“I had always wanted to make a home – perhaps because I never had a cozy home in the beginning of my life.” – Paula Ballo Dailey
Confronting our own mortality is an emotionally fraught process few among us would willingly embrace. It demands honesty in the face of fear and acceptance at our loss of control. Artists in particular, if they so choose, face the added complexity of summarizing this tidal wave of emotions into visual form. If you knew your next gallery show was your last, what would you display? For Paula Ballo Dailey, the answer was simple—turn your pains, hopes and daydreams into intricate visual narratives that give voice to your core values and personal aspirations.
For the Woodstock, Virginia-based artist, this was no mere intellectual exercise. Diagnosed with cancer, Dailey faced the painful realization that her unending quest to explore her emotional world faced limits that modern medicine could not overcome. Her exhibition Innocence and Truth, on view at the Brookland Arts Walk through February 2017, represented the culmination of her search for meaning in the face of her terminal illness. [Editor’s note: Paula Ballo Dailey’s work will also be exhibited at the Joan Hisoaka Gallery May 19-June 24, 2017]. All but one work was produced in the last year of her life and, as a collection, creates an emotionally vibrant tapestry, suggesting Dailey was as comfortable dwelling in her unseen world of dreams as she was in the Blue Ridge Mountains outside her studio.
It is fitting that Paula Dailey’s husband Brian Dailey, also an accomplished artist, was present with me as I toured the exhibition; for he accompanied her on this artistic trek, even lending his hands when hers were too weak to manipulate materials.
Dailey’s career began in the 1970s, in Los Angeles, where she received her BFA at the California Institute of the Arts. She exhibited widely through the 1980s in Los Angeles where she enjoyed gallery representation. She relocated with her husband to the DC metro area in 1988. Here, she became known for her professional work as a photo editor at the Smithsonian Institution Press and the National Geographic Society.
Through it all, she continued to create work that strove to make her innermost thoughts visible. While the majority of her pieces in Innocence and Truth are three dimensional, Dailey worked extensively as a painter, often using personal journals as a canvas. This subtle interplay between her private, inner musings and their subsequent visual forms, serves as a framework for how to begin to understand the mechanisms and metaphors she incorporates throughout her final series.
This level of complexity is underscored by My Rebirth. Completed in 2015 as she turned her attention inward, the shadowy female figure is superimposed upon a black background punctuated by swirls of yellow that suggest ethereal forms. Rays of white energy emanate from the center of her torso, creating gauzy auras that move like ripples across the canvas. The result is an entire cosmology that intertwines the artist’s soul to a larger, emotionally-interconnected universe.
One key way in which she channels those emotions is in her selection of artistic materials. Brian Dailey notes her move towards assemblage began when she started collecting found items which became important props in her Jungian tableaus. In The Faked Escape, Dailey combines wooden birds, two paintings—one hers, the other found—and a miniature axe in a Joseph Cornell-inspired diorama whose seeming simplicity belies its multiple layers of meaning. Birds—and the freedom they possess to soar—were especially fascinating to the artist. Here, three dimensional birds stare listlessly at their painted counterparts, each seemingly challenging the other to alight if they can. The axe, with its knife-edge dug into a nearby tree stump might suggest the unseen presence of man or, more ominously, the possibility of impending destruction.
To explain her avian fascination, Brian Dailey relates a childhood story never far from his wife’s imagination. As a child he raised birds. One day, their cage door was accidentally left open and the birds flew away. Miraculously, several of the birds eventually returned and he was able to confine them to their cage. But the celebratory mood was short-lived because, soon after their return, their behavior changed; their health deteriorated and all the returning birds died. Paula Dailey turned this tale into a heartfelt metaphor—once the soul tastes freedom it cannot be contained.
It also explains her fascination with bird cages. Cages of various size and form dot the gallery and serve as integral platforms from which to build her dreamscapes. Some of these works reflect her emotional responses to social struggles outside her immediate control. The Innocent features a cage balanced atop a harlequin diamond-patterned pedestal that suggests a tragicomedy awaits. Various ropes, dolls and doll heads are amassed in a tempest of energy inside the cage, whose doorway frames an infant shedding glass tears. While the individual components themselves exude a folksy vibe, en masse they create an aura of melancholy that borders on despair. Even though the cage door is open, the figures inside are not truly free.
Other cages reference emotional worlds of a more personal nature. The Destination is Not Freedom speaks to the struggle to balance the mind and spirit in the face of adversity. Here a monk-like figure literally sits upon a bed of spikes, with tools to aid his spiritual journey out of reach outside the cage. His composure is far from Zen-like, underscoring the painful challenges that life puts in our way. Again the gate is open, but the barbed tips of the raised door look to be just as sharp as the nails upon which he sits; freedom is not a wingbeat away. Self-Portrait, perhaps her most autobiographical work, is less tempestuous and more cerebral as she gently spells out her core identity through trinkets, photos and well-placed feathers. With components that subtly connote her overlapping roles of daughter, wife and artist, Dailey stands in defiance of her diagnosis: “remember me this way” she seems to say.
Paula Ballo Dailey passed away just a few days before Innocence and Truth opened. I had not had the pleasure of meeting her in person but, in spending time in the quiet power of these works, I begin to feel as if I know her. While sorrow is present, so are feelings of joy and a sense of wonderment at the complexity of life. While undoubtedly cathartic for the artist, these works are also a parting gift to us. Don’t take life for granted she seems to say and always listen to your dreams.
Work from Paula Ballo Dailey’s Innocence and Dreams along with those of her husband Brian Dailey is featured in a group exhibition at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery May 17 through June 24 titled “TOGETHER” which opens Friday May 19. Details FOUND HERE.