For Roxanne Frith, it’s been a lifetime.
Traveling with a motorcycle gang, documenting her father’s illness and death and capturing a world of faces. She’s spent most of her life behind the lens of what she calls her "spirit catcher." "
My work is not really surprising, as it is reaffirming,” Frith said. “Looking back, what I see that’s really important is the human condition and the spirit of people, no matter what culture or group I photographed."
“Glimpses,” a retrospective exhibit celebrating Frith’s life and 30 years of work, is on exhibit at Lansing’s Creole Gallery through Aug. 23.
A community of supporters gathered at the opening reception Sunday afternoon, as Frith unveiled her wide collection of work. The exhibit features a selection of about 50 pieces — portraits, triptychs and digital collages — spanning three decades, the most recent of which were completed two weeks ago.
Frith seeded the show with 10 foundation pieces, and then she let friends and colleagues choose the next 40 or so. She said the various styles of work in the show all represent the many phases of her life, which has brought her to Lansing again and again. "It’s an honor to be able to share my life’s work," Frith said. “I chose Lansing as my home because this is where I want to live and contribute.”
A Lansing Community College alumna, Frith, who turns 51 on Aug. 6, became enamored with the city when her stud ies brought her here in 1974 as a photojournalism major. Bouncing in and out of Lansing, Frith moved two more times before a job offer at LCC brought her back in 1991.
“When friends and colleagues ask me, ‘Why Lansing?’ I always come back with three reasons: Turner Street, LCC and a solid community of friends,” she said.
As a photography instructor at LCC, Frith has played a substantial role in building the Lansing art scene. When a friend from the Regional Alternative Teachers Society called Frith asking for a space to show a selection of work from five alternative high schools during one of Old Town’s first holiday seasons, Frith suggested the Creole Gallery, owned then by friend Robert Busby.
“We mounted a show here during that first holiday series, and then Robert donated the space to me for the next year and a half,” Frith said.
Over the next year and a half, LCC students under Frith’s direction prepped the exhibit program at the Creole Gallery.
“I had the mixed blessing of having the last show with Robert (Busby was killed in February 2007), and this is the first time I’ve shown since losing my dear friend,” she said. I
n Busby’s honor, a photo by Frith, which was sold to Busby (the first photo she ever sold), hangs by the door in her show. The photo is on loan from Busby’s daughter, Ena Busby, who inherited the Creole Gallery.
Looking around the room at the strange faces, fantasy gardens and images of her father, it’s clear Frith values life.
A selection from “Collection of Faces” features a variety of portraits that tell history through their eyes. One photo shows a stern woman, decked head-to-toe in fur. Another man, face full of hardship, sits next to her in an adjacent photo.
Frith said the selection is a play on the 19th century, non-western idea of spirit catching and the notion that taking a picture can steal one’s soul. “For me it’s tongue and cheek; I’m not actually stealing their soul,” she said. “But my work really resonates for me with the experience and the spirituality of being alive.”
On the far wall near the stage are pieces from a striking series on her father’s battle with a kidney condition. Pictures of him lying in a hospital bed, nurses and family around him, tell a lot about life, death and dying.
“The selection from ‘Strength of Life’ was the culmination of documenting seven years of my father’s life,” Frith said. “That’s what my graduate thesis was about, looking at and bringing questions through art regarding the economical, spiritual and medical sides of long-term, chronic illness, death and dying in our culture, where they collide rather than work in harmony with each other.”
Her father’s condition is hereditary, and Frith’s own kidney condition is one of the reasons she decided to hold this retrospective.
“It was time I had to take a look and take stock of things, and this opportunity to have a retrospective really gave me an opportunity to go back through and see what my work has been about,” she said. Her new collection, the “Nookie” series, is also represented. Taken by a nook outside her house, the series is about friends, life and laughter and couldn’t represent Frith any better.
“We all need each other to be alive, and laughter is part of that,” she said. “Whether it’s economic times, medical times, tragedy with your friends — if we cant laugh and cry and hold each other, than what good are we?”