Diane Gabriel was classically trained in the visual arts from an early age, and the New York City transplant has sculpted, drawn, photographed, and printed in Vermont since she moved here in 1970. On a warm spring evening I stopped by her Burlington home to see her work and learn more about the woman behind it.
After brief introductions, Gabriel launched me on a tour of her house. Each wall and ledge held one of her many ceramics, photographs, sculptures, prints, or drawings. Flitting by each piece, accompanied by her stories and remembrances of their creation, it was hard not to firstly, be impressed by the artist’s deep connection to her materials and subjects, and secondly, to keep pace with someone who clearly had levels of energy and charisma that only accrue with age.
As we entered the living room, I was struck by a large charcoal drawing of a single leaf. Thick, fisty lines hammered down with intensity gave it a sense of solidity, a raw emotion that was hard to comprehend. After all, it was just a leaf. “It’s a portrait of my father,” Gabriel said. “I’ll explain when we get upstairs.”
There, Gabriel took me to a black and white photograph so small, I had to lean in to discern the subject. It slapped me in the face like a wet towel. The first of the twin towers was falling in a column of dust to the ground.
“I took that from the balcony of the apartment where my father was dying,” she said. “Micro death and macro death.” The portrait of her father, the leaf, was drawn shortly after the towers fell. “I was standing outside, and this leaf comes falling down,” she gestured with her hands in a swooping, zig-zag descent, “in front of me. And I knew. It was him.”
Nowhere is that quality more apparent than in her images of children. For years she has photographed Anna Rose and her sister, Phoebe, whose grandparents live near Gabriel. In one photograph, a seven-year-old Anna Rose stares just below the gaze of the camera, a black cloth draped over her frazzled blond hair. It’s unsettling and dark, but also innocent. The image is part of a multimedia exhibit forty years in the making titled “Child’s Play.”
“People hear child’s play and think ‘bah,’” Gabriel said with a wave of her hand. She doesn’t feel that way. Rushing through her in-house art tour, it was hard to pin down what “Child’s Play” meant to her. But clearly, it was important. I exited her home with the vague idea that I had witnessed something like the landscape of rusted bikes, lost shoes, decayed swim garments, and small animal bones one sees through murky water while diving, clutching empty lungs, at the bottom of a pond.
“I have vivid memories of experiences and emotions I had as a child,” Gabriel stated. “I want my photographs to be as honest, truthful, and faithful to my memories as possible. I’d like them to be courageous, not because I think I’m unique, but rather because I think my experiences and emotions were quite ordinary, and probably universal.”
Capturing experience, translating emotion in clay, paper, and chemicals, is no small task. Gabriel speaks a lot about memory, using the word the way most of us do, referring to a recollection. But it also means “the faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information.” Gabriel remembers her life through her art, and in that act creates objects which are memory itself, capable of being shared and experienced over and over again, so long as there is someone to look at them.