Make Believe: Kathy Curtis Cahill at Keystone Gallery


Closing this weekend, Kathy Curtis Cahill’s Make Believe, now at Keystone Gallery, is a potent and poignant look at childhood and the full-on miracle of imagination.

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Using dolls as a stand-in for children, these believably life-like, charming subjects dress up as cowgirls, super heroes, a princess, a doctor and nurse. Whether evoking Cahill’s own childhood or that of her son, these doll children are vulnerable, adorable, and haunting. There is magic afoot: within a child’s creative play, and within the creations Cahill herself presents.

Cahill’s earlier exhibition, Memories and Demons, approached a darker side of childhood, dealing with trauma and abuse, and the ways in which children can be all too easily scarred.

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The delicate and wondrous world of childhood presented here serves, Cahill notes, as a “direct counterpoint” to her earlier series. “These works are all about the joy, the amazing freedom of the world children have before age five.”

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The artist also notes that children may also use their imagination and play to overcome trauma or escape from it, much as she and her brother did as children. A tomboy, Cahill and her brother together played with toy soldiers, shot BB guns, and roamed through the woods. Their own fantasy world provided them comfort and pleasure.

Cahill’s personal childhood play is one thread of the exhibit; a second illuminates the play of her son. Taken together, this series touches the heart with its evocation of childhood pleasures and escapes, and in a gentle way also reveals the touching vulnerability of children’s imagination. Dreams are delicate; they are beautifully wrought fantasies should not be disturbed. There is respect as well as whimsy in her portrayals.

Created primarily outdoors near Cahill’s northern California studio – she also maintains a studio in Los Angeles – the works are shot using natural lighting, and are designed to be as ‘real’ as possible. “I’ve done fake,” she laughs, referencing her past as an Emmy-winning set decorator.

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She casts her dolls carefully, and her settings. Some settings take longer to create, as in “Tea Party,” where Cahill changed settings numerous times before ending up in her own home, and changing the color of the background curtains.

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Others seemed to find themselves, as in “Grr!” where a small boy in the woods, clad in a bear costume, pays homage to Cahill’s own son’s childhood and playfulness.


Along with her photographs, Cahill features a large scale installation of her doll and stuffed animal subjects as well as other toy props used in her works. She choose to include these actual subjects to inform viewers about exactly what she worked with, as well as to make them more “real” to viewers. She says that for children, dolls and stuffed toys come alive. “They’re the first things we identify after our mothers,” she says.

The artist finds them joyous, and sees them as individuals, her own artistic children.


The entire exhibition space itself serves as a unifying installation, with living room furnishings from the 1950s and 1970s representing the environments in which Cahill and her brother played and those in which her own child played. The photographic works are hung as if they were were family photos, furthering the illusion that these dolls are as real as the children who played with them and believed in them.

If you’ve ever read The Velveteen Rabbit,  the story of a toy rabbit that becomes real through the love of a child, or believed yourself in beloved toys “becoming real,” Cahill’s work will heighten that belief.

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There’s a lovely intimacy to these pieces, a beautiful, dream-like quality.  Just as children play dress-up and become for a time what they imagine they can be, Cahill allows viewers to play along, to see the world with fresh eyes, to see what they can still, even as adults, make “real.”

Cahill’s Keystone Gallery closing will be February 5th. The gallery is located at 338 S. Ave 16, Los Angeles.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke and provided by the artist

PhotoLA – A Snapshot of Time

Photo LA Welling

What the eye sees, what the camera sees, what the eye of the beholder of what the camera sees: that’s PhotoLA.

The art renaissance that is taking place in Los Angeles is coming to a momentous peak this January, with PhotoLA the first in a string of large scale events including the LA Art Show, Fabrik Expo, and Art Los Angeles Contemporary, which are all opening this week.

PhotoLA was held last weekend at The Reef,  the cavernous 2nd floor space at LA Mart in DTLA. The opening night gala, benefiting Best Buddies, was crowded for the event’s tribute to Los Angeles artist James Welling.

The city’s longest-running art fair, PhotoLA ran the gamut of cutting edge pieces, historical photos, stunning landscapes, political art, abstract photos, and pop art. Eclectic panels populated the weekend, too, including provocative subjects such as “The Instagram Effect: How Instagram is Changing the Way We See Photography”; “Robert Mapplethorpe: Beyond Good and Evil”; and “Artists Take Issue: Perspectives and Practices in Activist Photography.”

What was our take? A wide range of exceptional pieces, with a number of standout independent photographers and curated group exhibitions.

Photo LA Welling

The honoree of the opening gala, James Welling. This post-modern photographic artist has a storied career experimenting with a variety of photographic mediums from digital prints to Polaroids.

Photo LA Weller

Some visual highlights: below, the haunting and riveting work of Kathy Curtis Cahill, whose art is dedicated to revealing “how fragile young children are, and how everything matters in the home environment.”

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Fascinating historical photos – and the  music of David Bowie.

Photo LA Bowie

Photo Pop Art – the striking and amusing work of Marianne Hess.

Photo LA Haas

National Geographic landscape stunners – sometimes a straight forward shot of natural beauty evokes feelings beyond what is seen.

Photo LA landscape

Below: a delightfully different approach to scene: the fine work of Osceola Refetoff, also a panel speaker on activist photography moderated by Shana Nys Dambrot. Refetoff’s work, among other cutting edge pieces, was curated by VICA, the non-profit Venice Institute of Contemporary Art.

photo LA Osceola

Below: the opening night crowd viewing PhotoLA  – reflected in a San Francisco skyline.

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Artist Jeffry Sklan’s enormous – and enormously beautiful flowers, below. Impressive detail and color.

Photo LA Sklan

Artist Sklan  below – photo by Nina Bonyak

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To sum up: Photo LA presented an international eye on the world, vibrating through the lens of many Los Angeles area curators and artists. What you see is literally what you “get” out of interpreting an artist’s own unique vision of the world.

  • Genie Davis

Photographer Kathy Curtis Cahill: Inside Her Art

Photo by Jack Burke
Photo by Jack Burke

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A harrowing childhood led photographer Kathy Curtis Cahill to the presentation of a world that’s as wonderful and inspiring as it is frightening and mysterious. Her life and her art are both dedicated to a singular mission, an “educational process” revealing “how fragile young children are, and how everything matters in the home environment,” Cahill explains.

Her most recent exhibition, “Memories and Demons,” held at the Artists Corner Gallery in Hollywood this past summer, and her current work, both express this mission beautifully.


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Her work was inspired by her difficult childhood with a volatile, often violent who physically abused her, her siblings, and her mother and her parents’ toxic co-dependent relationship. Cahill says she spent a long time getting over being angry, but her work provides closure and catharsis. Vivid and insightful, her luminous and haunting photographs revolve around realistic looking antique dolls, whose often chipped and cracked visages are positioned to be startlingly lifelike, and eerily symbolic of the daily narrative of Cahill’s early life. “Child abusers will not leave you unscathed,” Cahill notes.

The path to the artist’s own self-awareness began with therapy, and the painful process of examining her childhood to uncover who she was in the present. Controlling her own self-directed anger and destructive impulses led her to move from the position of an aggressor and victim to that of a victor, she relates.

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“As I began to understand the long-lasting effects of being raised in a violent, angry, male- dominated household, I realized I wasn’t alone in this kind of background. The death of my parents opened a dialogue with my siblings about our shared experiences, the ones that remain painful,” she says.

Cahill was determined to raise awareness about the vulnerability of children. “Children are very aware, but what they are not able to do is emotionally cope with what they know and are powerless to change. I used this knowledge to create photographic portraits of many of my childhood memories, and those of others with similar upbringings, who were generous enough to let me illustrate their stories.”


Educated as an art teacher, Cahill was an Emmy nominated film and television set decorator for over thirty years. Retired in 2011, her entertainment industry work nurtured her skills in shaping a continuing, non-verbal story – skills she uses in her art, with dolls serving as stand-ins for the children they depict.

“I’ve always been involved in art and photography. I have been inspired greatly by Diane Arbus and Sally Mann”, she says. The dolls came later, the outgrowth of an antique doll collection, and an intimate connection with the dolls themselves. “I used older style dolls with cloth bodies to represent the very young in situations that portray sad and painful memories. The aged, cracked patina of their faces signifies the trauma and scars they endure, and their expressions gave me a starting point for their stories.”

Small Comforts
Small Comforts

As her subjects, the dolls’ electrify viewers with their poignant and life-like expressions and positions. Working entirely on her own, Cahill has been creating her unique vision for just over a year, relying on minimal but natural settings and natural light to create miniature sets, often making many of the dolls’ costumes and props. She shapes a realistic yet surreal style that pulls viewers into an alternate but all-too-real and painful world. Loss, longing, and a capacity for hope and awe pull at the eye and heart in her work, from her very first piece, “Small Comforts,” inspired directly by her older brother. Her narrative photographs were often shot as many as one hundred times to accurately narrate the emotional mutilation of an abusive childhood.

photos by Jack Burke
Through her doll subjects, Cahill creates ways of exploring and expressing self-identity, merging installation, photography, and self into a mosaic of highly emotional portraiture. She draws from her own background to create tremendously moving stories that invite viewers to form connections and empathize with her subjects. “I wanted to photograph this extensive repository of anguish, using dolls to evoke the fear, loneliness, and anger that all children, at times, experience.”


She compels viewers to shape their own personal stories and memories through her evocative work. Without human subjects, the focus of her photographs becomes universal, and thus intensely personal, to each viewer.

“I make these pieces for all the children who were traumatized, for children who are still affected as adults by what has happened in the past. I tell stories in images that children may not be able to tell in words,” Cahill says. “There is universality to the wounds that young people feel, wounds that can haunt them forever.”


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  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke, Shoebox PR, Kathy Cahill

Memories and Demons – Kathy Curtis Cahill

photos by Jack Burke


Photo by Jack Burke
Photo by Jack Burke

Mysterious, wonderful, frightening, inspiring. That’s the childhood world that photographer Kathy Curtis Cahill presents in her riveting exhibition “Memories and Demons” at the Artists Corner Gallery in Hollywood.


The photographs Cahill creates feature eerily realistic antique dolls, positioned so that they, like her luminous photography, come startlingly alive. Cahill describes the pieces as inspired by her childhood. “It was difficult,” she relates. “My parents were blue collar workers, and we moved around a lot. My father gambled and drank, and abused my mother. My brother was boarded out. I’ve spent a long time getting over being angry.”

But Cahill’s work offers her closure, and the viewer an insight into a world of childhood both vivid and insightful. “This project was cathartic for me,” Cahill says. “My parents divorced, but ended up back together, in a toxic relationship they couldn’t live without.”

What Cahill can’t live without is her art. “I’ve always been involved in art and photography. I took  photography classes. I worked in film. I have been inspired greatly by Diane Arbus and Sally Mann.” She started “Memories and Demons” utilizing another long time passion, collecting antique dolls. The dolls are her subjects, and their haunting expressions and positions are profoundly alive. ow does she create her dolls’ life-like positions?  “Through trial and error,” Cahill attests. “I use paint cans, sticks, props. I work with them, and create an environment for them.”

Cahill has been creating her unique vision for just under a year. She works without assistance, using a variety of natural light sources in many pieces. “My ‘Please Help’ was shot by porch light,” she explains.  The naturalism of her settings, lighting, and interactions contributes to the surreal/real style of her work.

The poignant images show loss, longing, fear, and wonder, all in a very personal way that grabs the viewer by the heart and throat. Her first piece, “Small Comforts” was directly inspired by her mother. “I make these pieces for all the children who were traumatized, for children who are still affected as adults by what has happened in the past. I tell stories in images that children may not be able to tell in words.”

To learn more about Cahill’s dynamic work, visit Artist’s Corner, located at 6585 Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. A closing night reception and artist’s talk takes place Saturday, August 8th from  7 to 10 pm and should fall in your “do not miss” category.

 All Photos for this article by Jack Burke