When Still Life Isn't Still

STORY BY DONNA FORD
PHOTOS BY DONNA FORD AND JOHN FORD

 Culture Keeper contributor Donna Ford describes some of the unexpected links between her former career as a dance artist and her current work in the field of interior design.

 John Ford

John Ford

CUBA (14 of 17) photo by John Ford.jpg

We enter a dark hallway and take shelter from the rain now violently hitting the tin roof. Some strangers welcome us and then instantly are no longer strangers now that we are in their home. A little light pours into the dark rooms; the photographer in us is satisfied there is sufficient light for a portrait or two if our subjects consent. Glancing around the main living area, we immediately start to process the pots and pans and other items that adorn the walls. We make guesses and judgments about what life in the jungle would really be like. With the taste of freshly brewed coffee still on our lips, we capture a few snaps before uttering a fond farewell in our best Spanish. The rain has eased and our hearts leave warmed and grateful for this unexpected visit.

I hazily recall this encounter in the eastern jungles of Cuba and only now realize the profound impact it has had on my life. That was nine years ago, and life has changed dramatically since then. Children have been born, a new house bought and completely renovated, and my career has taken a complete U-turn.

I’ve exchanged designing limbs and bodies in space, for choreographing furniture, colors, and the play of light in a room.

I used to be a dance artist and now I am an interiors blogger. The fascinating part of this career shift is that the aesthetic process of design and creativity whether in rooms or with bodies feels very similar to me. In some ways it doesn’t really feel like I’ve changed careers at all.

 Donna Ford

Donna Ford

 Donna Ford

Donna Ford

Despite my love of movement, I find that still life is my favorite thing to photograph. The phrase “still life” conjures up Renaissance paintings of jugs and grapes (which I love!), though maybe the term is a little outdated. Perhaps it needs to be redefined as “unmoving objects and spaces.” Although I photograph and capture whole rooms, I prefer honing in on the detail and the narrative that can be told with just a few objects or materials.

This is the main difference from my previous career in dance, since walls and furniture are much more concrete, unchanging, and permanent than the ephemeral quality of dance and other performing arts. What I love about these unmoving elements is that their fixedness forces my creativity. Unmoving objects may appear lifeless and devoid of meaning, but let’s not judge them too harshly.

What still life actually provides is insight into a facet of someone’s life. Our homes should be living sculptures created to offer an impression of who we are and even who we desire to be. We only need to glance at the history of architecture to see a glimpse of how humans have achieved and perceived this through time.

For me, this is the heart of interior design and what I’m dedicated to discovering in my work from now on. As I write, photograph, converse, ponder, and look at the still world around me, I remember that it offers only a small impression of the existence of us mortals in this earthly space and time. I can’t wait to see what I discover next.

Off we trot on the untrained farm horses carrying us along the track created in front of us by our guide. We don’t look back. We think instead about the warmth that the modest yet inviting hotel room will grant us in a short while. The moment is gone. But (thank God) it keeps returning to me through the images we have captured, especially one that hangs in my present day living room, awakening my memory every day.

Giving creative agency to other people through my teaching and analytical skills has always been the focus of my work. Now that happens solely with adults rather than with children. I crave creativity and believe we are born to be creative in the everyday sense. I think my dance training has also developed in me a heightened sense of spatial awareness which is essential to interior design. Designing rooms takes not only an aesthetic consideration but also consideration of the needs of the living beings who will move around that space.

Going back to this chance meeting in a Cuban jungle home, it is the concept of belonging and home that I always gravitate towards. As I pen words for my blog and collaborate with people in their homes, I am perpetually processing somewhere in my subconscious: “What is home? Why is home? Where is home?” and I am looking for the commonalities across the whole human experience: “What if someone doesn’t have a home? Are there homes that don’t have a physical location and are just yearned for? Is home just where we are in the present?”

 Donna Ford

Donna Ford

 Donna Ford

Donna Ford

 Donna Ford

Donna Ford

DONNA FORD

CULTURE KEEPER

With three large renovations under her belt, Donna Ford began an award-nominated interiors blog to share with others what she’s been learning. As she expands into offering affordable interior design services, she has discovered the relevance of her previous life as a dance artist and her experience in arts management and as a mentor and teacher. She lives in and renovates a 1930s home in South-East London with her Director of Photography husband John and their two gorgeous little boys. Find her also on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

Learn more about John Ford's photography on his website.