Fact Check: Jack Rowell's Portraits Ooze Real Blood

An analysis of the rumors swirling around an acclaimed exhibit, now on view in Randolph

Jack Rowell's photography exhibit depicting "Vermonters and other wildlife" opened at the White River Craft Center in Randolph a few days ago, and the rumors are flying. It is said that the the exhibit is kept locked after hours, and that strange noises come from the room at night. Every morning, the custodian has to clean the entire gallery with a mop and a sponge to remove all traces of the previous night's activity, which seems to involve beer, cigarettes, pizza, gum wrappers, and other sticky substances. Or so the story goes. Small children and people with heart conditions have been warned to stay away. 

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The 30-odd portraits include a female bodybuilder, a construction worker, a 99-near-old survivor of World War I, two women dancing together in a beer hall, a pretty girl kissing a fish, and a number of musicians.

Now, anytime you hear tales of strange activity that borders on the supernatural, it's a good idea to check the source—this we learned in primary school, right? So I did, and here's what turned up: 

At least some of the rumors surrounding Jack's show can be traced to a review that was published in Seven Days on June 6, when the exhibit was at Studio Place Arts in Barre, Vermont. The reporter, Meg Brazill, began her review with this observation:

"The subjects of Jack Rowell's photographs on exhibit are so animated that one suspects they converse with one another—or even get rowdy—after SPA closes for the night." 

Speaking metaphorically, which art critics are allowed to do, Brazill also wrote: “Rowell's photographs don't just sing; they bleed."

And that's how rumors get started.

"Leah," by Jack Rowell. Rumor has it that the portraits are possessed.

On July 26, soon after the show moved to the White River Craft Center in Randolph, another critic added fuel to the fire. Emmajean Holley, in a report for the Valley News, observed that Jack's studio portraits "capture the ways in which a person’s story can come through in their body, and their face, and their eyes in particular." (Italics mine.)

Again, this is art-critic language for "the images are powerful," or "the people in the photographs seem so real you feel like they're about to dance the rumba, even though you know they're not going to." 

It should also be noted that Rowell himself, in the Valley News interview, said, "A good portrait . . .  tells a story." The three dots, which are called an ellipsis, mean that he said a few things in between, but either Emmajean decided they were not worth quoting or a passing truck drowned them out. Nonetheless, the resulting comment clearly bolsters the impression that the portraits are alive and breathing.

Verdict: The rumors are false. The portraits in Jack Rowell: Cultural Documentarian do not literally sing, speak, cavort after hours, or stab each other with pitchforks. Nor, when Sue Higby of Studio Place Arts called them "savory," did she mean that you should eat them, possibly as an accompaniment to roast beef. She meant that you should see them. And that's the truth. You've got from now until the end of September.

Fred Tuttle, by Jack Rowell. Don't you just want to straighten his glasses?

The show is on view at the White River Craft Center at the end of Randolph Avenue. FYI: It shares the building with a very good Thai restaurant called Saap.

For further reading:

Jack Rowell, Photographer  (Jack's official website)

How to Be Jack Rowell, by Sara Tucker for the Korongo Reader

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