Remembering Marion Faller by Nancy Weekly

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

There should be a special word for Marion Faller’s distinctive laugh. It was more than a giggle; yet, tied so closely with the cadence of her speaking voice, it wasn’t exactly a hearty belly laugh. Her son, Will, said, “It’s happiness.” Indeed, Happiness with a capital H. Happiness that envelopes cheerfulness, friendliness and delight. One might compare it to the fluttering notes of a bird; it added a special dimension to her conversations. Coupled with the bright sparks in her eyes and dimples in the corners of her mouth that turned up into gentle cheeks— Marion’s visage communicated intelligence, gentleness, and subdued passion.

Marion was especially passionate about her photography. You can see it in her documentation of individual creativity expressed in handmade objects, religious and secular holiday displays, the colorful abundance of gardens, hand-painted murals, and other artistic public offerings. From her images we glean a special appreciation for individual expression— the effort undertaken to make and share with others the things and ideas and events that we find meaningful. Marion discovered wonderful displays tucked away in small towns, squeezed into city neighborhoods, or scattered in outlying rural oases. Her discoveries were sometimes serendipitous, found en route while driving somewhere else; yet worthy of stopping and grabbing the camera she always kept with her. She saw in her subjects both seriousness, or at least earnestness, and a sense of humor. Many images now evoke nostalgia for what seemed like a more innocent time, or a place visited decades ago, or a vendor no longer in existence. They connect us to family heritage. They tie us to communities by showing what we share. In some sense it might seem subversive, presenting such seemingly simple, everyday scenes as important moments in the timeline of our era. What we might overlook is suddenly something to demand attention, worthy of reflection. Even in such a personal chronicle as her son’s maturation seen by the contents of his pockets on laundry day, Marion taught us to take notice of small details that speak to universal experiences: aging, familial ties, popular culture, objects serving as symbols in place of words. Enduring artists like Marion succeed in enriching our lives by pointing out the elements that struck them as fascinating, beautiful, moving, and valuable.

There is still so much to do to pay homage to Marion Faller. I had the pleasure of knowing her for decades and treasure the opportunities we had to work closely on exhibitions, publications, and most recently, her significant donation to the Burchfield Penney Art Center of a comprehensive collection of photographs that surveys her career. It ranges from early, formal, black and white series focusing on light, shadow and time to ongoing series of effusive yard displays for every occasion. We now have more than 200 of her photographic works, plus an extensive archive that documents the breadth and depth of her impressive, national career.

Late in 2013, my museum studies class worked collaboratively on presenting a few selections of Marion’s photographs in a Collection Study Gallery exhibition. The majority of these curatorship students were not art majors, so it was interesting to see which images appealed to them— and how they met the challenge of multi-disciplinary interpretation that included writing informative labels for adults and engaging labels for youths. The exhibition is still on view.

Generously, Marion had given us permission to create cards from among her photographs of holiday displays—so the first offerings were produced before the end of the year. More will come. As well, we will scan images and make them available online through our Web site along with ongoing commentary and scholarship about her work. We plan a larger display of her photographs for late summer. For now, and as the weeks go by, we will be remembering Marion Faller (November 5, 1941 – January 15, 2014) for all the ways she touched our lives personally and for the wisdom and compassion imparted through her photography.

By Nancy Weekly
Head of Collections and the Charles Cary Rumsey Curator, Burchfield Penney Art Center
Burchfield Penney Instructor of Museum Studies, SUNY Buffalo State