Jen Ervin is a lovely soul and her images were always on my mind as work I would be pleased to showcase. I was delighted to meet her back in 2014 at a group show in Charleston organized by Alan Rothschild of the Do Good Fund. Her work hung along side other notable Southern Photographers like Eliot Dudik, William Christenberry, Susan Worsham, Kathleen Robbins and Walker Pickering. Sandwiched between beautiful larger pieces her tiny framed three and a quarter by four and quarter black and white Polaroids drew me in like little mystical mirrors—moments taken in places like “somewhere in the South” and a historic family cabin with her twin girls. Although not Southern by birth, her work is deeply rooted in Southern-ness. In her series The Arc of Summer, Jen adeptly and poetically guides us through a luscious feminine landscape, showing us the fragility, beauty and complication of coming into age.
Jen Ervin was born in Pompton Plains, New Jersey and moved to Florence, South Carolina in her formative years. Her initial studies of art were in painting and drawing, and she received her BA in Fine Art from Francis Marion University in 1995. Three years later she moved to Boston and began working as Visual Arts Librarian at Boston University’s School of Visual Arts. It was then she met Alston Purvis, esteemed professor and former student of Walker Evans. Ervin studied under the tutelage of Purvis for two years, and received her MFA in Graphic Design from Boston University in 2002. She then returned to South Carolina. Motherhood soon followed, initiating a more personal exploration of photography as a medium. Ervin was a studio artist at the Redux Contemporary Art Center from 2011-2013. It was during this time, she began her series, “The Arc of Summer”. Ervin has actively exhibited her work in galleries and museums alongside notable photographers such as Sally Mann, William Christenberry, William Eggleston, Andy Warhol and Susan Worsham. Publications have included Time Lightbox, Feature Shoot, Don’t Take Pictures, Aint-Bad Magazine, and Light Leaked. Ervin lives in Charleston, South Carolina with her husband, Francis, and their three daughters.
The Arc of Summer
The Arc of Summer is a collection of Polaroid prints that I began in 2012 and remains in progress. It aims to celebrate the ethereal world of childhood, the waxing and waning of summer and the wild desire to remain in its embrace. These images were made with my family near our historic cabin set deep in the woods of South Carolina. Here…. we weave our southern family history into the present to create our own mythology.
Ark Lodge, our cabin of refuge, is a place where time stands still. While the cabin itself was built over 70 years ago, it rests secluded in a landscape that has managed to escape modernization for centuries. Whenever we arrive, we instantly slow down, breathe deeper and become enveloped into its hauntingly, beautiful presence. This is especially so on long summer days when it is unbearably hot, humid and buggy. Somehow we have all learned to quiet our minds and move only in small increments to maintain as much coolness, as we can. Consequently, these slow actions deepen our awareness of our surroundings. We automatically loose our sense of time, and it can sometimes feel as if we are floating in and out of dream world.
I was led to use Polaroid as medium for this project because each image immediately becomes an object of experience. There is a certain level and quality of intimacy I am looking for in creating my images. Polaroid provides me with one-of-a-kind imperfections that evoke a familiar and nostalgic vulnerability. They’re magical. Despite their smallness, they can contain the uncontainable and reveal a universal humanness.
How does being a southern woman influence the way in which you make images?
I’m not a native southerner. I was born in Northern New Jersey and moved to South Carolina in my mid-teens. Essentially, I moved from one rural town to another, but the cultural differences were immense.
It was a pivotal moment in my life.
Soon after my move south, I met my husband. He comes from a deeply rooted, very traditional southern family. The depth of my “southerness” is directly a result of my husband, his mother and my close involvement with their family’s rich traditions and history. Honestly, I believe that I was wholeheartedly raised both in the north and the south, with family and nature regarded as great importance. My mother, a self-taught artist, demonstrated to me at an early age how to develop a keen observation of my surroundings, so to nourish my creativity. My observations of place most definitely impact my art, but I am also intimately tied to my own childhood memories of nature, swamps, dark waters, and family. Ark Lodge, our cabin of refuge and prime location for my work, is a wonderful place that “stirs up the seen and the unseen”, as Eudora Welty would say.
The nature of a Polaroid is imperfect, one of a kind and tactile, how do these three words inform the kind of work that you do?
There is a certain level and quality of intimacy I am looking for in creating my images. I’ve never been interested in making “technically perfect” work in any artistic medium I’ve practiced. That’s not to say, that I don’t strive for excellence or quality. I do. Imperfect work just seems more authentic to my philosophy and aesthetic. Everyday, I am reminded of that life isn’t perfect – or permanent. For me, polaroids remain true to those observations. They also add the element of intimacy with their tactile quality and size.
Do you see these images as collaborations? How does this change as your girls get older?
Yes, very much so. I would also say they are cultivated out of an unformulated combination of careful observation and chance. My approach to portraiture is relational, more co-operative than directive in most situations. Whatever kind of image I make, I prefer to surrender to the unfolding of the situation. My children are aware when they are being photographed. From a very early age, they demonstrated to me that they knew the difference between a “snap shot” and a composed, artful photograph.
Just a few months into my Polaroid project, one of my twins explained to me that she had an idea for a photograph and asked me to get my camera ready. It was a very hot, overcast day in July and our family was submerged in the black river water in attempt to stay cool. My young daughter stated that she wanted her dad to lift her over his head and for me to click the shutter at that moment. As she arched her back into position, the sun peaked through the clouds and outlined the contour of her body. It was defining moment for all of us – me, as the photographer assuming control and my daughter, asserting her own artistic vision. It was then I decided to relinquish total control and became willing to allow it become a collaborative effort.
As my daughters grow older, their emotions and personalities are naturally becoming more complex. As a result, the work, and our relationships have deepened, too. The most unexpected gift from this project is to see their development and appreciation of their own creative interests and practice.
What do you hope that your daughters get from the experience of making these images with you?
I hope the memories of our time together making these images will continue to enrich and inform their lives.
Who is your favorite Southern author?
William Faulkner, with his rich use of symbolism, imagery and allegory, and Eudora Welty’s keen observations and appreciation of the transience of life, have both made lasting impressions on me.
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Jen Ervin: The States Project: South CarolinaJuly 22nd, 2017
Michelle Van Parys: The States Project: South CarolinaJuly 21st, 2017
John Lusk Hathaway: The States Project: South CarolinaJuly 20th, 2017
Ashley Kauschinger: The States Project: South CarolinaJuly 19th, 2017
Tracy Fish: The States Project: South CarolinaJuly 18th, 2017