May 12 2010 12:00 AM

There’s no room for labels in ‘Blended People’ photo exhibit

Like millions of Americans, Lansing artist Suellen Hozman responded to the 2010 Census. Unlike most, she checked “other” next to the “race” box and inscribed the words “human being.”

“I’ve been doing that for probably 40 years,” she said.

This decade, Hozman backed up her mini-rebellion with a real category-killer: “Blended People,” 27 photographic portraits of people who couldn’t find their box on the census if they tried.

Hozman is a Lansing resident and longtime civil rights activist whose last photo exhibit was a 2006 Creole Gallery show of specially enhanced images for the blind. For this project, she said she chose subjects whose mother and father “have origins from different parts of the globe.”

The result is a luminous black-and-white bouquet of skin shades, hair textures, eye shapes and personalities, a timely reminder of the glories of old-school film, and an intriguing thought experiment.

Hozman knew viewers would be curious about the ethnic, religious or national background of her subjects, who range in age from 3 months to 88 years old. She kept a private spreadsheet to make sure the largest possible variety of geographical origins are represented, but isn’t sharing that information with the viewer. Nothing is written on the portrait labels but the subject’s name and “100 Percent Citizen of the Earth.”

“It’s normal for human beings to categorize,” Hozman said. “But I wondered whether people could go to a show and turn off that button.”

The “category” button seems harmless enough to those who are doing the categorizing, but if you’re pigeonholed all your life, it can a bruising experience.

Kuana M. School, a nurse’s assistant from Mason, is a longtime friend of Hozman’s and was her first subject for “Blended People.”

School said she’s often asked about her background, a blend of African-American, German, Irish and American Indian.

“People always have to know, ‘Why do you look this way?” School said. “I feel like I have to constantly make others feel comfortable about not being able to place me in a category, and that kind of gets annoying after a while.”

She said it comes from all sides.

“Mexican people tell me I’m being a bad Mejicana because I’m not honoring my heritage,” School said. “I keep telling them I’m not Latin.

“Older people, Caucasians, might say, ‘Oh, that’s OK that you’re black,’ kind of apologize for me.”

Another one of Hozman’s blended people, Christine Fisk, is used to impertinent questions on short acquaintance. “I still get it, and probably will for the rest of my life,” Fisk said.

Fisk, an employee at the Board of Water & Light, has a blend of African-American, Japanese and American Indian background. People sometimes approach her and start speaking in Spanish or Portugese, assuming she is from Mexico or Brazil.

Fisk’s daughter, who has an Irish-German dad, is more blended than she is. Although Fisk said she and her daughter look “exactly alike,” except for skin color, people assume they are not related.

“People look at her and say, ‘Is this yours?’” Fisk said.

The attention is not always innocent.

“Sometimes it’s been a little hostile,” she said. Recently, on an Amtrak ride, a man asked Fisk whether her daughter’s father was white.

“Most of the time it’s curiosity, and I don’t mind it, although you do get tired of it sometimes.”

Hearing stories like these, Hozman said photographing the show was like “reliving my life.”

“Sometimes, when people first see me, they greet me with, ‘What are you?’” Hozman said. “That’s before saying hello.”

When Hozman was in grade school, friends took her home and introduced her as “my Jewish friend.”

“Blended People” has a 1960s feel, and not just because of its orchestrated rainbow of faces and artist manifesto. The juicy radiance of hand-printed film animates every facial expression, from earthy spontaneity to quiet dignity.

While most photographers have gone irrevocably digital, there’s still a darkroom in Hozman’s basement, with an enlarger, a printer and laundry tubs that double as chemical baths. A couple of bricks and dumbbell weights flatten the prints for drying.

“I like the authenticity (of film),” Hozman said. “I know I have an exact record of what the light was doing and how the subject looked at that moment.”

“Blended People”:

Honora Bird’s Studio Gallery 1207 Turner St., Lansing Through May 30 (517) 285-9462