Seamlessly fusing person and place in a symbiosis of nature and humanity, photographer Felice Willat portrays meditative moments from her faraway travels in her artwork. Willat’s award-winning photography is enchanting as it communicates the quiet tranquility of cultural landscapes in Burma, Morocco, China, Vietnam, and Argentina. In an interview with The Santa Barbara Independent, Willat talked about Lifescapes, currently showing at Divine Inspiration Gallery of Fine Art, and the photographic process.
Lifescapes takes the traditional approach of the photographing landscape and turns it on its head. How did you go about collecting these images? My favorite (and most loved) images are those that include people — a cultural landscape, if you will. The poetry in some of these images for me is when the people blend with the landscape — where neither the people nor their environment is more important than the other. One of my images, “Molokai Maidens,” reminds me of the phrase mis-en-scene. When I discussed this with Sherry Spear, owner of Divine Inspiration Gallery, she suggested I call the exhibition Lifescapes, and it felt perfect.
The theme of peace pervades your enchanting photographs. Where does that come from —in yourself and in your subjects? I have a place of stillness within me, and I have a place of chaos in me as well. The world seems to spin sometimes. When I’m on a photo expedition, I sense and feel the activity — sometimes chaotic as in Southeast Asian cities. I find street photography exciting, and I have great respect for this type of photojournalism, however, it’s the moments of stillness when I observe time standing still that I can see how the person is at one with their place. It could be the landscape, their craft, their work, or in prayer. And of course, I’m stopped by the scene too, and I know I’ve captured something special. It often happens during the “golden hour” or the “magic hour,” shortly after sunrise or before sunset during which the sunlight is redder and softer compared to when the sun is higher in the sky.
I understand that you discovered photography later in life. What inspired you to take up photography and pour yourself into a new career? I’ve always been artistic and pour my sensitivities into my family life, business, career, and even chores. So, visual expression permeates through all my activities. After a trip to India with just a point-and-shoot camera, I hung a few images in my office at Day Runner. Someone said, “You have an eye!” At the time, in my late 40s, I took a very relaxed weekly photo class in the home of Claire Steinberg. She taught us the design principles in all of art, and I never looked back. But it was a trip to Burma, two months after the Saffron Revolution and just before the devastating cyclone Nargis, where I was faced with very dramatic social and political events, that I found a reason to actually print some of my photographs and in fact publish a book of my photos and observations. All with the intention of giving back to the devout, gentle people of Burma.
At some point, the telling of people’s stories with my own desire for peace and stillness developed into this body of work. My photography skills are all learned through practice and personal coaches.
Your work both captures humanity and achieves a humanitarian cause through charity. Do you shoot your photos with a specific purpose in mind? At first, I thought I would continue working for a social cause, but it developed into personal expression. It has become a meditative practice for my own heart. I do donate some of my work, however, to places like the UCLA/USC Medical Centers. They hang on the walls of patient rooms.
Who is your intended audience for these photographs? They are printed as archival pigment prints so as to have an artistic appearance, which is why they are attracted to galleries that don’t often hang photography. So, in most ways, they are fine art photographs and appeal to those who enjoy art in general. I hope to learn who has affinity to my work, and how my images affect them.
Who or what are your sources of inspiration? Photographers who blur the lines between art and photography, like Joyce Wilson and Jack Spencer. Also, educators like George deWolf and Lydia Goetz who teach contemplative landscape photography and follow the principles of the ancient Chinese scroll painters.
What is your favorite piece in your gallery at the moment and how did that photographic moment happen? There is a moment that happens when I click the shutter, and I know I’ve captured a special image. One that has a bit of a story behind it is “Molokai Maidens.” I was shooting a group of Hula dancers on Molokai. There were some lovely images, but the dancers knew we were shooting them, and it was a performance. When three of the younger dancers walked into the shallow water at the golden hour, they all looked down simultaneously as if there was something they were tracking along the water’s edge. I knew that would be the shot of the day. It actually looked like a stage set, but it was completely candid and charming.
Felice Willat’s Lifescapes shows at Divine Inspiration Gallery of Fine Art (1528 State St.; (805) 570-2446) through November 28; another of Willat’s collection will exhibit at the Gallery Los Olivos (2920 Grand Ave., Los Olivos; (805) 688-7517) December 1-January 3.