Tryon’s Upstairs Artspace is honoring the work of North Carolina photographer Elizabeth Matheson in late fall with an extensive retrospective of the Hillsborough native’s career spanning nearly 50 years. The works on view range from Matheson’s elegant landscape and interior studies of rural North Carolina and of European locations, to self-portraits and large-scale color prints which are among Matheson’s most recent work.
“What I find compelling are the compositions, which are graceful and harmonious,” says Sarah Schroth, who has curated the Tryon show of more than 70 of Matheson’s photographs. “Her treatment of tonality and light is so sensitive and balanced.” Schroth has been an admirer of Matheson’s talent since the 1990s, when she first encountered the work in Chapel Hill. Then, last fall, a serendipitous encounter planted the seed for a long-overdue survey of Matheson for a wider audience.
Schroth was visiting the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, where she had previously served as a senior curator, and encountered Frank Konhaus, a noted member of the Triangle-area arts community and a longtime Nasher supporter. Konhaus and his wife Ellen Cassilly had presented Matheson’s work to the academic community at their own gallery, Cassilhaus, the center of an artist residency and exhibition program they had run for years from their home, a contemporary showpiece they designed themselves, located between Durham and Chapel Hill.
Chatting with Schroth, Konhaus mentioned that the couple would be interested in sending the Matheson material on the road and Schroth, who had recently joined Upstairs Artspace’s board of directors and its exhibitions committee, suggested the Tryon venue — which, as Schroth took care to point out, was Western North Carolina’s longest running contemporary art gallery.
Now, more than a year later, the three gallery spaces housed at Upstairs are dedicated to the Matheson oeuvre. Taught at Penland School of Craft in the ’70s by fine-arts photographer John Menapace, Matheson was one of few women working in her field in that era. She would go on to win the North Carolina Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2004 for her distinctive visual language, expressed in subjects in and around Hillsborough and as far afield as Cuba, France, and the British Isles. Along the way, she published three books of her work and had solo exhibitions at the North Carolina Museum of Art, Virginia Tech, and at North Carolina State University. She captures, in Schroth’s words, “what no one else would see if standing in the same spot.”
Uncommon: Elizabeth Matheson Photographs 1970 – 2018 will be on view at Upstairs Artspace (49 South Trade St., Tryon) through Friday, Dec. 1. Tryon cultural historian Mike McCue will present a free program, “How To See: Modern Art Photography” on Sunday, Nov. 5, 5pm. McCue has served as a juror for the Upstairs’ biannual photography shows and is a trustee of the North Carolina Humanities Council. Regular gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 12-5pm. For more information, visit upstairsartspace.org.