Enter the office of Cara Lee Wade and you enter the lair of a multifaceted artist with a vibrant personality crowned by an ever-changing head of hair, this time a bright warm hue hovering between red and flaming orange. Surrounded by a collection of random objects (including a miniaturized, obscure Muppet named Janice who has more than a slight resemblance to Wade) that provides hints for the topics rolling through this artist’s mind, one can’t help but assume Wade’s head is stacked with boxes spewing ideas, thoughts and opinions in an abundance that would challenge any singular person to express in one lifetime. She is a powerhouse communicator who is both gracious and daring. Her profession is teacher. Her artistic medium is photography. While she may claim two common titles, ordinary, Wade is not. Her undergrad work earned her an English degree which led to her first teaching job that did nothing to feed her creative spirit.
“I felt like I was in prison,” states Wade. Being an artist at heart, she took a photography class during which she fell under the spell of processing film.
“The first time I put a piece of paper in the chemicals and an image emerged, I fell in love with photography.” She’s been a darkroom mistress ever since, never folding to the pressure to abandon the mechanical, slow process of developing images by hand. The process is what keeps Wade fired up. Manipulating images by hand is what sets her work apart. Her passion for the process is what inspires her students.
During grad school Wade learned a photo process called mordon, a manipulative technique that involves the use of chemicals to liquefy and separate the black lines and shapes of a photograph from the paper, allowing the artist to manually alter and distort the image.
The process lends itself perfectly to the underlying theme that permeates all of Wades work; the study of beauty and even more specifically, comparing beauty to the grotesque. The topic was the core of her thesis work through which she contemplated the debauchery of beauty during the Victorian age by digging up examples of devastating consequences endured as a result of pursuing beauty. Wade quickly rattles off stories of binding and crushing corsets causing victims to suffer from organ failure and death from exposure to lead-based cosmetics.
Those who pursue beauty, specifically drag queens, serve as the collective muse for one body of Wade’s ongoing work. The series of photos started as class requirement while Wade moved through the master’s degree program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
“I always photographed them because they were my friends,” says Wade. “The work is not always light because of the stigma attached to the lifestyle.”
As her work develops, so do Wade’s interpretations of her subjects and themes. While she may have started simply photographing friends, she now thinks of the drag queen series on a deeper level, adding more layers of content the longer she works with the theme.
“These men want to become women because they find women to be amazing and fascinating. We don’t criticize men for wanting to be beautiful as much as we do women who want to be beautiful,” says Wade. “Women inject our bodies with sh** to become beautiful. That beauty doesn’t come from a pure place.”
Wade looks for beauty in unusual places. She enjoys “taking photos of crap” and challenging viewers to accept what is normally interpreted as ugliness as beauty.
During a recent visit to the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, she shot 15 rolls of film in one hour – not images, but rolls of film, each one loaded, wound and shot, then removed from the camera and tucked quickly away before reloading again. She was overtaken by the scene of the nostalgic graveyard and admits she broke a few rules and most likely annoyed a few others on the tour with her exuberant reactions to rust and rot.
“I had two cameras and broke the rule of only using one by hanging the second around the neck of my boyfriend.” Wade goes on to say, “I love finding beauty in the broken. The natural process of decay is beautiful.”
Wade is always armed with a camera. In her office, she is surrounded by a perimeter made up of a collection of antiques and retros, each waiting to be the next to go with Wade into the field. She shoots things that come across her path in daily life, most often armed with a Holga camera, also known as a plastic toy camera.
“Sometimes things stay in the camera for a while and I forget what is on the film. When I develop it, it’s like a gift,” she says.
The unexpected and serendipitous moments that sprinkle Wade’s life also ignite energy and zeal in her soul. The Holga is Wade’s go-to camera because it adds its own mark to her images.
“Some people say ‘happy accident.’ I call it a gift from the photo universe,” says Wade.
The lens is easily scratched which adds interesting flaws to images. The entire camera can be thrown into saltwater to incite interesting effects. The cameras can be broken apart to use as pinhole cameras.
“These are things you just can’t do with digital. Nothing compares to the creative process of film,” says Wade. “[The Holga] makes getting the negatives like opening a gift.”
Wade is currently planning and working to develop a show titled Travels in Plastic which will feature her Holga images. The show will run at Artlink from March 13 to April 15, 2015.
The Holga show is just one project on Wade’s mind. She recently spent five hours cutting, until her thumb went numb, to free painstakingly intricate paper dolls from the pages that trapped them. Wade plans to use classic Tim Tierney paper dolls as her subjects for an upcoming series.
“I just ordered eight books covering subjects from celebrities to drag queens.” The idea is to put the dolls into real situations and have them interact with different eras. For instance, 70s dolls will hang with drag queens and Victorian ladies in waiting. “I’ll most likely shoot them in Polaroid,” says Wade. “I’d love to set a few up at the Rialto reclamation.”
Creativity and thought are the foundation of Wade’s work. She is careful to add substance to her photos, as these days the argument goes, “Anyone with an expensive camera can be a photographer.”
Teacher Wade pushes her students to think deeply about their work.
“I always ask them why. Because it’s cool or pretty isn’t enough,” says Wade. “Make work about something you are passionate about. Does it make you angry? Does it make you want to research? Does it make you want to learn something else? Substance is important. A good photo must have content.”
Those who have seen Wade’s work know she follows her own advice. Her images are eerie, quirky, mysterious pieces that whisper beauty in layers. Many show both a focal point along with the hint of an outsider. In one image a nude woman peeks through a window while the foreground reveals a motorcycle’s windshield and rearview mirror. The image initiates a story and sparks questions. It shows us where we are, what is in front of us and what is behind.
Wade is an artist who forces viewers to look at their world in a new way and perhaps question what we accept as truth. Wade’s work stimulates thought and isn’t that what art is all about?