Eye to eye

Erin McKee talks to artists Ryan Davis and Jason Sellars about their mixed-media art travelogue Trust: India in Sight

For two weeks in June, local artists Ryan Davis and Jason Sellars will throw open a magic portal in downtown St. John’s through which all curious adventurers will be transported to India.

You won’t need a map to get there­—a raggedy band of puppets and bright-eyed kids will lead the way. You’ll hear tiny cacophonies (crowds chattering, markets clamouring, tablas resonating) and you will see myriad delights (108 prayer flags, a swami on a palanquin, a castle made of paper, and a boy in a pool.)

These mysteries will be revealed at Trust: India in Sight, a multimedia art exhibit based on Davis and Sellars’ 2005 travels in India. On display will be 26 of Ryan’s photographs, as well as installations featuring audio recordings and video.

Ryan’s photographs focus strongly on the people he comes in contact with.

“A camera is sometimes a good way to meet people,” he says. “Some people like to take landscape shots, but I find that a bit boring… I really like meeting people and getting to know them, so that’s what my eyes are attracted to.”

His photographs are vibrant, and connect the viewer to brief moments captured far away. The camera’s gaze invites you to identify with those caught by its eye—to smile alongside a twirling Kalbelia woman, or to laugh with the boy floating in a Tatapani hot spring. Many subjects are looking directly at the camera and out from the frame, which might for a moment make you wonder if they are contemplating a picture of you.

Jason, currently an art educator at The Rooms, has spent the past several months reworking a number of suitcases, using recycled and found materials to create self-contained dioramas that reflect his own experiences in India.

“We wanted another element [besides] the photography, so we decided that suitcases would be a neat idea,” he says.

Sitting in their living room one afternoon, Ryan tells me that Previously Loved was where they found many of the cases. There’s a crinkly sound, like that of an old book cracking apart, as Jason opens a worn blue leather one so I can peer inside. Strewn about the floor, the suitcases resemble giant pop-up books.

“I try not to buy any supplies to build my suitcases, I use remnants of my trip,” he says.

He points out some of the details: “This is part of a turban, and this image is from a second hand book, this is from a bedsheet on a mirror.” Nestled inside this case is a colourful antique marionette.

“I bought this puppet… because he was a joker, and that’s what people had called me for the couple of months I was there,” he explains.

Taking out the doll reveals text from the Pinocchio story: “when he becomes a real boy… and how ridiculous he was when he was a puppet!”—carefully rubber-stamped underneath.

They also show me a kind of light box Ryan is working on. It’s a collage of images printed on transparencies, illuminated from within, that rotates around a frame. It’s a little like a child’s toy television.

The rotating mechanism hasn’t been perfected yet, Ryan says, but it chugs along, brightly coloured. “I dismantled an old Timex watch display case [for the motor], and there will be a window cut out of a suitcase, turning the suitcase into a train in a way,” he explains.

While many of the pieces in Trust are playful, there is a reflective quality to them as well. Inspired by the journals they both kept while travelling, the process of creating this exhibit has been a way for them to make sense of their fragments of memory. “To spend some time poring over the things you [accumulated when you were there],” says Ryan, “to make something out of it, it helps complete the trip or the experience in a way.”

Admission to the show is by pay-what-you-can donation. All funds raised will go to the Friends of the Tarabai Desai Eye Hospital in Rajasthan, a family-run hospital that provides free or low-cost eye surgeries and treatment for those in need.

Ryan says, “You go to India and you see so much suffering, and it’s hard to know what to do. Since coming home, we thought, well, we don’t have that much money to give, but maybe through this we can mobilise a chunk of money that would be helpful to this cause.”

While Ryan’s photographs and artworks have been the subject of several local exhibits in the past, for Jason, although he has a background in theatre and performance, this is a new experience for him.

“I realised when I was in India how much I loved… spending my free time making puppets, drawing pictures, painting,” he says. To make the pieces in the exhibit, he is using notes, sketches, and photos he collected living there to help guide the work.

“Hopefully they will evoke some of the things that were evoked in me when I was at those places, or met those people, or heard those sounds,” he says.

Jason rekindled his childhood fascination with puppets when he was in Asia. Puppetry is very much a living art in India, especially in the north-western state of Rajasthan.

When he discovered that India was “the oldest living puppet culture in the world,” he started carrying around a puppet he’d made with a coconut head, shell eyes, rickrack hair and scraps of red cotton covering its body.

This puppet led him to a colony of puppet artisans.

“This little girl comes running up and she just says, ‘puppets?!’ and I was like, ‘Yes!’

“I run after her and she disappears… I go through this hole in the concrete wall, and there are all these alleys and dozens of these little clay and concrete huts where people were.”

He says some people were painting, some were carving, and others were playing music. He and the girl improvised a little show with the puppet, and he was accepted.

“One of the men said, ‘my uncle says that you are an artist like him, and you can come every day and learn for free. But you must remember where you learned this…’ And so for the most part I spent a month making and playing with puppets.” •

Trust: India in Sight will take place from June 15-30 at 183b Duckworth St. (the former Timemasters space next to the War Memorial). Join Ryan and Jason for the opening reception on June 15 from 7-10pm. For further information on the Tarabai Desai Eye Hospital, visit eyecamps.org. Ryan Davis’ website address is ­alchemyofmotion.com.