When H. Jennings Sheffield was starting out as a photographer, she noticed her colleagues were mostly single and mostly without kids. As an artist, she felt discouraged from pursuing both her craft and her family.
“It once used to be that you couldn’t be a parent and do art,” she says. “It was an ‘I’m sorry you’re having kids’ sort of thing.”
But now with two kiddos under her belt, Sheffield has forged her own path, using her family as inspiration for her work. In her new exhibit Tethered, now on display at The Dairy Arts Center through June 26, Sheffield deconstructs the notion of balancing multiple roles in her life.
“At the time [I started the project], I had one son that was 2, and I just had a baby, and I was in grad school. And I was trying to figure out how to finish that up, how to teach at night, how to have children and how to be a wife,” she says. “That life of ‘the artist in the studio’ and ‘when you’re home you’re home’ — that had to go out the window.”
With technology nowadays, it’s more challenging to focus all your attention on the present moment, especially when all the other facets of your life are a click away.
“So it was this idea of being tethered to everything. You could be in the studio thinking that was your day to be the artist, but all of a sudden the daycare calls and your kid is sick,” she says. “Then the mother role has to enter the studio, and it was that idea that nothing is pure anymore in our roles. We’re all so busy and so overwhelmed.”
She wanted to compress all those moments and personas into one image. And she found inspiration in one of her children’s toys: a Gallop! book that animated the image of a horse running by using slices of the image and black bars to create the illusion. Sheffield took apart the book and tried her hand at the technique with her own pictures.
To make Tethered, Sheffield decided to take a photo of what she was doing every 30 minutes from the time she got up to the time she went to sleep for four months. The parameters were loose, but the only requirement was authenticy — capturing the “non-Facebook moments.”
“It was really important to me that if at that moment in time at, 30 minutes, if my kid was screaming, or I had just had it, or I was giving a bath, or if I was walking the dog or if I was in the studio or teaching a class or in an art history lecture… Whatever it was, I photographed it,” she says.
She ended up with thousands of photos, and she then chose four to six photos that best represented a two-hour time frame. And with the use of Photoshop and math equations to achieve the animation illusion, she spliced all the images to create one photo.
The purpose of the work is to examine the multiplicity of identity. Standing in front of the photos you see how they all come together to form one image, much like how our different parts come together to form one being.
“I can’t just be a pure artist. I can’t just be a pure mother. I can’t just be a pure wife. All the roles are tethered to each other,” she says. “I’m tethered to every bit of my personality, and I think that’s an interesting dance we play with ourselves. How do we all have an equal say and voice in ourselves and roles that we feel balanced?”
For Sheffield, there was never a thought given to choosing motherhood over being an artist. She says she needs to engage every part of herself to stay satisfied; to ignore one integral piece of herself would cause the other pieces to suffer.
It’s a common struggle people can relate to.
“One of the coolest things that happened with this body of work happened the first time I ever showed. It was in San Antonio, and I always tend to sit in the background,” she says. “I watched this woman come in, and she looked at my piece, and she just let out this huge exhale and turned to her husband and said, ‘I get that.’ She knew that was her life. It was resonating with her in that moment.”
Sitting down and looking at the various pictures she took, and seeing what her days looked like, Sheffield says she picked up patterns that she had overlooked in the past.
“There’s this entirely different beautiful palate change that happens [in the artworks]. Six to 8 a.m. there’s this very beautiful early day, morning, blue light. Then it goes into the daylight and the bright colors. And then all of a sudden the night moves into these very warm tones,“ she says. “I never even noticed there was a light change when I was documenting it.”
In the end, Tethered taught Sheffield to be more present and to compartmentalize better. She says she gained control over the technology and its frenetic nature, as opposed to letting it control her.
“I can’t tell you how many hours of therapy this probably saves me,” she says with a laugh. “There’re a lot of wonderful things that happened from this work. One, I realized just how chaotic my life was and that I wasn’t being present, so I started making these decisions. When I am home I am home, and all technology goes away. When I’m in the studio, other than an emergency call for something wrong, I’m in the studio. I had to start doing that, and [Tethered] really helped me figure that out.”
But in the end, no matter how much we compartmentalize, we are the union of pieces that make up who we are. And Tethered encourages us to remember how much better the whole is because of the pieces.
On the Bill: Tethered. The Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-440-7826. Through June 26.