Curious Frame of Mind

Published in Sydney Morning Herald

by Katrina Lobley


SOMEWHERE between the ages of eight and 10, Samantha Everton stumbled upon the work of Salvador Dali. Her mind was never the same again.

“I started thinking in a surreal way when I was very young,” says the 37-year-old photo-artist. On the phone from her Melbourne home, she’s giggly and bright as a button even though it’s early on the morning after the southern capital opening of her latest photographic series.

Vintage Dolls features a cast of five girls playing dress-ups in an empty, eerie house while unsettling things unfold around them. In one image, a large tree sprouts from the carpet. In another, a black cat slinks out of a birdcage while a child lies curled on a sofa.

It transpires Everton had quite the strange childhood herself. Her family, originally from Whyalla, South Australia, moved to Emerald in central Queensland.

“We used to drive at Christmas time from Emerald to Whyalla,” the former hairdresser says. “Sometimes Dad would only have 10 days’ holidays and it was three days there and three back. We used to drive to Rocky [Rockhampton, 270 kilometres from Emerald] to do the shopping once a month and things like that as well. I feel like in some ways I grew up in the car.”

Not that Everton thinks all that time spent on the road was terrible – far from it. “You’re looking out the window and you have to spend a lot of time by yourself even though your siblings are there,” says Everton, who has a biological brother and three adopted Asian siblings. Although she says the multicultural Vintage Dolls isn’t directly referencing her own family, she admits it’s an influence. “I wanted to show [how] children engage with culture and how they re-enact what they see. Children see and absorb everything and the learning process starts at a very young age with playful dress-ups. I wanted there to be a child each person could identify themselves in.”

The Everton children also lived for a time at Capella, a tiny mining community 50 kilometres north of Emerald. “Our house was in the middle of nowhere – they actually made the street just for us,” Everton says. “There were only 200 people in the town, at the end was farmland and they just mowed it over and built a house. Everywhere, the wheat was growing. It was taller than us. We would make a kind of maze through this wheat. We’d run and play in there – you couldn’t see past it.”

Today, Everton credits her childhood with “developing my creative mind”. At first, she channelled that creativity into hairdressing. “I put people through a lot, I think,” Everton says. “I used to want to do a lot more than a trim. For an outlet, I involved myself in hairdressing competitions, particularly in avant-garde sections. I once built hair out of sheets of flat copper and I cut it and coiled it into looking like someone’s hair – it was cascading curls. They were almost like installations on someone’s head.”

After a detour into photojournalism and photography studies at RMIT University, Everton started to focus on her painstaking art. Vintage Dolls was 18 months in the making, with Everton devoting countless hours to sourcing exactly the right prop, costume, child and house.

After months of scouting locations – “I hadn’t had anyone who wanted to come to the party because what I wanted to do to the house was quite extensive” – she found just what she was looking for right at the end of her street.

“A fabulous builder, who was really open-minded, who was very excited about the idea of this fantasy land being created in the house, gave me free rein,” she says. “For a month I had the house – I even cut a hole in the lounge-room floor, brought a tree inside and submerged it.”

While Everton usually digitally blends several images to create the surreal final result – in Camellia, for instance, the leaping cat was photographed on set separately from the girls – she’s committed to creating each of these images in-camera. That commitment runs so deep that on this shoot, she even wallpapered over a fireplace and dragged in her own flooring. For her last series, Childhood Fears, she brought in a pigeon and its trainer.

So why does she go to such lengths when there are much easier solutions such as Photoshop? “I can absolutely see the difference in any image that’s been created post-production as opposed to in-camera,” she says. “It’s really important to me to have the realism because it aligns with magic-realism. When you’re dreaming, when you’re playing, everything is real in your mind when you’re a child. Everything is possible – the bird flying through the air or the tree sprouting through the floor – that’s reality in your head.”

Perhaps Everton’s fantastical scenarios will also change forever the way her child actors see the world. At her Melbourne opening, she says, “one of the mothers brought in a drawing her daughter had done for me”.

“She commented how, before this photo shoot, her daughter would draw trees and a house with a person standing next to it and now she’s drawing telephones flying through the air. It was quite an experience for the children. I think they really gained from it as well.”