Weather Updates

Photo exhibit captures what’s left behind

Katsy Johnson's 'WoodlWorship' from her 'Rural Ruins' exhibit.

Katsy Johnson's "Woodland Worship" from her "Rural Ruins" exhibit.

storyidforme: 43011306
tmspicid: 15719481
fileheaderid: 7080769

‘Rural Ruins’
and ‘Recalled’ photo exhibits

When: Noon to 6 p.m. Thurs­days through Satur­days, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 27. Artist talk at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Perspective Group and Photography Gallery, 13101/2B Chicago Ave., Evanston.

Info: www.perspective

Updated: February 17, 2013 6:12AM

There is no roadmap to memory; we get there by our own measures.

That’s the premise of a photo exhibition featuring the very different work of two fine arts photographers, Katsy Johnson, of Wilmette, and Donna Spencer, of Evanston. Johnson’s “Rural Ruins” and Spencer’s “Recalled” will be displayed at Evanston’s Perspective Gallery through Jan. 27.

Both artists share an interest in how things and places, abandoned or forgotten, can evoke personal memories and fading aspects of our larger national history.

Johnson, a “lifelong photography junkie,” travels backroads searching for forgotten small farming communities in Illinois and Wisconsin. She documents these communities’ abandoned, often crumbling, buildings.

“I have always been fascinated with dissolving architecture in historic places,” she said.

Before targeting rural communities, she photographed urban decay in Detroit and other sites. But after the past year spent photographing with a German artist, Johnson developed an interest in disappearing rural American Midwest history.

“Some of the buildings I find are so remote, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m the last person who sees them,” she said.

One place she finds particularly intriguing is Cairo, a desolate town in southern Illinois whose once-thriving riverfront now consists of a few vacant storefronts.

“This is the last impression of our history before it’s blown away,” she said. “This city has lost about 90 percent of its population since its heyday, but at its peak it was very successful and put a lot of money into architecture.”

Johnson’s five large-format images in the Perspective Gallery exhibit feature photographs layered with encaustic wax to create texture and a poetic quality.

“The reason I add wax is if I was just doing photographs, it would be like a futile documentary,” Johnson said. “The wax helps bring out the inherent beauty of the remnants that are still there.”

Johnson said both her work and Donna Spencer’s, also on display, question which artifacts should be saved.

“You can’t save everything,” she said. “We are saying goodbye to history. Donna’s work is more personal, mine is more historical.”

In “Recalled,” Donna Spencer’s goal is exploring the influence of time on family heirlooms, places and people. Her work depicts objects recovered from three dismantled households — her mother’s, her mother-in-law’s, and her own after her children moved away.

“Somewhere along the way, I decided there were many, many stories in these objects, and I started arranging them in ways that were emotionally meaningful to me,” Spencer said.

Set into still-lifes, objects include those found in old boxes and the backs of drawers, whose connections to the past are often long forgotten.

“I’m not looking for anyone to see my own stories, but I think the objects are evocative,” Spencer said. “Everyone has objects in their own lives to which meanings are attached. I hope that viewers will think of their own stories.”

Spencer, who teaches high school English part time, also has taught art history. Photography has been her passion for about 10 years, she said. Spencer is exhibiting 12 works, all in color and shot in the same location.

“Sorting through a lifetime of possessions is hard, slow work: what do you discard, what do you keep, who should inherit special heirlooms?” she said.

Meredith Morris is a local free-lance writer.

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.