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December 3, 2001

New exhibit features late artist's work

By Eric Rangus


Fay Pullen Fairbrother was 49 years old when she died from lung cancer on Feb. 18, 1997.

Her death ended what had become an increasingly important artistic career. However, fragments of her work live on. Several of Fairbrother’s creations—a quilt here, a photograph there, a handful of birdcages scattered everywhere—are on display through Dec. 31 in the Schatten Corridor Gallery of the Woodruff Library as part of the exhibit, “Fragments of Fay: Reconstructing an Artistic Life.”

“Fragments of Fay” is sponsored by the Emory Women’s Center, and the majority of the works were donated from the collection of Atlanta artist Lucinda Bunnen, a close friend and patron of Fairbrother’s.

“We’re grateful we found a place to give her art the public viewing it deserves,” said Women’s Center Director Ali Crown.

The exhibit’s journey to Emory began with the donation a year ago of several of Fairbrother’s photographs to the Women’s Center by Bunnen. Fellow artist Lily Friedlander suggest Bunnen contact Crown.

The series of black and whites, “Self Portrait: Grief,” detailed Fairbrother’s condition during her chemotherapy treatments. Stark images of the artist’s bald head often mixed with birds provides an arresting portrait. These photos are displayed in the exhibit.

After temporarily displaying them in the Dobbs Center, Crown contacted Valerie Watkins, director of the Schatten Gallery. Crown sought Watkins’ advice about how to further honor the work. Impressed with Fairbrother’s art, Watkins immediately knew she wanted to put together a full display. Watkins then got together with Bunnen, who provided her with additional pieces for the exhibit, which opened Nov. 19.

The photographs represent just a portion of Fairbrother’s diverse work. On one side of the Corridor Gallery sit three quilts of the artist’s making. One incorporates turn-of-the-century photos of African American women among the quilts’ squares. The unique style of mixing photography and quiltmaking is one Fairbrother mastered. A group of her quilts, called “The Shroud Series,” is on display at the National African American Museum at the Smithsonian Institution. They display muchmore disturbing images such as lynchings.

“The posed studio portraits of black and white families illustrate the sameness of the family group posed in their Sunday best; you know the children are taught the same morals and values,” read Fairbrother’s words that accompany the Smithsonian exhibit. “But where does the process go wrong with the KKK meetings … resulting in black men hanging from trees.”

Fairbrother, a native of New Orleans, was well into her 40s when she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history and a master of fine arts degree in photography. When she was diagnosed with cancer in August 1995 and given 18 months to live, she was a photography professor at the Univer-sity of Oklahoma, where she earned both her graduate degrees.

Knowing she had limited time, Fairbrother worked feverishly to complete her final project, “Caged Spirits,” which made its debut at the Center for Exploratory and Perceptual Art in Buffalo, N.Y., about a year later.

That exhibit featured 31 birdcages, each chronicling important moments in women’s lives from birth to death. The overriding theme is women’s oppression. Of the original works, just three remain and all are on display in the Corridor Gallery. One of them contains a photo of Fairbrother’s mother and a touching story about her.

After Fairbrother’s death, Bunnen took possession of the works but was unable to keep them because of the massive amount of space they required. Unable to find a permanent place to display them, she donated the majority to pet stores for needy bird owners.

“I think it’s something she would’ve liked to have seen reconstructed,” Bunnen said of the exhibit, which is free and open to the public. “She was very proud of what she did.”

Other items, including Fairbrother’s obituary from the Norman, Okla., newspaper, and correspondence donated by another friend, Marilyn Carlton, also are on display.”


Back to Emory Report December 3, 2001