A Must-See Show At St. Louis’ Projects+Gallery: Dario Calmese, ‘Amongst Friends’

 In Culture, Feature

St. Louis native Dario Calmese moved away from the city 19 years ago. Originally, he left for college and later went on to pursue a career in theater. Along the path, he developed a talented for photography which has sparked is return back home—though this time not just to visit family. Instead, he is mounting his first solo exhibition of his series “Amongst Friends” at projects+gallery in the city’s Central West End.

The show features photographs of the impeccably stylish Lana Turner, of Harlem, New York, as well as a selection of pieces from her vintage collection. It’s also somewhat of a homage to Calmese’s knack for creativity, which he says was cultivated in St. Louis.

During our phone conversation, I suggest the irony of the show’s title—which acts as a metaphor of the amiability that some might find in their clothing and accoutrements—and the anticipation of Calmese coming home to share his work amongst peers both old and new. Below, he shares the evolution of the show, his personal memories of growing up in the church and the lessons he has learned from his newfound friend, who he reverentially calls ‘Ms. Turner.’

Tell me how “Amongst Friends” came to be. You met the subject of the exhibition, Lana Turner, at the church you attend in Harlem, right? 
That’s correct. I was in grad school at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City, and I was looking for some hats to do a fashion story. I always saw this woman at my church who was dressed impeccably all the time. Every Sunday was a moment. A friend connected us. Ms. Turner said, “Just come over. Let’s have a chat and get to know each other.” As she’s speaking, I’m thinking, “Well, maybe I should shoot her in the hats. It would be so much more interesting to shoot this woman. She’s so elegant, not only in her appearance, but in her speech and her deportment.”

She said, “Maybe you’ll want to see some of my clothes. You can pair the clothes with the hats.” When I saw her closet—which is essentially her second bedroom—I was like, “This is going to be me shooting you in your hats and your clothes for the next five years. That’s how long this project is going to take.” She really stemmed from an earlier series that I started called “From the Pool of Black Genius,” where I wanted to document extraordinary Black and Brown people who were doing amazing things, but weren’t necessarily celebrities. She essentially became her own spinoff.

What’s been her response to your photographs?
She totally loves it. The series is also when I began to see myself and think of myself as an artist, because I never really had before.

When you first visited Ms. Turner and began to speak about the project, you said you knew this was going to take five years. How did you know the length of time it would take?
Well, we’re not done. It’ll probably be 20 years because there’s so much. She has over 500 hats. So, technically the series is called “Amongst Friends: The Black Hat Series,” which we’re not done with.

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Photo credit: Dario Calmese

Over the wealth of time that you’ve been shooting with Ms. Turner, what lessons have you learned? 
Ms. Turner is how she presents, through and through. What I really learned was the art of living. Ms. Turner has a phrase: “Life is too short to not be surrounded by beautiful things.” Whether it’s people or clothes or furniture, the environment you create for yourself must be beautiful, even if it’s just beautiful to you. It’s always for you. Ms. Turner talks about how sometimes she’ll get ready for church, and she’ll be trying to figure out what to wear, and once she’s all done, she’ll take the whole thing off and sit back down because the whole thing was for her. It’s never for anybody else.

What’s Ms. Turner’s background? What’s her experience in Harlem? How long as she been there?
She was born and raised in Harlem. Her father was a butler, and her mother was a domestic. They went out dancing a lot, so dance is also a big part of her sartorial lexicon. She likes things that move. That’s why her skirts are never too long, or why her shoes are never too high. She worked in real estate and organized private collections. She’s kind of one of the original freelancers. Your life is changed by meeting Ms. Turner. You cannot walk out the same. It’s really this whole art.

It sounds like it’s an art of being. Like she’s mastered it. 
Exactly. She really has. And being with her has given me permission to do the things that I do.

You grew up in St. Louis and in the church. Is your father still a minister? 
He is.

So this is a culmination of your upbringing in the church, your photography, your art practice and also your work in fashion. What has it been like to bring all of those things together? 
I think it’s great. I also have a theatrical background. So, in a certain way, this is theater. It really speaks to the way we move about the world. Kind of like the Shakespeare quote, “All the world’s a stage.” This work is autobiographical. A lot of it reminds me of my mother and watching her get dressed for church. That whole process of the stocking, the slip, the shoe, the brooch, the pencil skirt, the bag, the earrings. In the series you’ll see details of these things, which is not only a glorification of the fabric, but also snapshot memories of these small moments that I saw.

Do you have any memories of getting dressed for church—or an outfit that you wore for Easter once?
Absolutely. Growing up Black in the church, you were taught fashion codes very early: how to wear this tie, what shoes to go with which belt. It was a very early education on dressing. With my mother being a seamstress, we got to choose what we wanted to wear and it was made for us. The pastor’s anniversary was a big sartorial thing every year. I remember one year MC Hammer was huge and so my mother made me this MC Hammer-ish suit with baggy pants and a bolero jacket. I felt like I was the shit—and I was. I actually was. That ritual of getting dressed for church and at a young age choosing how you wanted to present yourself based on the world around you was very key.

This is your first time showing your work here, correct? 
It is. And it is the first solo exhibition of this work.

How does it feel to return to St. Louis after 19 years and present new artwork? 
It’s amazing. For me, it’s really important that the work be shown in its place of origin first, and then it can go wherever after that. So it was important for me to show this work in Harlem first. But it’s amazing and important to show the work in St. Louis, because that’s where the creative was birthed. That’s where the bones of the work was birthed. It was where I started theater. It was where I went to church. It’s where I grew up. For me, it’s important to bring it back home.

Also, given the history and recent history of St. Louis, I hope that the work serves as an intervention of sorts, because many times Black and Brown people don’t get to see themselves in elevated places. And not only see themselves, but to see their stories—something so familiar to us, like the art of getting dressed to go to church—and have it elevated in a place that they probably physically haven’t been to, such as the Central West End, or even an art gallery. Through it, I hope it allows for groups of people who normally don’t interact to have that opportunity, because St. Louis, geographically and socially, is not set up that way.


Cover image photo credit: Dario Calmese

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