April 08, 2020

Experimental fram of mind Photographer Charland uses science and household objects in abstract works

Caleb Charland is a scientist of sorts.

Instead of entering the results of his experiments into a computer, the Brewer resident records them in black-and-white photos.

For the past decade, Charland has been honing his abstract photographic style, blending household objects such as magnets, matches and flashlights with scientific principles.

“I mix scientific curiosity with artistic process,” said the 26-year-old. “I’m using everyday objects as a mechanism for art, because it allows the viewer to identify with the art more.”

This approach leads to photos such as an arc of nails held together by a magnet or a time-exposure of a sparkler being spun by a power drill.

Charland’s work has gained him some national exposure. Two of his works, “Three Jars” and “Crowbar with Plumbob,” are being featured in the VSA Arts “Destination Anywhere” exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s S. Dillon Ripley Center through Nov. 30. Charland, who has epilepsy, was one of 15 artists with disabilities ages 16-25 chosen for the exhibition from 207 submissions. Another photo, “Solid, Liquid, Gas,” is being exhibited at The Kennedy Center’s Hall of States through Oct. 31.

Although it had qualified him for the VSA show, Charland downplayed his epilepsy.

“At 17, I had the first of a few epileptic seizures,” he said. “I started taking meds for that, and it’s been very controllable.”

Charland, who regularly checks online for shows for which his work qualifies, found the VSA exhibition that way.

“This reassures my pursuit of art,” he said. “It lets me know I’m on the right track.”

Although he’s always had an interest in photography, Charland started working at it seriously as a sophomore at Hampden Academy, when he took a Saturday course offered by the Maine College of Art. After a couple of sessions, the teacher at the school let him have free rein of the darkroom during his last two years of high school.

“Having that independence instilled an experimental aspect to my work,” he said.

He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in photography at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston in 2004. Among the top-notch faculty at that school was Abelardo Morell, whom he worked for on the Camera Obscura Project at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in August of 2005.

After a year of working at a photo-processing lab in Boston, he moved back to Maine. Charland, who had worked at a group home in the past, decided to combine his passion and caring for others by enrolling as a medical radiography student at Eastern Maine Community College. He’s now in his first semester of that two-year program.

Charland uses an adjustable 4-x-5 view camera to shoot his works in a studio in the basement of his house. He uses a blackout hood to accomplish the total darkness needed for this process. His darkroom is set up across the basement.

He enjoys black-and-white photography because “it’s very much a manual process,” he said. “It allows for ultimate control over all aspects of the photographic process.”

Charland draws inspiration from everyday life.

“I get a lot of ideas from classes, from the fundamentals of how things work,” he said. “I’m always sketching and writing things down. I tend to work in waves. I might take 10 pictures in a weekend, then not for another month. It takes time to do research, to find the right combination of materials.”

The cash prize that comes with the VSA exhibition will allow Charland to focus on his schoolwork and his art, without having to take a side job for income.

“I’m focusing on getting my artwork out there,” he said. “I’m applying to seven or eight shows this fall.”

Dale McGarrigle can be reached at 990-8028 and dmcgarrigle@bangordailynews.net.

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