artbeat (2007-16)

Black, White and In Between

by Leslie Wylie

Researchers used to believe that we dream in black and white, and that if we remember our dreams in color upon waking, it's just our conscious mind painting over the shades of gray. Nowadays, most scientists would argue otherwise, but something about the obsolete theory remains compelling--the possibility that something as raw and sensual as a dream could manifest itself so convincingly in such a limited color palate, and the idea of remembering as a process of filling in the blanks.

For Samantha Farmer, the old theory still holds water, but more so in the realm of her waking life than in her dreams. "I still haven't figured it out," she says, sitting at a table in the Tomato Head where her exhibition of black-and-white drawings, Vessels , is on display. "I think it's really bizarre that I have so much color around me--I pretty much surround and saturate myself in really bright colors and crazy patterns--but for some reason, the way I think visually is in black and white. It just comes out that way."

Strung against the backdrop of the restaurant's pallid walls, Vessels intuitively feels quieter than most exhibits that take up temporary residence here. The drawings, most of them in pen and ink or graphite, recede from the eye, but their modesty is rooted in stoicism rather than shyness. Upon closer examination, the works' fine details and high-contrast colorations emerge, revealing a starkness that's as subdued as it is bold.  

"Color can be a really important thing and can also really change a picture immediately," Farmer explains. "There's all kinds of language and memory and feeling attached to colors, and when it's just black and white, everything's left up to the story you're telling. Black-and-white has a very specific feeling about it that color can detract from sometimes."

And the stories being told here, through metaphor and symbol, are of the variety that need very little embellishment. Among the solitary subjects are shipwrecks and birds, drifting amid vast expanses of ocean and air, all of them infused with a gravity that transcends their two-dimensional form. When articulating their presence, Farmer's faith is evident. "Birds and ships, for the most part I see those things as vessels, and how we're all vessels on this earth for bringing out the glory of God," she says. "But they're both very fragile things, especially birds, and both of those things are metaphors for people--they're fragile and can be broken and burdensome."

She points to a drawing of a grim-faced man pulling a shipwrecked boat out of the sea. "It's that task of having this big, broken thing attached to you and you're just pulling it and not really going anywhere, instead of just cutting all that off and being free."

The largest of the drawings, a work that spans several feet in both length and width, seems to deviate from the weighty theme on first glance. In it, lifelike renderings of birds soar across the white space of the paper, some of them in clumps of two, others on their own. It's only when you step closer to the work that you notice the birds' vacant expressions--their eyes aren't filled in--and the drawing's title, "Blind Birds."

"It's sort of about the veil not being removed, and people just sort of flying around in their brokenness and not really knowing where they're going and what they're doing. They're free, you know, but they're not really aware of it," Farmer says.

In other drawings, birds' wings are literally bound, and skies are clotted with their dark silhouettes. "I think birds represent to everyone a really sort of free, beautiful thing--like, especially these silhouettes, this force that's going around--and so to think about them as being bound or not free is sort of really depressing, but it's also sort of like, 'wow.'"

Another drawing shows an impossibly tall, rocky island, surrounded by ships sinking or run aground, at the top of which a tiny house is perched. Nearby, a boy rides atop an enormous whale in a strange, dreamlike scene. Farmer says she never knows where the images come from; they just happen, through her. It makes sense, though. After all, humans are vessels, too.

"I don't really think about what I'm making when I'm making it. It just goes along and takes me along with it," she says. "It's definitely, I think, a very spiritual language, something I would go so far as to say the Lord has given me. And the more I've grown over the past year, the more language I've been given to communicate feelings and ideas."

Asked what direction she sees her art turning toward next, Farmer hesitates before mentioning a series of small, mixed-media pieces in the corner. They contain drawings of shipwrecks, but on top of them, she's stitched flower-patterns in vibrantly hued thread. "There's death, and then there's the rebirth of the plant on top in color instead of black-and-white," Farmer says. "It's the first work I've done where, in addition to the desperateness or isolation or whatever it is that's in my work, there's a positive. There's a sense of resolution."

But Farmer's not ready to commit to incorporating color, and everything that goes along with it, into all of her work. At least not yet. "I haven't really figured out how to do that, how to free the birds and it still be something that's meaningful and beautiful," she says. "It could be that it's not there yet in my own life. It's a process for me, the art."

What: Vessels