Form over function

Rhonda Wilson

“Train Junk #1” is one of Rhonda Wilson’s poetic photographs of ordinary stuff.

“Train Junk #1” is one of Rhonda Wilson’s poetic photographs of ordinary stuff.

Rhonda Wilson breezes into the RN&R offices. It’s a day for errands, and she’s just brought her mom to a medical appointment. In a snowstorm. And the roads are slippery. But the 55-year-old artist, looking professional, dressed in black with spectacles and neat, blond hair, cut just longer than a bob, percolates with enthusiasm when she gets the chance to discuss her approach to photography.

The photos run the gamut. Some are meditative, close-up, black-and-white shots of old, crumbling wallpaper and other interior details. Others are views of natural objects like a piece of old wood, eroded to smoothness, or the pattern formed by grains in the sand.

She treats both kinds of subject matter the same way, looking carefully for lines and shadows that make designs.

She says any subject matter will do. She’s interested in form. In fact, she lights up while talking about how her artwork is more about how she can look at something than what she’s looking at. “Form is anything,” Wilson says. “Form is like a design, and I see designs in anything. I see things close up. There can be a design in the whole room, or …"—with her hands, she frames a 2-inch square of the back of editor Brian Burghart’s shaved head as he works at a computer—"there can be design … just right here.”

A little later, the fact that she’s tied to a tight schedule on this particular day doesn’t keep her from pausing to consider carefully the poetic lines and shapes in the dark pink, marble floor tile of the RN&R’s lobby.

Even though Wilson likes to explore the visual possibilities of most things, she does have a favorite subject or two: “nature and old things.” Her preference for old things comes off loud and clear in her choice of shooting locations. She travels to old Nevada towns to photograph, finding them to have nearly infinite selections of subject material. She likes to go to Eureka and has made Austin something of a second home. She often takes advantage of an open invitation to a friend’s 1863 home there, long ago the house of a wealthy Austinite who owned banks and lumber mills. She assists in a church restoration project in the town by contributing artwork for fundraising auctions. And she was the last person allowed inside to photograph the deteriorating 1856 Emma Nevada House, birthplace of the 19th-century opera star also known as Emma Wixom, before it was torn down.

These old towns, long past their gold-mining glory days, give Wilson a chance to reflect on how dilapidation yields cool stuff to look at. “Man gets really arrogant and makes all these edifices … to himself, and then nature comes over and man abandons this shit, and leaves all this crap out there, and then nature comes, and wrecks it, but at some point during that wrecking, it becomes very interesting, full of character.”

Wilson doesn’t want to oversimplify or be trite, but she advises a trip to the dictionary to look up the definition of “form.” There are many, but two in particular seem to offer some insight into Wilson’s mind: “the shape and structure of an object” and “the essence of something.”

A whole career could be made of pondering the ins and outs of those two phrases. It appears that’s exactly what Rhonda Wilson does.