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Richmond artist Joan Gaustad explores her life in photos

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It's a rare art exhibit that has a bed as its centerpiece. But "House Hold" by Joan Gaustad and Michael Lease isn't your typical art show.

Artist Gaustad, the widow of well-known Richmond artist Gerald Donato, wasn't the one to suggest using the futon from her Fan home. But when Lease walked into her house and saw its prime placement, his first thought had been that the parties must have been really good given the bed's placement. "There's a latent sexuality in all of Joan's work," says Lease, a photographer and director of facilities of the Institute for Contemporary Art. "So imbuing the gallery space with fucking seemed really important."

Their collaboration began six years ago, just after Lease and his wife had their first child. At the same time he was reflecting on becoming a parent, he was thinking about Gaustad losing her husband a couple years earlier. While on paternity leave, he sorted through every photograph he'd ever taken, coming across one of a plant with a postcard tucked among its leaves that he'd taken at her house.

"I remember thinking that Joan's house and Joan herself are so interesting that even her plants have photos," he says, laughing. In July 2012 he sent her a note, suggesting he take photos of parts of her house and she write reflections or stories about the images before combining them into a modestly priced book.

"I love your house and the love and history that drenches each nook, cranny and ledge," he wrote to her. "And I love how you tell your stories about your life with Jerry." 

That fall, Gaustad reached out, saying now was the time for photographing tableaux throughout the house because an upcoming roof repair would cause everything to be rearranged. After Lease took close to 100 photos, he gave them to her.

Initially, she was surprised at the subjects. "But when I laid them out in a line, they told a story," Gaustad recalls. Over time, she began writing her thoughts on Post-it notes and on 4-by-6-inch pieces of paper and sending them on to Lease. The result is "House Hold," which was finally published in April 2018. 

"I was taking pictures of life and Joan was writing about death," he says.

Because the book had taken six years to bring to fruition, Lease wanted a party to celebrate what they'd accomplished. "I thought we needed to find a place where you would not expect to see Joan's work," he says. "We chose Sediment because younger artists love Joan's work. It's the death and the fucking."

While Gaustad initially wanted to use only Lease's photographs for the exhibit or a few of her new prints, he wanted more. "No way, they're way too flat. We need canvasses, raw stuff," he recalls telling her, suggesting they'd use his images as wallpaper behind her subjects.

The small front gallery simulates Gaustad's studio, with a pin-up wall of images for inspiration and an overhead projector next to a stack of transparencies. Along with the futon, the larger back gallery is an ode to Gaustad's home with three fireplace mantles used to frame photographs Lease took in her house. Books — including "A Religious History of America," written by her uncle, Edwin Scott Gaustad — from her home are stacked around the room and used to support canvasses. The survey of her work that hangs on the walls includes a large-scale drawing of Donato reclining, an image that seems to provide a benediction for the exhibit. Some of the back and forth Post-it notes have been enlarged and put on vinyl, allowing them to be scattered around the gallery floor.

"I love seeing my work and my life through everyone's eyes," Gaustad admits. "This is an awesome scenario I never could have imagined. It's like interpreting and re-interpreting my world."

Lease thinks that recognition for Gaustad is long overdue.

"I feel like Jerry's gotten so much attention while Joan's been making incredible work all along," he says. "Joan's time is now." S

"House Hold" runs through Oct. 14 at Sediment, 208 E. Grace St., sedimentarts.org

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