I first encountered poet Philip Matthews and photographer David Johnson at Chicago's Filter Photo Festival in late 2018. Though our portfolio review was a brief 20 minutes, it was immediately clear that their collaborative effort Wig Heavier than a Boot was a fulsome, even revelatory experience. The project, which will debut as a book published by Kris Graves Projects in October 2019, reveals a rich creative relationship between Matthews, Johnson and Petal, a drag persona who acts as the artists’ muse and teacher.
In advance of their talk at SPE this coming Saturday March 9th, we spoke about the project's origin and evolution, the nature of collaboration, and matters of gender and representation in a photo- and art historical context.
Roula Seikaly in conversation with Philip Matthews and David Johnson
Roula Seikaly: What is the origin of Wig Heavier than a Boot, and where does the title come from?
David Johnson: We’d known each other for years through the St. Louis art scene. But we really didn't start talking about the project until we went on an artist’s retreat called FLOAT in southern Missouri, organized by The Luminary and led by Italian artist collective Radical Intention. It was a retreat where artists, writers, curators, and community organizers came together for listening and physical activities. While we were sitting around the campfire one night, Phil introduced Petal. He had already worked with one photographer to begin looking at and understanding who Petal was. I asked Phil if he was interested in working with another photographer a little more exclusively.
That was 2014, and over the next year, Phil and I met to talk about ideas and what he envisioned for the project. The conversation started as this Mad Hatter tea party meets Andy Warhol's Factory party in the middle of the woods: with Petal observing and kind of ruling over this extravagance. We shot one study photograph, which is the one of Phil touching his nose, and after that, it really turned into an introspective project.
Philip Matthews: I had seen an exhibition of David’s work at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, where he’d photographed inside the homes of the museum’s board members. I was really into this question of what Petal's home would look like. So when Dave and I started talking about doing something together, I really thought we were going to focus on where Petal lives, whether it was an interior space or, as he said, the middle of this, like, Alice in Wonderland situation. But then it became clear that the project wasn't about those spaces. The right spaces would come in, but it was a portraiture project first.
About the title: it’s surreal and poetic on one hand, and on the other has a kind of aggression to it. I like the idea of the wig having weight and substance, this idea that it’s no small thing to become this other person. For me, the title acknowledges the potential danger of presenting as Petal, but ultimately feels like claiming a power that’s explicitly queer.
Seikaly: So Petal existed prior to you working with David?
Matthews: She did, yes.
Seikaly: Okay, let's go from there. What is Petal's origin? How do you call her into being, and what details can you share about her?
Matthews: At first, petal was a recurring image throughout the poems. There's an early poem whose refrain goes "The petal stirred and..." and then all of these things happen. The petal becomes a ram, it dreams that it’s dew, it stirs a “bold red skull.” Petal is just an object in that poem - it's lowercase - but there’s this idea of an image stirring and releasing all of these other things trapped inside it.
That was really exciting to me. Then one day, Petal was capitalized and actually sounded like a figure or a character. It felt immediate, like, suddenly Petal was stirring. She lifted her head off the page and looked at me and said, "I'm going to speak now." That was the beginning. I don't mean to sound so mystical about it, but that’s how it feels to me.
Sometimes calling her into the room means spending time in her appearance, like an invocation practice. The more that I’ve taught myself to paint her face and dress as her, to just commune with her, the closer and closer she's come. There are special pieces of jewelry I associate with her, and of course her wigs and boots. Sometimes it feels like Petal calls me. There are signals I know she’s coming.
I usually talk to myself when writing, but there’s a particular kind of… wild singing? Like, repetitive and falsetto with these bizarre phrases that get caught in my head. That feels like the presence of her pressing through. Then it’s like, OK, I need to get to my notebook. Actually, I may have never even shared this with David before.
Seikaly: Fascinating. The way that you described her lifting her head off the page and indicating to you I am ready, that's one of the most poetic things I've heard, and it doesn't sound mystical or hyperbolic at all. It's a beautiful description of how this persona came to be. How would you describe your collaborative process?
Johnson: My interest in seeing Phil develop and Petal come through lies in the tension between author and character, and how character becomes author. I was intrigued by his writing process, and what the marriage between word and photograph could be. As far as our process, a lot of conversations to start off, and then we started shooting. We each have careers to mind, so we would focus a certain amount of time on the project and let it rest and then meet again for another shoot or to talk things through.
The first year was a lot of conversation over weekend brunches, finding the right locations and landscapes that would speak to the poetry. And then it turned into an editing process after the photo shoots. I would send Phil 10 of my favorite images, and Phil would send me poems, highlighting those that seemed to fit the project. For me, watching how Phil would delete, move around, or add poems - even pulling poems from a different project into ours - was a new way of working. I had always worked with photographs that were project-specific. In this project, I've learned to see images as having different possible homes.
Matthews: Each photo shoot taught us something. The project unfurled over four years and, I feel there was a lot of generosity with the timing and the spacing of everything. I took mental or physical notes during each shoot, and then we would get new photographs that led to wave after wave of new challenges or revelations in the work. I think both of us started to see, like, okay, this is where the project is leading us now. Like the organism constantly shifted based on new energy coming into it.
One of the things that really surprised me: I had not intended to invite Dave home with me to eastern North Carolina, and I certainly never imagined I would introduce Petal to my family, but that was an important shoot over the 2015 winter holidays. Quite frankly, I was a little uncomfortable with it, but it's what the project required.
Johnson: It occurs to me that it's not just Philip and me collaborating, it's also Petal. It's her decision to perform or not perform. She may not necessarily be present in this conversation, but she has a voice within it. And I think that was something we both had to learn to pay attention to.
Seikaly: David, how do you relate Petal? Are you her audience? Is she your muse?
Johnson: Looking for a specific place or location to shoot, but also pose, I saw myself as artistic director in those moments. There were times Petal would manifest with a very masculine pose that is not of Philip, or when Phil would pose in a more feminine way that wasn’t part of Petal. Catching those moments was so valuable. At times, Phil would be be fully dressed as Petal and I'd be having a conversation with Phil.
I think Petal ultimately became a muse, she also became a teacher and a guru in some ways. At times when Petal performed or was in front of an audience, people asked her questions. When we were in North Carolina with Phil’s family, I asked him, who is Petal as a mother? How does she respond to being a mom? She functions in so many ways. And watching her open up brought me new understandings of identity. That was powerful. Being a photographer and being very diligent with presenting these two beautiful beings who are sure of their identities helped me give up some of my own misunderstandings and try to more present in the process
Seikaly: Have you photographed Philip separate from Petal? If so, how do you describe that dynamic?
Johnson: So, for a bit of context: we reconvened in St. Louis in fall 2017 after Philip had moved away and I had been in Germany for two months. We decided to revisit locations that were part of Philip's life, and a few that were new locations for both of us. The last shoot was based on understanding that Phil's presence needed to play a larger role within the project and my voice as photographer needed to be more pronounced. This idea came from a conversation with gallerist Sasha Wolf, who said "this project's not quite done. We need more of you and more of Philip."
The last photograph is of Philip in an LGBTQIA+ accepting church. A lot of the project involved going to locations where he didn't necessarily feel comfortable growing up. There were definitely times that Petal is there; it's in the earrings, it's in the stance, it's in her boots.
Matthews: Yeah. Actually, it's funny. I want to say something that just occurred to me, listening to David speak. I knew that the locations we chose were emotionally meaningful for at least one of us, but something that just came through is that they are also places that at least one of us draws power from; a home, or a particular landscape, or a church, or the Pulitzer, which brought the project full circle.
Seikaly: Will the project continue to be dedicated to Petal, or will there be representation of Philip in that space as well?
Matthews: I think that's a question right now. For me, this project feels resolved. I don't think I'm interested in reviving Petal in physical form. But the question mark is whether there will be another offshoot collaboration between David and me. I don't think we know yet. We haven't had the chance to fully process Wig’s resolution, and we’re just really beginning to steward it into the world. But it's a conversation I think we're both interested in having.
Johnson: That's true, for sure. I can photograph Philip any time, but I don't know if the same can be said of Petal. As far as the set of 34 photographs and 26 poems being part of the publication, and future exhibitions, this project continues. Another conversation we've had recently is how to continue video work together. I'm thinking about how image and word relate to kinetic imagery. But as far as Wig, it feels fairly resolved. The edit has been less painful than others.
Seikaly: Is there a sense of grief or loss that the three of you don't all interact with one another so intimately now that the project has met a determined end?
Matthews: I think part of the reason the Petal poems excited me in the first place is that I was in such a rut after graduate school. I was trying to write a particular kind of poem, and I just couldn't break out of it. So when Petal entered the creative practice, it was such a relief. Here was a persona, a channel where I can write more freely, and she pulled me out of the rut.
Now with the two books forthcoming, and being in residence at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, I’m writing a very different kind of poem. While I feel Petal vaguely in the room, sort of a glimmer or shadow in the corner, the poems are not speaking necessarily with her voice, though they reflect a new kind of writing I could not have arrived at without her. So in that way, she feels like a teacher to me, too. And of course, I feel a certain sadness that this phase of the project is over. There is more work to be done as far as the publication and presentations are concerned, but the edit feels resolved and it feels like what we needed to learn from this process, we have.
Johnson: If we look at the start of the project, I would say that Philip and I were not in the happiest places professionally. But now, we have both changed where we live and what our jobs are and how we manage creativity. I gave a lecture at the Midwest chapter of SPE about this project and, surprisingly, I got really emotional. It taught me how to navigate being a cisgender white straight male photographing a gay man who's dressing in drag in the pastoral landscape.
Who is this for, and what is my voice in this project? I remember asking, "Do I have a voice in this project," to which Phil said, "Fuck, Dave, I'm amazed that you even want to do this project." I learned a lot about how to be an advocate and an ally and a lot about giving up my power, to let Philip or Petal into the image making process.
Seikaly: Philip, do you write as yourself or do you write as Petal? Do you ever cross that line?
Matthews: All the time. There’s a quality in the poems that excite me where the speaker is contained in one voice, one body, but there are subtle shifts within the speaker toggling back and forth between two styles. Petal’s style has taught me how a poem can continue forwarding itself. Now, my poems don't feel like such tight containers, they’re much more open. I think that's Petal's presence and influence. The work has cohesion, but there's a kind of wildness in it as well.
Seikaly: David, do you invite editorial input from either Phillip or Petal, or both?
Johnson: I'm really open to Philip helping with an edit as far as the image inclusion and sequencing. And I welcome Petal's input, how she may direct the shoot and how that captures the essence of the shoot. I'm really fortunate that Phil is my collaborator. He has vast experience within, and appreciation for, the visual art field, which I appreciate.
Seikaly: You make specific choices about where Petal is photographed. She is presented in domestic spaces and pastoral landscapes, both of which gesture to greater art historical and photographic representations of women. What is it about those two environments that is important to this project?
Matthews: I'll start, and I'd love to hear Dave's answer to this. For me, it was important to play with the idea of where gender queerness exists. I don't necessarily think of Petal as a drag persona, but the project definitely includes elements of drag. It was important to me to think about what it means for this person to exist in rural or pastoral landscapes, because that's where I'm from. I grew up in eastern North Carolina. So there was a way in which performing her in these spaces felt like an attempt to reconcile these two things: identifying as a queer person and the social norms of the place that I'm from, which, when I was growing up, there was a real tension there.
Seikaly: What about you, David?
Johnson: I'm thinking specifically about trying to pair the photographs with Phil's written language. Many of his poems deal with muck and mud and river clay and the water's edge. Finding locations that would speak to that was important, but also listening to Philip and this idea that we use 'drag,' but it's not quite the perfect word. I think there are a lot of young boys who wear dresses in rural landscapes, so it was important to open that conversation, and allow that play to happen. Petal never seemed to be interested in urban locations. She was alone within the landscape, and there are photographs Petal's not in, but she is certainly part of. If we think about the thicket of branches in North Carolina, Petal is in that photograph even if she's not physically present.
We were interested in capturing the relationship of image and text, and in the images presenting artifacts from Petal's environment such as a cow's skull or yoga mat. It's also about capturing places of empowerment for Phil and Petal. As a photographer and educator, I'm thinking about F. Holland Day and Annie Brigman and their work with the human body in the landscape. Referencing those images in a contemporary context was important for both me and Phil.
Seikaly: Is there any concern for the way Petal is presented that could reinforce western art historical notions of woman as nature, or woman as defined by biological determinism?
Matthews: The answer for me is, yes, there is, but I feel that there are elements that queer those ideas. It comes through the poems, which reveal a consciousness and varied intelligence that helps to undercut that. But I also think that in some of the photographs, there's an awkwardness. Yes, I'm performing these archetypes, but I’m making them my own, playing with them. I'm not being used or exploited. I know the history, I know the archetype, but I maintain my personhood throughout. As a poet, as an artist, I'm entering into lineage and tradition. You carry that with you, but I want to make it something that is idiosyncratic and useful
Johnson: I completely agree with that. But also keeping in mind that, you know, it'd be really disingenuous to ask Petal to perform in an urban space. I don't think she would really want that. I think we have to be aware of the different ways that we read her within the landscape.
Seikaly: You're part of a panel with Rana Young and Zora J. Murff at the national Society for Photographic Education conference in March, which addresses artistic collaboration. I'm wondering, Phil, if you will be there as yourself or as Petal? How would you arouse Petal if you wanted to include her in the dialogue?
Matthews: I'll be speaking as myself. The idea of inviting Petal to the nation's premiere photography and photographic education conference is exciting, but I'm not sure what it means to call her into that kind of room. I have read as Petal at poetry readings, but it's not something I make a practice of doing.
Seikaly: What can you tell us about the upcoming book? How was it working with Kris Graves Projects? Do you know what the book will look like, and what are your thoughts on it now?
Johnson: The opportunity to have this work fully realized with all the images and all the poems is exciting. We're working with a designer that I know from grad school, Amy Thompson, who's in Salt Lake City and owns Paper Boat Studios. As far as the flow between image and poem, it feels a lot different than what I've seen in other books of poetry and photography. Working with Kris' business model - a smaller edition of 300 that's affordably priced - is something that both Philip and I are really looking forward to. We didn't want to make a huge $75 book that's difficult to get ahold of and carry around. The way that everything came together was really organic.
Matthews: After meeting with Kris a couple of weeks ago, I understand better the ways the book should work, holding both image and text. It's really meaningful to me to think that this book can perform publicly and intimately. It can be both a beautiful coffee table book and one that you read in bed. There's that duality in it. Kris caught that immediately. I'm also thrilled that my first book of poems Witch (Alice James Books, April 2020) will come out within a year of Wig Heavier than a Boot. All the Petal poems will finally be in the world. It's amazing to know that they’re being taken care of. It's a responsibility to Petal, and to the people who love the work and, quite frankly, love her. I’m thankful that it will all be externalized.