
In 2022, Julia was an artist-in-residence at the Boulder Creative Collective where she had a solo exhibition of her work, while I wait. Her first monograph, Still Breathing, was published in 2022 and reviewed by Lenscratch, PhotoEye, and PhotoBook Journal. The book was a 2022 Photobook Award EI Finalist and acquired by Smith College Rare Books Library.
Follow Julia Vandenoever on Instagram: @juliavandenoever
The Month of Photography Denver is presented by the Colorado Photographic Arts Center (CPAC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering the understanding and appreciation of excellent photography through year-round exhibitions, education, and community outreach. CPAC is the headquarters of the festival and is located at 1070 Bannock Street in Denver’s Golden Triangle Creative District.
Participating spaces include museums, galleries, universities, community art centers, nonprofit organizations, public spaces, businesses and other venues. Most events will take place in the Denver Metro area, with a smaller number of events outside the city in Boulder, Longmont, Fort Collins, and other areas.
For working photographers and artists, the Month of Photography Portfolio Reviews are a highlight of the festival. During this two-day event, up to 72 photographers will have an opportunity to present their work to 30 of the most important people in the national photography community, including museum curators, gallery owners, editors, publishers, nonprofit directors, and other leading professionals.
Month of Photography Denver is committed to an open, inclusive, accessible, and supportive environment for all of its patrons, staff, and volunteers. Visitors in need of accommodations are invited to contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org in advance of your visit so they can arrange accommodations to support your experience.
Month of Photography Denver is a member of the international network of photography festivals, the Festival of Light.
Kassandra Eller: I see that you have been in the photography field for a while and have accomplished quite a lot! How did your photographic journey begin? What made you decide to pursue photography?
Julia Vandenoever: I discovered my creative passion for photography in high school and further developed it through the SALT Center of Documentary Studies in Portland, ME. After Smith College, I freelanced with The Valley News before moving to Durham, NC where I took a job as project coordinator for Literacy Through Photography by Wendy Ewald. This position lead to an internship at Outside Magazine’s photo department which led me into a photo editing career in magazines (Outside, Skiing, and Backpacker) for 11 years. In 2012, I made the leap into focusing on commercial & editorial photography as well as fine art.
KE: Having a show in Denver’s Month of Photography is such an accomplishment! How does it feel to be able to show this work in a gallery setting?
JV: It feels amazing to be part of an exhibit during Month of Photography. I have been working on this project with Grayson for 3 years but the work is not finished. I’m excited about the two artist talks during MOP to have a platform to talk about dyslexia and ADHD. Dyslexia is often thought of as reversing letters but there is a lot more to it like weakened rote memory, problems identifying speech sounds, and decoding. I’m excited he gets to see himself in center stage, a place where is doesn’t get to be very often.
KE: In many of these images, the composition is simple. These images show a child living in his own world. How did you conceive of the compositions? Did you begin with a concept or were you capturing candid images as they occurred?
JV: My compositions are inspired by real experiences, often needing to be recreated at a different time due to Grayson’s impatience arising from his ADHD. These photographs represent the challenging moments we face every day, such as him repeating ‘I hate you’ 50 times in a single hour – although I intellectually understand that he doesn’t truly mean it emotionally it hurts. Despite dyslexia and ADHD being invisible disorders, I am compelled to attempt to give a visual representation of Grayson’s daily struggles with understanding and connecting with people and places around him through photography.
KE: This is a project that focuses solely on Grayson’s experiences and how his mind works. The crayon markings and doodles made by Grayson are intriguing and add meaning to the accompanying photographs. Would you consider him to be a collaborator in this photography project? How did you decide what to include in this project and did Grayson help make any of the decisions?
JV: I began this project to make the invisible visible, but I felt like my photos were not telling the whole story. Inspired by Wendy Ewald’s work with children, I wanted him to write around the images. It was important for the viewer to see his handwriting, to see his decoding, and how he feels and interprets his surroundings.
I definitely see him as a collaborator. At the time, I chose the images. He was up to him how to respond to them. Grayson chose the word or drawing as well as the pencil colors. At first, he wanted me to spell the word so he got it “right,” It took some convincing that there is no right or wrong here unlike in school. I am interested in seeing how he sounds out the word and writes it to better understand his thinking, processing, and dyslexia. I wanted the project to be a place where he won’t be corrected for doing it wrong. I hope by giving Grayson the authority over his choices that he found the power and confidence to own his difference and understand himself better.
The final edit decision was mine. He was not interested in that conversation yet. Despite not engaging in the conversation at this time, my hope is for our collaboration and decision-making process to deepen as this project progresses. I expect him to become more involved going forward.
KE: Photographing such intimate subjects is always an eye-opening experience. I find that sometimes I feel as though I have photographed something too intimate to share with others. Have you experienced this at
all in your work? Have you ever had reservations about photographing Grayson and if so how did you reconcile these emotions yet stay true to your project?
JV: My work is generated from my lived experiences and often intimate ones. Being vulnerable is an important part of my process. It does take me a while to develop the courage to talk and share intimate subjects, but I believe my vulnerability creates space for more vulnerability, support, and connection. Three things we desperately need more of in our communities.
KE: I have found that many times the projects I take on become a way to process my emotions and it sounds as though Being Grayson became a way for you to embrace Grayson for the person he is. Do you feel closer to Grayson because of this project? How has photographing him changed your perspective?
JV: I do feel closer to Grayson. It is difficult for him to express himself and this gives him a place. I feel working together has provided us with a way to talk about both of our feelings. With him starting high school in the fall, I am anticipating big changes. Recently a 10th grade with dyslexia committed suicide. Her mother shared with a dyslexic group that before her daughter’s death she wrote, “I can’t learn like all the other kids at my school. I feel useless everyday. I wish I could have been better with school.” I hope by working together on this project it provides a place to feel good about himself and not feel shame about his differences.
KE: To conclude I would like to ask what is next for you. Is there anything you are currently working on?
JV: My work on Being Grayson was put on pause for the past year. During my 2022 artist residency at the Boulder Creative Collective, I finished while I wait, an elegy to my lost relationship with my brother.
As Grayson steps into high school this fall, it will be exciting to see how this project will develop as he grows. His new perspective brings something new and I look forward to what could be created and discovered.
I’m starting a new project about Rocky Flats that is still unfolding.
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