By James Auer
“You can’t know the light unless you’ve been in the dark.”
-Doris K. Hembrough
Don’t call Doris K. Hemrough’s intuitively composed, cleanly defined color photographs of natural and man-made phenomena “landscapes.” They’re “metaphorical memos,” and they come from the heart, not from the mind.
Hembrough, 40, is the owner, executive director, chief curator and principal artist of the DK Gallery, a high-ceilinged, softly sunlit complex of white-painted rooms at the top of a long, narrow stairway at the 112 E. Amelia St. here.
At the moment she is showing some 90 of her reality-based abstractions, printed without cropping or other darkroom trickery on Cibachrome or Eastman Type-C paper from Kodachromes exposed in locales as diverse as Arizona, Maine, Nova Scotia and Ireland.
Part of the ongoing exhibition is Hembrough herself, a poet, designer, art entrepreneur, mystic, businesswoman and – for the last 4 1/2 years- high-profile resident of this quiet, Mississippi River community in southwestern Wisconsin.
“This is my living faith, doing this work,” says Hembrough, who in 1982 has a spiritual experience that, she says, triggered her move into natural-light photography of everyday imagery with an intuitional, not to say other-wordly, edge.
“I’m not out there doing this,” she informs visitors to the modest, second-floor display space she has occupied since 1986.
“It happens to me. I find a common thread in these visual patterns. You can see something, and it can be connected with your soul, and it happens just like that. I can always tell when it’s there.”
Born in Illinois’ Morgan County and reared in near-poverty on her grandmother’s farm, Hembrough attended Western Illinois University, McComb, and the Parks School of Fashion Merchandising in Denver, Colo.
She worked for seven years as a clothing buyer, then, in 1977, “stopped everything”- including an unsuccessful marriage- and began to concentrate on a long term interest, photography, full-time.
During this period she also completed work on her bachelor’s degree in business administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and studied art history as an enjoyable sideline.
“In 1982,” she says, “I surrendered my life to God’s will- or maybe I should say, He found me when I had nothing left to surrender except my stubborn will. I was in a crisis situation. I asked for help and was answered. Light came to me and filled my heart, and I got up, healed.”
Since that intensely personal transformation, Hembrough has sought out the patterns that lie, unnoticed, in rocky cliffs, rubble-strewn beaches, weathered walls and the sunburnt mesas of the American Southwest.
“Stones have so much written into them,” she declares. “This is my living faith- doing this work. I can feel it in my skin when I’m close to one of my areas. I consider my art an act of surrender.”
A passive but far from inactive observer, Hembrough strolls ocean beaches, climbs steep escarpments and prowls the older areas of big cities seeking the sort of subtle, emotive imagery that is invisible to less perceptive eyes:
-In the Colorado wilderness she comes across the profile of a lifelike character she calls, somewhat humorously, “The Blockhead.”
-In Nova Scotia she finds and photographs an arrangement of smoothly rounded stones that carries curvaceous, human-style beauty “Beyond Nudes.”
-In Upper Michigan she discovers, on a deteriorating wall, marking that suggest Egyptian “Hieroglyphics.”
-In Arizona she senses an “Angel;” In New Mexico, faces in a weathered bluff; In Milwaukee, angry, coneheaded personages whose expressions fairly shout the word, “Injustice.”
Maintaining a gallery interferes with her mobility as a professional photographer, Hembrough concedes.
“When people come to look,” she confesses good-naturedly, “I just go back into the kitchen and stare at the river…”