Artist Ann Hamilton was focused on the subject right in front of her, but she couldn’t help but notice the toddler running by.
Dressed head-to-toe in mismatched clothes — a multicolored winter hat, a pink striped coat and sparkly rainbow high tops — 2-year-old Sophia Dowell was an ideal person to include in the artist’s ongoing project: “ONEEVERYONE.”
“Can we photograph her?” Hamilton asked of Sophia’s mother, Ashley.
A little hesitant, Ashley agreed but needed more information about the unusual scene the mother-daughter duo came across while exploring Thompson Library at Ohio State University.
Hamilton, a world-renowned visual artist — she received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2015 — had set up shop in the atrium of the library to take portraits of passersby for the ongoing project. Subjects posed at the direction of Hamilton behind a semi-transparent membrane.
It’s a project she began in 2012 when she was partnered with Bayer MaterialScience as part of an endeavor with the Andy Warhol Museum that linked artists with Pittsburgh-based businesses.
“One of the researchers there mentioned this material, and I put it in my hands,” said Hamilton, 63, a professor in OSU’s Department of Art. “It was so interesting — only my hands were in focus. It made touch visible.”
On her website, she has called the phenomenon “magic.”
At first she began photographing objects behind the material, with only the parts that touch the surface in focus; the outline was rendered more softly. Then she thought it would be fascinating to have people go behind a curtain of the soft, skin-like film called Duraflex, a thermoplastic polyurethane membrane used to make bladders for holding large volumes of liquid.
The result: Portraits that seem ethereal, according to her subjects.
“There is something distinct about a picture with the membrane,” said Taylor Ross, 27, who graduated from Ohio State with his master’s of fine arts in May. “There is a dream-like quality to them.”
Or, as senior photography student Amber Woodside, 34, of Lancaster, described it: “It’s like you’re coming out of a fog.”
Though many of the people waiting to be photographed during the recent session — it was one of five scheduled throughout the past two weeks — were current and former art students and faculty, others simply walked by, curious about the scene, or saw a friend post about it on social media. The sessions were open to the public in an effort to showcase the Ohio State community.
Roughly 500 portraits were taken for a book that will be distributed in the spring to honor the university’s sesquicentennial celebration. Hamilton has created similar books for other institutions — the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, for example — and in gallery format for a number of museums.
And while she was busy working at Ohio State on this project, the Lima native’s past work was simultaneously being celebrated elsewhere around town. “Here: Ann Hamilton, Jenny Holzer, Maya Lin” paired her work with other prominent female artists from Ohio at the Wexner Center for the Arts and other locations around Columbus. The OSU Urban Arts Space has included her as part of an ongoing exhibit called “Transference.”
Hamilton was eager to bring her “ONEEVERYONE” project to a place so familiar to her.
“It’s really wonderful to be in the library and experience … the breadth of the community who are working and studying here,” Hamilton said. “Even though you’re with them for only a few minutes, you’re really seeing the person.”
Meredith Wang, 21, was a bit nervous when she went behind the screen, especially after she realized she couldn’t see through it, even though it appeared transparent. However, she relaxed after a few seconds of listening to Hamilton’s calm directions projected through a microphone:
Your eyelashes are so long. Close your eyes. Put your chin up.
“I think this is so amazing and so smart, yet the concept is so simple,” said Wang, also a senior photography student at OSU who was inspired by the experience.
“I love it. They’re so soft,” she said of the photographs she was able to preview on a tablet set up to give people a sneak peek.
Hamilton wasn’t running the actual camera — assistant Kara Gut did that. Instead, Hamilton led the subject in a series of movements, sometimes requiring the person to take off glasses or a jacket to get the perfect pose. Hamilton said it helps that the subjects can’t see through the membrane because it provides privacy and allows them to focus on her voice.
“Each time it’s different, and it’s live and responsive,” she said. “We’re making it together and even though it’s a brief crossing, it feels like something happens.”
Though the shy Sophia Dowell refused to look toward the camera during her mini photo shoot with her mother, it couldn’t have worked out better, Hamilton said.
“It’s so beautiful to see her gesture — her hand is touching you in the most beautiful way,” an excited Hamilton said to the girl’s mother.
One of the photos featured Ashley Dowell looking at her daughter while the blurred effect of the membrane created almost a heart around the two.
“It looks really good,” the Hilliard resident said. “The photos look like they’re painted.”