When Theresa Wall Duggan of Art and Discord Studios moved to Salem from Boston’s South Shore in the fall of last year, the North Shore community gained an incredible artist, photographer, designer, fashion expert, and creator of eccentric costumes and accessories simultaneously. When her work was brought to my attention, I found myself instantly enamored, and started to think of ways that would showcase it in style.
I came up with a plan and, much to my delight, Theresa was all for it. I would switch roles for the day, be in front of the camera for once, and she would turn me into a magical piece of artwork as part of her current project “Female Archetypes.”
The series, which she has been working on since 2013, transforms women into deities, bringing out the transcendent glory that Theresa claims is already inside of them.
“Every woman is a beautiful goddess of some kind.” She says, describing the inspiration behind the project.
The first image that started her along this path was a romantic portrait of her friend, Lauren Farrington, who is also a photographer. “When I photographed Lauren as Persephone, I didn’t have any plans at that time to begin working on a series,” she explains. “I had created other concept pieces in the past that were similar in theme to the image of Lauren, but it wasn’t until that shoot that I began to connect the dots. That particular image isn’t technically a part of the series, but it’s the one that started it all nonetheless.”
More than a decade ago, Theresa started Art and Discord as an online gallery, a space for alternative artists to show their work to an open minded community. “I was just getting started with photography and I wanted a place to share my own work, and my husband Jaesun’s work, in a way that wasn’t all about us. I was trying to build a community, and it worked really well.”
A lifetime artist originally working in more traditional mediums like painting and drawing, Theresa picked up her first camera after she graduated high school. “At first, photography was always my sister’s thing.” She remarks, laughing “I remember modeling for her during her early college projects, she worked primarily with film. It wasn’t until after she moved onto other things that I started to take any interest.
“My first camera was a small point and shoot, nothing special, and I didn’t think much would come of it. That is, until I was on a flight back from a Hot Topic Company meeting in Los Angeles and took some images of clouds through the airplane window. I loved those images.”
Like many photographers, Theresa experimented with the world of landscape photography, but ultimately found it unfulfilling. As a next step, she moved forward to taking self-portraits. “For me, landscapes were simply perfect nature. They don’t interact with you, and photographing them doesn't require as much skill. It always seemed to be more about being in the right place at the right time.”
It was about this time too that she realized that she felt a greater affinity with digital photography than she did with her sister’s choice of film. “When I started to create self-portraits, it wasn't just the instant gratification of digital photography that stood out to me, but also the ability to change things. As an artist who was used to creating images that didn’t exist in reality, being able to transfer that ability to photography was a big step forward.”
During this period of discovery, Theresa was also working on a BA in anthropology from Hampshire College, a field of study that would heavily impact her evolution as an artist, and helped her shape the notion of understanding both body and mind as an art form. It was also during this time that she would meet her husband Jaesun Duggan, a classically trained oil painter, from Boston’s the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and tattoo artist for Salem’s Witch City Ink.
Theresa’s early self-portrait work consisted of dark aesthetics and heavily modified images. “I chose concepts inspired by Tank Girl, Resident Evil, Underworld, you get the idea. I even used gas masks.” She admits.
After three years of honing her skills with herself as her only subject, she finally felt comfortable enough to branch out and work with other people. She was able to connect with her first models through the popular site Model Mayhem, and had a great deal of success from the outset.
When an trip to Amsterdam gave her enough reason, in her mind, to buy a more professional camera body, a Nikon D300, she started taking portrait work even more seriously. Around 2010, using what she had gleaned from several years of trial and error, she broke into the world of fashion photography when she was hired by a handful of models attempting to get into agencies. “Unlike other types of portraits, working in fashion requires much greater attention to light, framing, and focus, and that degree of planning really worked for me.”
From then on her planning became even more in-depth. “I’ll admit, when I first started putting [fashion] editorials together, I didn’t really know what I was doing.” Yet, it didn’t take her long to catch her stride. Within a year her editorials being published in magazines, and in 2014 editorial “Blood Sisters,” was accepted for Halloween Edition of Giuseppina Magazine.
“As my work became more elaborate and involved, I started experimenting with creating my own costumes and props and building my own sets. For the editorial in Freque Magazine I built the entire set in my living room. I found that doing everything myself gave me more freedom to come up with the image that I wanted to create, without the added cost of bringing in other designers.” She explains. “I love building everything for every image.”
This new addition to her repertoire led to the creation of Discord Industries, the home of an assortment of apparel, accessories and art prints inspired by the wonderful world of steampunk and some of Theresa’s favorite post-apocalyptic nightmares.
Constructing the Shoot
When Theresa and I first discussed the concept for the shoot, she asked me if I felt an affinity for a particular female goddess. I chose the Celtic goddess, Rhiannon, the goddess of inspiration and the moon, which she agreed to and the process began moving forward.
Working with Erica Templeman, a designer and seamstress from Boston, the two of them set about designing a silvery, flowy costume for me. I sent in my measurements, we decided on a date a month or so away, and I made it a point to start adding more vegetables to my diet. Apparently a steady diet of french fries and burritos does not a model make.
I woke up the morning of the shoot to take a long walk. As someone who doesn’t spend much time in front of the camera, I was incredibly nervous. Although, by the time the walk was over I had reminded myself that this experiment was not only going to quite enjoyable, but was also for something bigger than me...
It was for journalism.
I poured myself a half tankard of coffee, screwed my courage to the sticking place, and headed to Art and Discord’s Salem studio.
Theresa and Erica, the seamstress who would also be the makeup artist and stylist for the day, met me at the door and the three of us went inside. Piles of fabric and tulle were strewn about the space, the walls were covered with historic weaponry and imaginative artwork, and glass cases were filled with antiquated curiosities from all over the world. It was one of the most creative spaces I have ever seen.
Before we began, she took me into her “Wardrobe and Prop Creation Room” to show me the headdress I would be wearing from the shoot. One wall of the space was covered with a rack of elegant costumes, ranging from dark and debonair to flowy and elegant to vintage and slinky. The other wall contained a high work shelf lined with three incredibly ornate head pieces, one with an array of fiery scarlet feathers, another with three tiers of Eastern European ornamentation, and a third painted silver with high branches emerging from the base. All of these she had painstakingly made by hand.
I was to wear the silvery one, as I suspected. The base was adorned with small, delicate flowers and the fitted branches were made of willow. It was breathtaking.
Returning to the preparation room, we found Erica sorting through makeup. She told me to sit on the stool and asked if I was allergic to anything. I’m not, so without any further ado she commenced transforming my normal face into something markedly more ornate.
There’s something to be said about sitting in a chair and letting someone do your makeup for you. It’s incredibly relaxing to be thus pampered. It also just makes you feel pretty, which is a luxury that few hardworking women generally allow themselves.
The process complete, Erica and Theresa moved on to dressing me. Instead of going with a traditional “dress option,” they instead draped me in the silkiest, verging on most decadent, piece of cloth I have ever worn. Expertly Erica wrapped the fabric around me, pinning it in places and taping it in others (so no part of me wasn’t unnecessarily exposed), until it seemed as if I was wearing a gown comprised solely of moonlight.
The draped “gown” was folded tightly around my ankles, so movement was limited. Fortunately, I only had to find my way into the next room, which after some initially hesitant movements I was able to. Transformed into this new being, all the anxiety about the day drained from me. I felt oddly light.
As a finishing touch, Erica provided me with a pair of gorgeous earrings from Boston’s Dune Jewelry. She told me that everything the designer creates is filled with sand chosen from one of over 2000+ locations internationally. The pair was black with flecks of silver, with sand deriving from Wingaersheek Beach in Gloucester, MA.
Theresa had dressed the set as a throne room in the clouds. I sat in the center, and after a few test shots for light and framing, she retrieved the headdress from the wardrobe room and placed it on my head. This even further restricted my movement, as the willow branches were quite high, but the poses she requested were simple to follow and before long we got into a sort of groove.
Working with Theresa was a dream. She is clear with direction and makes you feel that everything you do is perfect – a real asset to a photographer, as it gives them the ability to work with subjects of all experience levels. I think whether you had spent years in front of the camera, or never before had your portrait taken, you would leave her studio feeling not only rejuvenated, but also like you had just taken part in the creation of something beautiful.
Because that’s how I felt.
Theresa Wall Duggan of Art and Discord Studios specializes in fashion, editorial, portrait, and commissioned art photography. To find out more about her work, check out artanddiscordstudios.com/