Share the wealth

Photographer Erik Lauritzen and three of his students turn the ordinary into art

“Bent Ladder #23” by Erik Lauritzen.

“Bent Ladder #23” by Erik Lauritzen.

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When Gallery Cui-ui approached much-acclaimed photographer and digital artist Erik Lauritzen about showing his latest works, Series II: Trainworks, Lauritzen agreed. But he didn’t want this to be any old show. He wanted to do something unique in the Reno artistic community: to share the show with three of his students.

Lauritzen is the founder of the photography and digital arts programs at Truckee Meadow Community College. He chose three of his photography students—Ethnea Mousset-Jones, Tamara Soong and Rhonda Wilson—to share his show, dubbed Lauritzen + 3. Lauritzen says that the inclusion of his students’ work completes the cycle of teaching; students whom he has nurtured from the birth of their careers are now, like him, working artists.

As a gallery spectator, it’s fascinating to see the photographic heritage passed down from teacher to student and, indeed, see that legacy shared among students. Lauritzen’s photographs are manipulated using a complex digital layering process; his students, on the other hand, tend toward black and white photography free of computer manipulation. Yet the Lauritzen influence is quite clear. Like their teacher, Lauritzen’s students show an affinity for commonplace objects, as well as a tendency to turn those ordinary objects into fascinating, at times almost abstract, studies of tone and texture.

Lauritzen tries to achieve a “three-dimensional characteristic” through digital layering. For this series, his subjects are “tiny sections of the decay of trains.”

“The actual subjects are so subtle,” he says. “They’re not like [the artworks] at all.”

“Portola,” for instance, depicts what looks like a sheet of paper in an advanced state of decomposition. Rust and acid are eating away parts of the paper, and other areas of the paper are torn or streaked. The violence of the surface, with its subtle theatrics of decay, is completely intriguing. If it weren’t for the depth and realism added by a thin shadow running across the surface—presumably from a pipe of some kind—one would indeed forget that this is a photograph.

Ethnea Mousset-Jones, like Lauritzen, takes to the train museums for artistic inspiration. Instead of relying on digitization, Mousset-Jones turns her photographs into meditative, semi-abstract artworks through the photographing and film developing processes. She uses the “zone system,” a way of working with tonal variation, to play with light, shadow and form in her work. As a result, even photographs of twisted metal are beautiful; she makes the metal look luminescent, voluptuous, almost as if it were alive. Mousset-Jones says that she is less interested in depicting objects realistically and more interested in experimenting with texture and light on an object’s surface.

“I’m horrible at taking landscapes. I’m horrible at taking people,” she admits. “It’s really the light that fascinates me … [and] I love lines.”

Rhonda Wilson, whose photographs are often detailed studies of Great Basin topography or what she calls “human waste,” is also intensely interested in light, form and shadow.

“You put me in a junkyard, and I’ll be really happy,” she says. “I follow my instincts. I wander around, keep my eyes open and let nature take its course.”

The third photographer in the show, Tamara Soong, is also fond of commonplace objects. One of her works features simple, delicate-looking white flowers called plumeria, which are used to make Hawaiian leis.

“It almost looks like a character drawing as opposed to a photograph,” she says of the piece. “It was a very thin negative, so I bumped the contrast up so it was very grainy. It almost looks more like an impressionistic painting, not a clean, tight drawing.”

Perhaps the truest testament of an artist’s greatness lies in his or her ability to inspire others—to prompt others not simply to mimic one’s work, but to build upon its principles while creating something fresh and engaging. If this is true, then Erik Lauritzen is truly one of our great local artists and teachers.