How This Photographer Is Using Art To Honor His Mother And Millennial Women Of Color
Corey Fells spoke with Blavity about his new photography series '100 Womxn.'
Have you ever looked at a piece of art and wondered how it was made? All the things the artist was thinking, all the things that led to the work being created?
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If you’ve ever seen Corey Fells’ photography project 100 Womxn and wondered that, well, you’re in luck — the artist recently sat down with Blavity and told us all about it.
If you haven’t seen it, let us explain: 100 Womxn consists of 100 photographs of ladies that live in Fells’ native Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Each photograph was shot before a field of ivy that dries up and dies as the series progresses. The women are from all walks of life; each contributed something about themselves to go along with their portraits.
Here’s a few choice shots for your viewing pleasure:
How did these photographs come to be, you ask?
“I wanted to have my photos mean something … that’s the reason why I came up with this 100 Womxn project,” Fells told us. “I just didn’t want a cool-looking photo, I wanted to have the photo mean something and also be a piece of art.”
Exactly what the photos mean is something that’s very personal for Fells. He sees this project as the first element of a grander one called Pookie, named after his late mother. He wants to explore her legacy and her impact on him, wants to wrestle with her loss and to honor her through this work.
Family, as that description of Pookie might suggest, is a big part of Fells’ life — in fact, his family is what started him shooting.
It all began when his brother bought a nice Canon “and he wanted me to be his personal photographer because he loved fashion, and he couldn’t take his own photos.”
At first his brother served as both model and art director. But as Fells gained confidence behind the lens, things changed. “We went out and we shot very often, and it got to the point where I told him, ‘We should have this type of idea, we should do this,’ and he just told me point blank, period, ‘This is my camera and we’re not going do anything with that.’ And he honestly and boldly told me I should get my own camera, and I can do whatever I want with my own camera. So that’s what I did.”
Fells was sure his ideas were valid. There was just one problem: cameras are expensive. But the budding photographer wasn’t going to let that stop him. “The next semester, I used my refund check to purchase my first camera instead of buying books.”
The gamble paid off. More than four years later, Fells is a professional photographer.
Of late, Fells says his desire to give his images depth have led him to a spectrum of classic works. As he began to develop 100 Womxn, Fells’ search for depth and meaning saw him revising Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
He’d originally read the book because of — you guessed it — his mother.
“That was one of my mom’s favorite[s],” he said. Upon re-reading it, Fells realized, “It kind of resembles what is going on within the millennial culture now with women.”
Specifically, he felt the novel’s main character, Janie Crawford, had a trajectory and outlook that matched that of modern women.
Crawford, Fells said, “Continued to move on as to where she was able to find happiness within herself and confidence within herself to be able to be okay with being by herself. And so I feel that’s extremely what a lot of women are doing.”
Citing women as diverse as Rihanna and Hillary Clinton, Fells said that he feels that women are impacting society and shaping culture more so than ever before.
His mother, too, was a woman in the Crawford mold. 100 Womxn was created to showcase women like her, with the goal of proclaiming to the world that “there’s a new era, there’s a new style, there’s a new execution to showing the world and repeating to the world that women are making ripples in society.”
Too, Fells found that the project served as an exploration of the way grief shaped him. “Growing up, my mom was my best friend and she was pretty much my main guidance. Someone that taught me so much that also provided so much to me.”
When his mother died when he was 16, Fells says, “I was left with somewhat of a void.”
How did he try to fill that void?
With other women.
“It’s pretty much a continuation of the Oedipus complex,” Fells said he realized after a long period of reflection.
“When I lost my mother, someone that was very dear to me, I pretty much was looking to fill that void … so what I did with that was pretty much date a lot of women that carried characteristics or attributes that reminded me of my mother ... I would date a girl because she had dimples just like my mom, or I would date a girl because she had a smile that just reminded me of my mom. So that nostalgic feel allowed me to feel connected.”
Fells believes his experience is not at all uncommon. “I feel like we all do that … we have a connection to the opposite sex that’s very dominant in out lives.”
100 Womxn, then, is also a way of exploring that connection.
Still, Fells is careful. The presence of the male gaze has been an issue in the art world for some time. 100 Womxn, Fells explains, isn’t about feeding Oedipal desire; it is about him feeling his way through that connection and understanding what gives women their power.
“Me taking photos of 100 different women,” Fells said, “I’m not explicitly telling these women’s stories: they’re the ones telling me their stories and I’m just presenting it to the world. With that, I feel that my perspective is more of an appreciation.”
The artist, too, made an effort to strengthen his series’ focus on women and on the raw power of their impact by removing his gender from the work. “For instance, in the word "100 Womxn," I have an “x” to take out the “e” in the word “women,” because I didn’t want it to have any type of connection to men or myself at all.”
If you’d like to have a look at the series for yourself, to look these 100 women in the eyes, to contemplate the connection between the sexes, the impact of women on our society and come to understand Fells’ beautiful relationship with his mother, you may be in luck.
In October, Fells' Pookie will become a traveling show, hitting Milwaukee, Chicago and New York. Type it into your calendars now so you don’t forget, and keep an eye on Fells’ website for more information.