Down South: Marsha Polier, Portrait Artist

Note: The North Carolina Museum of Art has exhibited Marsha Polier’s work. A fellow at the MacDowell Artist Colony, she worked with Time Life Music on vintage imagery. For more than 30 years she documented events for the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University. Guest columnist, Nancy Allison, tells Marsha’s story.

Like most Southerners, Marsha Polier tells a great story. She also spins tales without saying a word. The fine art photographer from Raleigh grew up surrounded by prints of famous paintings her father, architect Lewis Polier, received. Marsha helped him mat and place these prints on a special wall in the home. While the wall of stories “with their settings full of detail and information about lifestyle, time, and place,” surely developed Marsha’s inner eye, her father’s space-efficient, eco-friendly home influenced many subconscious and conscious artistic decisions in her life.

At four, she had her own easel; at nine, her parents gave her a Kodak Brownie she still owns. Even more important was seeing her father at his drawing board with “T-squares, triangles, and hand-sharpened mechanical pencils, the vellums and blueprints showcasing his meticulous renderings.”
Marsha’s mother, Afton, an exuberant, outgoing woman who had been active in high school theater productions encouraged imaginative and artistic pursuits in her four daughters. An art career for Marsha became a natural goal. “As a child, nothing was more exciting to me than a box of new crayons.”

Marsha followed her muse studying studio art, art history, and photography at UNC-Greensboro. Blessed with a mother who loved acting and a father who considered the landscape, materials, and physical setting of a house characters in its story, Marsha began creating narratives with her artwork. But first she had to learn her craft, and in 1968 that meant physics, specifically, Dr. Anna Joyce Reardon’s Physics of Light class. “Our all-female class mixed darkroom chemicals from scratch in large cylindrical vats—stirring with paddles, wearing rubber aprons, gloves, and goggles,” Marsha recalls. Reardon stressed, “the science and not the art or aesthetics of photography. A perfect negative and fine printing were very important.”

As Marsha mastered photography’s technical skills, came to grip with chemicals, and worked with a pinhole camera as well as a 35mm and 4×5 speed Graflex, she continued to draw and paint. After two years she transferred to the School of Art, now VCUarts, at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where she would be introduced to graphic design and hone her skills in photography and illustration. There she met pinhole artist Willie Anne Wright. Photography spoke to both as nothing else did, and although their styles were different, formed the basis of a close friendship that continues to this day.

“At age 25 I wanted my work to look like no other photography I’d seen. For a number of years, I avoided, as much as possible, looking closely at or studying the work of other photographers in museums, galleries, publications in my effort to ‘listen to myself’ and ‘follow my own nose.’ Having said this, I confess I’ve always admired the work of two early female photographers: 19th century English photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and early 20th century American photographer Nell Dorr. Both photographed family and friends in home environments, much as I ended up doing. The imagery and tenacity of Deborah Turbeville and Willie Anne Wright made indelible impressions on me.”

At VCU Marsha found her niche as an artist. Still a painter at heart, she decided to mix paint and photography. “I loved working in watercolors and I was loving photography. One day, I was 23, I began combining the two, with no goal in mind. I was sitting at my drawing board with my image of an old house with garden on matt surface photography paper. I already had my watercolor palette on a white china plate full of colors I’d custom mixed for some other project. I used a clean, very dense, tiny photographic sponge to control water as I stroked on color with sable brushes.”

Since then, she has finished her black and white images with watercolors, pastels, colored pencils, and oils. Never keen on the intensely saturated effects of color film, she uses her prints as a canvas for her own color interpretation. It’s slow and painstaking, no computers involved. Each photo can take up to 30 hours. “With hand coloring, it’s possible to color the same image ten different times in ten different ways, changing the colors each time, and often I do. I rarely use the same colors in the ‘real’ setting. I like making up my color scheme. I love being able to soften and mute color and be inventive.”

During the 1970s, Marsha began a series that would win a Silver Medal at a juried show at the NC Museum of Art and become part of the portfolio that earned her a fellowship/residency at the MacDowell Artists Colony at age 28. The series, Ecstasy, stems from a visit to Virginia with friends. Four girls jump for joy on a mountaintop, all flinging their long hair back at the same moment.

“As one of four sisters, these Ecstasy images have special meaning for me. They conveyed exhilaration, freedom, happiness and energy. This feeling represented me, a self-portrait I suppose.”

Much of her fine art portraiture has been of children. From the beginning she wanted to take photos on their turf, not in a studio. “Most children have plenty of props. For me, it was best to stage in their space, to collaborate with the children and use some of their ideas to develop my ‘storytelling.’ This made their picture one of a kind, and perhaps offers the kids a chance to time-travel back in years to come and see their ‘child-tidy’ bedroom, scattered toys, favorite clothes and books, and so forth.”

“When I married at 33 and had children, photography and the other paying jobs had to fit around my family life. Family always comes first. I spent many hours in my darkroom or coloring in my home studio after the kids were in bed at night.”
Like many artists, Marsha sacrificed to keep making art: freelancing graphic design and waitressing, photographing, and writing a column for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and taking documentary photos for VCU and The University of Richmond. “The fine art photography rarely supported itself. I did what I felt drawn to, not to what I deemed practical as a career. I never ‘decided’ to be a photographer or an artist. I simply couldn’t resist the pull it had on me.”

Photo of the artist by Kate Polier Grossman

Author: Stephan Drew

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