CALETHIA DeCONTO

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Let's talk a little bit about your origin story. You travelled a lot as a kid. can you tell us whether that influenced you on your current creative path? If not, what would you say was the biggest reason why you got started with art?

The nomadic way in which I was raised blew open my senses in the best possible way. I was exposed to other cultures and communities and observed everything and everyone. When I chose my first camera at age 8 it was the key to record everything that I saw. I think creativity is in my genes, but neither of my parents were (or are) as obsessed with art as I am. Each time we moved to a new place I would cover my bedroom walls with tiny clippings I saved in a box from various magazines. The backs were torn from all the times I’d pulled off the tape. When I think back to those days I laugh! I had no idea I was collaging, which is what is so great about art. There aren’t any rules. I try to hold on to that feeling even now. Those little pictures were priceless pieces of inspiration that I just wanted to see day after day. Once in high school I cut up these beautiful thrift store books filled with black and white photographs of Native Americans and Africans. I made a huge poster for a school project and my teacher asked if she could keep it forever. My dad told me it was sacrilegious to have destroyed a book. I didn’t agree. I think after seeing my poster for a year on my teacher’s wall it dawned on me that I could make things that someone might like to own. I followed that thought into the darkroom my first semester of college just like Alice down the rabbit hole.

 
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You alter some of your works by hand using paint and/or thread. Can you tell us a little bit about that process? How does the addition of those mediums change the nature of the work?

I’ve always been a collector of things that could be useful to me “someday." I think it’s a combination of a thrifty upbringing and my innate creativity, so that’s part of the process. Like a squirrel, I store bits of magic that seem special or want to be more than what they were intended to be. My original imagery itself is strong on its own but then there’s a whisper I hear. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like the subject matters want to evolve, or they have more potential than a straight photograph conveys. I love so many mediums and not having been to (fancy) art school I suppose it’s simply experimentation. Traditional photography was very expensive for me when I was first starting out and I didn’t want to waste the extra “not so perfect” handmade prints on luscious fiber based paper. I would stare at them and grab the scissors, leftover house paint, or lighter and destroy the preciousness of its imperfect beauty. In the end, there would be a new piece and it made sense in some way. These days I stick with that same feeling of destruction and creation to make work that makes itself.

 
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You've mentioned before that you're deeply inspired by the ocean. Could you elaborate on that? How does the ocean influence your work?

As kid I spent a lot of time near the ocean. My father’s family had a cottage in Cape Cod. Many summer breaks were spent there with my grandfather digging for clams and endlessly shaking salt out of my hair. My father loves the sea and one summer we lived on the beach in North Carolina while he worked as a lifeguard. Every day he would swim for terrifyingly long hours eventually emerging with pockets filled with shark’s teeth, sand dollars, and beautiful shells. These treasures lined our bookshelves and became more important to me than my toys. I read somewhere once that being near the ocean resets our hormones. It’s healing. I can feel that and always have. It’s influenced my work in a deeply spiritual way. I love to study Vedic, Yoruba, and Shaman philosophies to help answer questions about life. Consistently throughout these texts the ocean is referenced in many ways to represent femininity, strength, transformation, etc. On the surface the ocean is beautiful and ever changing. The light is glorious and it gets my creative juices firing; however, deep down below the natural beauty there is immense power and an alien world. When I think of whales singing to each other or sea kelp dancing unobserved it inspires me like nothing else.

 
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Your recent work features contrasts between black & white photographs and color additions. Is there a reason why you choose certain colors over others? What do those colors represent for you?

I love color but have struggled with it as an artist. I understand black and white far better or somehow it seems more impactful. I do love blues, whites and earth tones the best. I tried to explore working with color… kind of sneaking up on it in a way. The elements in those collages are photographs of special things I’ve found along my journey in nature. They represent something uniquely beautiful that found their way to me.

 
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I'd love to dive into some of your more feminine-­centric pieces. What role does femininity play in your work? Is there a particular piece that stands out to you as one that's especially representative of this theme?

The Goddess has always inspired my work. My mother and I have an unfortunate relationship and much of what I’ve learned about being feminine has been through powerful relationships with a plethora of other women throughout my life. I think perhaps I’ve been trying to cobble together a nurturing force to help guide me.

 
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On the subject of femininity, do you think there's power in depicting more traditionally feminine/"softer" scenes? If so, how? 

Vulnerability is a beautifully terrifying thing. We are all so fragile at any given moment as humans; constantly changing from moment to moment as time marches on irreverently. Depicting a traditionally feminine moment honors this idea of our transitory nature. There is a type of power in showing softness like when a feral cat lets you pet her belly briefly. I always look for these little glimpses of surrendering. I find it humbling and grounding.

 
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Tell us a little bit about how your work has evolved. Is your work completely different than it was 5 years ago?

Evolution is a funny thing. It’s challenging to see it yourself but when I look carefully I do notice that the general feeling has lifted slightly. It’s a bit lighter, but still moody and pensive. Overall there’s less underlying darkness there. Some friends have commented on that as well. It’s always funny when I see old work hanging on their walls. I often tell them to burn them to ashes. It’s like finding an old journal entry, you know? Old thoughts. I want to think I’ve expanded as I’ve aged and it’s hard to see what I was going through in the past.

 
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In terms of technique, what's on the horizon in the future? Are you looking to try out new mediums or do you feel like you're hitting your stride with what you're doing now?

I always want to try new things! I want to do it all. I play with clay and paint a bit so I will continue to explore wherever my hands lead me. My biggest goal is to go bigger and attempt a bit more complexity without overdoing it. I’d love to make some mural sized pieces.

 
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What's your greatest fear as an artist? Why? How do you conquer that fear and not let it overcome you?

Dying before I can finish everything inside my mind, heart and soul. I haven’t figured out how to conquer this fear yet, but meditating and writing poetry helps. I think not conquering is probably the answer actually. It feeds the fire.

 
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Your current exhibit is called "Gently Wild." Would you mind explaining the origins of that title? It's quite beautiful. Do you think that being "gently wild" is something that all women can relate to?

"Gently Wild" is the last line of one of my poems titled, Long Playing (which is on my blog) written in late 2014 after a romantic experience with a lover. I think I’ve always attributed those two words to myself but that was the first time I felt a man truly matched with me, or at least in those moments. I often see a plant pushing through a crack in the ground and am filled with such admiration for its tenacity I want to be like that. "Gently Wild." I’m not sure if other women can relate to this feeling. I know so many women that seem more "Fiercely Wild!" Maybe in all of us there is a little of both like some of the great Indian deities I love.

 

 

Feature photo credit: Jessie Caballero.

Check Calethia out on Instagram and her website.

And check out her Ten Facts feature here.