I first heard of Jeremy Cowart in Relevant magazine. The article, featuring some of his work, focused on his then-recent trip to Africa as participant of a blood:water mission, and spoke about his then-upcoming project, Help-Portrait. It was all very cool and hipster, but photography’s not my passion. All I had was a name and the information that this person was doing great things in a country on the other side of the world.
Months later, I walked into church Sunday morning to find a couple of posters promoting Art House Dallas presents “Dinner with Friends: Jeremy Cowart” Tuesday night, placed near the doors. Jeremy Cowart, conversation and a cool, modern space filled with fellow creatives? I had the time; I bought a ticket.
Parking my car in a crowded street, I wondered if I was in the right place. Walking into a solidly brick building, I was greeted and directed to the space around the right corner. Behind a graphic orange wall, people lounged in seemingly intimate groups, speaking passionately about layers and negative space. Photographers moved in and out of each vignette, their fingers tapping constantly.
Spotting a free table in the back, I slipped into a chair. Four others also pulled up empty chairs and quick introductions were made. We tried to figure out what had drawn each of us there while timing bites between the photographers’ mad clicking. Two of my tablemates were passionate about photography, although working website content paid their bills. The woman at the end of the table was just getting into photography and thought this was a good place to start. The joking comment was made that we’d all walk away with an unexpected empathy for celebrities by the end of the evening.
We were halfway through dinner when the speakers were introduced. Ester Havens, a locally based humanitarian photographer, introduced Jeremy Cowart, then pulled up a chair and started talking. They spoke easily with each other, discussing the difficulties of getting art worthy of attention out to those who have eyes to see. Jeremy told of how he got into photography. (He came home one night and said, guess what, honey? No, really.) He continued, commenting about the constant tension between what the artist sees and the sell-ability of that vision.
Questions from the group were asked about his travels, about Jeremy’s favorite places to shoot. He immediately spoke of Africa. He said he’d heard, “When you go to Africa with a hard heart, you’ll come back with a soft heart. If you go to Africa with a soft heart, you’ll come back with a broken heart. If you go to Africa with a broken heart, you won’t come back."
“It’s true,” Cowart said, “my heart has been broken ever since.”
His eyes subtly lit as he talked about the weighty gift of being in Haiti days after the earthquake. On the wall behind him, images of staggering destruction offered profound backdrops for stories of pain, love and, as Jeremy noted, “real joy.” One image featured a gentleman with life-worn features standing in front of what had been the tent city where he lived. When the earthquake struck, mud from the hill under the city slid. The tents followed. Jeremy found him there, in sweltering heat. With eyes infinitely sad and strong, the man stood, holding a paper plate that read “home sweet home”.
Another image glowed with color. A couple, just married, kissed joyously outside the remains of their chapel. Their families had gathered, and Jeremy caught the moment just before the party started. Jeremy commented that he was struck that they had no home, nowhere to go for their honeymoon. But their souls shimmered through in that moment; the groom holding a plate reading simply “love conquers all”.
After a quiet moment, Ester asked Jeremy to talk about Help-Portrait, an idea Jeremy had which has grown into a global movement. Jeremy commented, “Help-Portrait is the Gospel, pure and simple.” He said that other photographers see the movement as a chance to give back, a good thing. But a comment made by one of the individuals he photographed seems to more accurately convey the way Jeremy sees the mission of Help-Portrait–he was told, “You make us human.”
One of the images showed a woman holding a child, words written around her in black Sharpie against the white background. Cowart said the woman was from LA, and had never had her portrait taken. That day, she had her hair cut, her make-up done by professionals. Her dark eyes luminous, she held her baby in femininely muscled arms. She specifically asked for the link when her picture was posted so she could tell her family. She wanted them to see her “all beautiful.”
As things wrapped up, most meandered towards the exit, but instead of turning to walk back out into the cooling night, I turned back deeper into the building. Along the mutely colored walls were striking images from movies and shorts the effects company had worked. Comedic animations hung next to darkly romantic forests. The paradox made me think of how artists pursue beauty, trying to show the light in the darkness.
Some of us use words, others images and color; different communities all create in the hope of sharing that light that led us out of the dark despair of monotony and apathy. We seek to be hands in the dark, as others were for us, showing us the path of hope and possibility. In this mystical time quietly passing, night seems stark and blunt. Light glimmers subtly, curling the edges of night back, and reflecting God’s Sunrise breaking in upon us.
Telling a friend about the night later, I found it hard to explain or summarize. I went in with a name and a vague collection of facts. I left impressed with another human being’s passion and the challenging idea that night, be it winter in Dallas or the long night of the soul, isn’t as dark or as lasting as it may first appear.
Jeremy Cowart presents a world where strength may be unnoticed but never goes unseen, where beauty and color appear as one chooses to seek, where pain becomes a background story for love. Art House Dallas hosted a “Dinner with Friends” that showed a different way to see not just the world, but our place in it, and how we place each other.
Amber speaks before she thinks, thinks too much, and has too many opinions. She loves her church, her puppies - a found hound and 120 pd. Rottweiler, and wrestles with matters of faith almost constantly. Her monster cookies are killer, and she blogs at http://amberleecrystal.blogspot.com
Video shot and edited by Austin Herring, Music by Derek Webb