Noelle McCleaf received her Master of Fine Arts in Photography from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2008 and currently lives and works in Nokomis, Florida.
Can you talk about the light in your photographs? Why do things seem to glow?
When I began A Bee in Her Bonnet I was still living in Minnesota. I lived there for three years after finishing my graduate degree. I would come home to Florida during mid-winter, and it felt like when I got off the plane I was on another planet. Northern light is harsh, white, and stark. The light in Southern Florida is a golden-yellow, and the rich vegetation diffuses it beautifully, even in mid-day. Most of the time I prefer creating work in the evening when the shadows are long and the light is the most golden.
Where are the men in your photographs?
This is a question that comes up often with my work. I was raised as an only child with a single mother, and my mother often took on both roles—mother and father, and has both masculine and feminine energies about her. Since my father did not play a significant role in my upbringing, it was only natural that A Bee in Her Bonnet focused on my relationship with my mother and our reconnections since childhood.
Are you creating a mythology?
I wouldn’t say I’m creating a mythology in the broader sense of the term, but rather a personal mythology or sacred narrative. Our history and ancestry, and things we find sacred form the backbone for the body of work.
For instance, in the image For All Relations (Of Flesh and Feathered Kind) we are shown mourning over a dead seagull. My mother has long been a collector of natural things; her laundry room is filled with animal carcasses, bones, and thousands of seashells. This particular seagull she found on the beach in perfect condition and it sat in the bait fridge for months before I found out it was there and decided I should use it in an image. She uses the feathers, parts of the bird, to create artwork and ritual objects. She’s very interested in Native American Spirituality. For All Our Relations is a Native American saying that comes from the language of the Lakota people (in Lakota: Mitakuye Oyasin—for all our relations). The term reflects the Native American idea of oneness and connection with all forms of life: humans and animals, plants and trees, rocks and rivers, and bugs and bayous.
What is your relationship to the Earth? What is the single most important thing on it?
My mother was raised Episcopalian, and I grew up in Northern Virginia. I attended Pohick Church as a child, a church that served as a congregation for some of the nation’s most prominent families (the Washington’s, Mason’s, and Fairfax’s.) I attended Sunday school there, but as my mother likes to joke, once the creative activities subsided I lost interest, so she let me explore other paths.
Most of our time spent together was traveling or exploring the landscape through camping and outdoor activities, so I gained an appreciation for the land at an early age. So to answer your question directly, the single most important thing on the Earth is the Earth itself. We all return to it, and in the Florida humidity and heat, things decay quickly. I like to use fruit as metaphor for how quickly this happens, as well as how gravity impacts the female form.
In the image Erma and Milly’s Collars, 1898, my mother and I are shown standing outside of an old trailer, wearing collars worn by women of former generations in our family. These collars were pinned onto a conservative style of dress. My intention here is to contrast our openness and wildness as individuals with the feminine history of conservatism in our family (Daughters of the American Revolution), and to illustrate the echoing familiarity of our bodies.
Is there placidity to the work?
Most of my photographs are created on a large plot of land off Route 70 that leads from the Gulf Coast out toward Central Florida. My mother’s best friend owns the land, and before I began the work we would spend time there together unwinding, away from the chaos of the civilized world. It’s a very secluded space so it offers a perfect place for creating work. Creating A Bee in Her Bonnet was a way for my mother and I to reflect on our past and collaborate by creating new narratives together, so I would agree that there is placidity to the work.
One of the most striking images in the series The Deep Woods Kitchen was created at the far end of the property where a shack was erected as an outdoor kitchen. This image was very much a performance to create, in that I had my camera set up with the timer on a tripod and had to run back and forth barefoot amid red ants and mosquitoes, but my mother did an excellent job in calming me so we could go through a few rolls of film to get the perfect shot. I am standing behind her in the shot, and she is still playing the role of the protector guardian, as she did most of my life, and she lent me the perfect expression I was hoping for.
How does the environment in your images exist with the women in your photographs?
My new body of work Evie Lou and Laura Jane is moving away from my relationship with my mother to the relationship she has with her best friend Laura Jane. Laura owns the property in most of the photographs, and it is very significant to them, so I knew this was the perfect evolution to my recent work. Both of them have been like mothers to me over the years, and to me they signify women who are not well represented in the media—aging, yet still very beautiful. They are the caretakers of the Earth, the grandmothers, from which we have much to learn. Laura is from the Robin Clan of the Blackfoot Indian Nation, and has spent her life working as a hospice nurse. I’m very excited to explore their converging journey through images.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
What contemporary photographer’s interest you?
Lately I’ve been studying portrait photographers working in the South, particularly the work of Tammy Mercure and Stacy Kranitz. Mercure is based out of Nashville, and creates images all over the Southeast, and Kranitz works in and around the Appalachian region of the country. Their work is extremely inspiring and very different from my own, so I’m learning a lot from what I’m seeing.
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