Sunday, December 18, 2011

Note on Lisa Qualls at Koelsch Gallery

by Robert Boyd

absence installation view

There is an interesting bit of family history that Lisa Qualls is mining for this show. Her great-great-great grandmother, Lily Qualls, was born a slave. She and one of the sons of the master fell in love. It was a love that had no future in the slave-holding South. So they eloped and fled north. The family name was Quarles , and the name Qualls was adopted to prevent embarrassment for the family. Presumably the love lasted--at least long enough for Lily to become a matriarch of a family that continued unbroken through Lisa. But the Qualls have no images of Lily.

This show is about that lack. It's called absence, and it is full of imagined images of Lily.

Lisa Qualls, Absence (eight versions), book pages, acrylic, colored pencil, oil, wood, 2011

Lisa Qualls, Absence (installation view), book pages, acrylic, colored pencil, oil, wood, 2011

One part of the project was to imagine a range of possible faces for her ancestor. Each portrait has a limited number of elements, and each of those elements has a set of possible variations. The skin tone, the hair, the placement of facial features--these vary subtly in each imagined portrait of Lily.

Lisa Qualls, my great-great-great grandmother at age 12, graphite on mylar, 2011

This I found a little odd--is she imagining her 12-year-old ancestor with grey hair? I'm not sure. This drawing is part of a triptych, which includes a self-portrait at 12 and, poignantly I thought, a portrait of her imagined daughter at 12.

Lisa Qualls, me at age 12, graphite on mylar, 2011

Lisa Qualls, my imagined daughter at age 12, graphite on mylar, 2011

One technical note--Qualls' graphite works are extremely subtle in their values. Consequently, they are unusually difficult to photograph well. The photos above give you an idea of what these drawings look like, but you really need to see them in person to get the real effect. So if you find yourself biking on the Heights hike & bike trail between now and January 14, stop by the Koelsch Gallery and check them out in person.



  1. Thank you Robert for doing such a nice write up of the show. I just wanted to correct the spelling of Quarles in the first paragraph. The reason that Lily's hair appears grey in the drawing is that using graphite to create sunbleached dark blonde hair just doesn't get those golden tones to read like I want them to. That is one of the few limitations of graphite.

  2. I like the idea of this exhibition very much. Thanks for writing about it. I will get myself there after the holidays.