Somewhere on an Indiana highway there's a disposable camera filled with Megan Labonte's inspiration. The Goshen/Northampton-based artist points to the road trip casualty as a catalyst for one of her most prolific periods of creative drive, a time when she compulsively manufactured art at an almost manic pace, as if she were trying desperately to rebuild something precious that was lost to her.
The photos on the camera were from her pilgrimage to the 2004 iteration of the Nevada desert phenomenon Burning Man, which, for her, was like discovering a whole world where people like her were the norm rather than the fringe oddity.
"When I got back, I did a show called Burning Girls, where I made over 200 dolls," Labonte recalls. "I was devastated that I lost all the pictures, so I came home and I knew I had to find a way to remember it, so I just started making all these dolls and I literally felt like there was this overdose of inspiration. It was so cool, because even in Northampton I've always felt kind of—not like an outsider, but just... a different kind of person."
Anyone who's known Labonte even peripherally would probably describe her as someone who passionately cultivates her own acre of reality, from hula-hooping downtown in late-night drum circles to plastering one of her earlier public experiments in self-portraiture—scores of black-and-white photo booth strips showing her in myriad poses and disguises—in the highly visible window of the Guild Art Center.
"When I went to Burning Man, I found thousands of other people existing in the same reality," she says, "and I was like, 'Whoa. This is awesome.' It was kind of intimidating, but also kind of reassuring in a lot of ways, because it was a place where you can be an artist, and you can live this lifestyle. I didn't feel like an outsider at all—I loved it. I really want my dad to go."
Labonte's father, Richard Richardson, is a well-known fixture in the Valley himself, owner of the Good Time Stove Company and an artist whose compulsion to create equals his daughter's. The Goshen property that houses the woodstove shop and the house where he (and Labonte, for the moment) live is strewn with sculptures, things like bejeweled mannequins and a huge arc of bicycles welded together. The somewhat psychedelic wonderland, sometimes known as the Three Sisters Sanctuary, also includes entrenched landscape features like a large fireplace with a dragon's head on top that belches smoke and flame when lit, and a stone amphitheater that's a cross between Stonehenge and some Roman pit where people were once tossed to lions. There are two cats, Sammy and Sassy (an impressive Maine coon cat) that roam the premises, wide-eyed in their curiosity and likely endlessly stimulated by the Rube Goldberg-esque outdoor labyrinth that has become their home.
It is in this magical place that Labonte's skills and techniques have begun to match her fervent impetus, and her energies are presently focused on an exercise that requires as much discipline as it does vision—though she's modified the task a touch, to make it her own.
"The Project is called 365, and a lot of people do it; it's a picture every day for a year—some people do self-portraits and other people just do whatever. It's just like a daily practice in taking pictures. I started on March 1, my 33rd birthday, and I'm going through March 1, 2012, and that's why mine's called "366" and not "365," because next year is technically a leap year. So I'm going an extra day, which is kind of cool. I like that—it sets me apart a little."
Labonte uses her body as a template, one that can be modified to appear as a thousand different things, people or ideas. Her perception of the world, expressed beautifully in her work, is so vast and deep that looking at her gallery of images is almost like taking a mind-expanding drug. Her extensive use of her own physical qualities is perhaps aided by the fact that her features are suited to the task: large eyes and full lips that rival those of the most alluring of the Hollywood sirens, from Angelina Jolie to Scarlett Johansson; long, vital hair full of wave, and a figure that's both athletic and sultry. She has that certain quality that scouts from modeling agencies covet—the sort of face that you can adapt and shape into almost anything—which is precisely what she's done with it.
The art of the self-portrait is not one for the shy, and Labonte's work makes clear that her mindset has shelved any lingering vanity in the service of the medium. Her mastery of costume, makeup and modeling stance are hyperconsciously blended with an exceptional eye for striking visual composition, a combination that results in a broad, diverse portfolio of self-portraiture. Within that collection, she becomes an onion with infinite layers of skin, a nested Russian doll which invariably envelops another version of itself.
Though much of the success of her work is attributable to a strong understanding of photographic principles and techniques—lighting and the manipulation of things like color, pattern, foreground/background and subject/setting juxtaposition—it's almost impossible to relegate her work to the designation "photography." Her self-portraits glow with an Annie Liebowitz-style highlighting of the primary subject, but her surrealist edge takes them so far beyond what's typical in even such artistic portraiture as that icon's work that perhaps it's more appropriate to call it "imaging."
"I have a wireless remote that I've replaced four times now," Labonte explains when asked how she operates the camera, without a timer, while taking pictures of herself. "I've dropped it, stepped on it, put it in water. I'm really excited about the one I just got, because it's good to 30 feet, so you can be down the street and it'll still work. I used to work with a timer, but the longest I could get was 12 seconds, and some poses are just too hard to do, or you can't get far enough away in that amount of time."
Asked if her pictures are Photoshopped, she replies, "Some of my photos are manipulated—I'm just starting to learn manipulations more and more—I really just started taking photographs, well, a little over a year ago now, so this is kind of like a crash course in photography. I took a Photoshop course like 11 years ago and it's just starting to come back to me now. I've never actually printed any of these photos—that's how digital I am."
Labonte also collaborates with other artists, including Eric Parham, Derek Goodwin and Jayel Draco, the last of whom is staying at the house when I interview her, visiting from Brooklyn after meeting Labonte through Facebook. Draco's vision approaches Labonte's from an illustration and fabrication background: his work ranges from freehand pencil sketches to digital painting to sculpting characters for stop-motion animation; he even fabricates his own armor out of things like metal and leather. When his fantasy-driven sense of caricature collides with her photography, her costuming skills and her knack for collage and composition, some pretty magical things happen, and Labonte is totally up for the collaboration, noting that she's already learned a great deal from him during his visit.
"He's teaching me some Photoshop tricks, too," she says with a smile. "I learned how to put wings on myself the other day, and ears—fairy ears and all this stuff."
Such diversions into the fantastical are icing on the cake of Labonte's current photographic endeavors, which isn't surprising considering the breadth of her artistic foundations.
"I did a lot of drawing when I was a kid, and really fell in love with the creative process when I was in high school," she recalls. "I liked to draw animals a lot, like hybrids of different types of animals and people... kind of imaginary... the kind of things that make teachers wonder."
After an aborted degree program at Boston's Massachusetts College of Art and spotty stints at Greenfield Community College, she seems to have resigned herself to more informal, hands-on training in whatever medium she's currently obsessing over: "I found, at least for me, with art it was easier to learn just by doing it than to take classes in it."
Labonte credits Mexican painter Frida Kahlo as her "major source of inspiration." She also draws on the aesthetics of Annie Liebowitz, collagist Sabrina Ward Harrison, photographers Brooke Sheldon and Sarah Ann Lawrence, and Lucas Samaras. She's at least aware of Cindy Sherman, the well-known New York-based photographic self-portraitist, whose work displays chameleonic tendencies similar to her own.
"She's definitely not always flattering herself," Megan says of some of Sherman's photos, "which I really like. I think that's cool."
Though she claims "not to sew," she does create costumes out of found garments and accessories and is mighty handy with a glue-gun. She spent a solid year and a half perfecting the skills with makeup that contribute so heavily to some of her pictures.
Among the few tattoos adorning her person are the words "Viva la vida," which Megan explains were the last words Frida Kahlo painted before she died, and another that she got at the same time as her sister during her brief tenure at MassArt. Although she usually wears no jewelry at all, there's a key hanging around her neck that's imprinted with the cardinal directions of a compass. She's oddly shy about what it's there for, identifying it only as a recent gift, and she explains that it feels right for the moment because it represents something exploratory to her.
"I'm really starting to explore and wake up to nature. I know it sounds funny, but for the first time in my life I feel like—I feel like I've been walking through this area without ever really seeing it until now. Something about taking photos has opened me up to seeing how truly beautiful the woods are. Once you start to notice, it's almost overwhelming."
Asked what long-term goals she has for her art, her response is one you might expect from a genuine artist: "I'm definitely going to put out a book of this work—366. And I have a corresponding show in Brooklyn coming up, which I'm really psyched for. In terms of long-term goals, I think I just want to share my work as much as possible with people and try to inspire people and try to—I don't know. People ask me that and I never know what to say, because my goal is really just to make art. I don't really have a long-term plan, except that I've just always known I'm an artist and I just create because if I don't, I feel, like... sick."
You can view Megan Labonte's digital portfolio at www.meganelabonte.com, or (if you're in New York) see her exhibition Friday, Nov. 4, 7-10 p.m. at Werdink, 20 Meadow St., 1st Floor, Brooklyn, NY, (917) 204-2976.