It was all a dream

Dreams of the Darkest Night featuring Vanessa Marsh and Sean McFarland is at the Richard L. Nelson Gallery in Nelson Hall at UC Davis, 1 Shields Avenue in Davis; (530) 752-8500; Through May 27.

Stepping into the visual world of Oakland-based artist Vanessa Marsh is taking a step into her dreams—and nightmares. Her black-and-white images are photograms she puts together in a complicated layer-by-layer process, resulting in silhouettes of figures on hilly landscapes that fade into mysterious fog. Marsh usually exhibits in the Bay Area, but her work is currently on display in Davis along with photographer Sean McFarland in Dreams of the Darkest Night at the Richard L. Nelson Gallery through May 27. Marsh spoke about the alternate reality of her work, using miniatures and the nightmare that inspired her vision.

Did you print this work yourself or did you use a photo lab?

I’m really lucky right now. I have a fellowship at Kala [Art Institute] in Berkeley. … I’m one of the fellows this year, so I’m able to do all of my printing myself because they have a really beautiful printer there.

So it’s kind of a complicated process in that I start in the studio and do a bunch of drawings. So all of the backgrounds are drawings on acetate, and I go into the darkroom, and I create a negative image by laying things [on glass under the enlarger]. So two layers of models and two layers of drawings, and then as I expose the paper, I remove a layer of drawing, and then I expose it again, remove the drawing, expose it again; so I end up with a negative image of this from that process. And then it goes digital: Then I scan that negative, flip it over so it’s a positive image in Photoshop and print from there.

The first two layers are train scale models for the most part. … The houses are things I build, and the other materials, I buy a lot of plants from Michaels. Subsequent layers are drawings.

When did you first develop this?

I was working in an experimental photography class at [San Francisco] City College and was literally just playing around in the darkroom one night. … I just had a few students, and they were working. I just taught them to do photograms. … So it was kind of a happy accident. It’s one of those projects that just feels like all the different series that I’ve worked on throughout the years, there’s like, little components of every single thing I’ve ever done coming into that.

While you were creating these images, did you dream about them?

Definitely, because they are a lot about dreams and memory, the way your memory can become—the word I’ve been thinking is fractured. Things don’t connect up quite right, especially if you really start to anyalze your memories. … And dreams for me are like that, too. I have a lot of realistic dreams where I’ll often be in situations where I’m sure I’ve had a conversation with someone, and then I’ll realize I didn’t; that I had a dream about having a conversation but didn’t actually have a conversation. … So, yeah, definitely having a lot of landscapey dreams and dreams about looking out the car window as a kid. Also, I have this reoccurring nightmare since I was a kid where—I think work is definitely coming from this nightmare, in a way—it’s like an apocalyptic nightmare, where the moon and the stars start revolving around the Earth really quickly. I had that dream a few times when I was preparing. It’s a weird dream.

How does it end?
Usually that dream ends with me waking up kind of panicky. And there’s usually a lot of me trying to communicate with someone, trying to get a hold of someone in the dream and not being able to. You know, it’s like, the world is ending, and I want to call my friend and talk to them, and I keep trying to call the number, and I can never dial the number all the way.

Have you consulted a dream dictionary or a therapist about this?
(Laughs.) I should, right? I definitely looked in a dream dictionary about the moon, because the moon aspect of it is so continuous, like since I was a little kid—the moon revolving around the Earth really quickly. … To me, it seems pretty straightforward, like anxiety about something catastrophic happening.

Or like time moving faster because the movement of the moon marks time gone by?

Yeah, getting older … and thinking of the future. But I have been thinking a lot about that strange dream. Because there isn’t really a strong narrative to each piece, necessarily, because I want people to bring their own story to each image. But if I was to say there were an underlying narrative, it would be of something having just happened that’s unknown, so there’s some reason that there’s all these people out in the landscape with their luggage or shopping cart out in the middle of nowhere. But it’s not like super-spelled out what that is.

There’s no detail, just a silhouette, a hint of what’s there.

Right, right. There isn’t an atomic cloud that’s telling you this specific thing happened. It’s more just this kind of mood.

Some of [the pieces] come from dreams and memories, but some of them come from narratives that are important to me.

You grew up in the Seattle area?
I grew up in Seattle, but most of my extended family lives in the Bay Area, so I gew up doing that drive between the two places. … There was a lot of moving, like in the high-school years, and I think I’m drawing a lot on that, these fractured experiences at that time in my life, and the way I understand place and landscape. … I’ve been overthinking it lately.

Well, I went back to Seattle a couple of weekends ago and … it made me think about how your identiy is tied to place, because all of my family has left Seattle, and I’m the only one that was born there, so I go back, and there’s no family there. … I feel this very strong sense of identity to a place, and I don’t have any home any family there, and those are the kinds of things we think of when we think of home. … I don’t know if that’s something that’s coming out in the work or something that will come out.