Old photos find new life as ‘Altered Ancestors’

  • Artist Amy Johnquest, a former Ashfield resident, holds the original cabinet card next to a poster she designed, using the photo image, for an antiquarian book fair. Johnquest, also known as “BannerQueen” for her work inspired by circus posters, has an exhibit at Salmon Falls Gallery in Shelburne Falls through Dec. 30. STAFF PHOTO/DIANE BRONCACCIO

  • A wall hanging of artist Amy Johnquest’s “Altered Ancestors” hangs in her Easthampton studio. Staff Photo/DIANE BRONCACCIO

  • Artist Amy Johnquest holds up an antique photo album of cabinet cards, which has inspired her line of “Altered Ancestor” artwork. STAFF PHOTO/DIANE BRONCACCIO

  • This framed “Altered Ancestor,” on display in Amy Johnquest’s Easthampton studio, came from a 1930s photograph. STAFF PHOTO/DIANE BRONCACCIO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/28/2018 5:11:16 PM

Breathing new life into old art forms has proven to be a rich vein of exploration for Amy “BannerQueen” Johnquest, whose latest exhibit, “One Size Fits All,” is now on display at the Salmon Falls Gallery in Shelburne Falls through Dec. 30.

In Johnquest’s newest artwork, which she calls “Altered Ancestors,” the stern faces of unknown, forgotten Victorians gaze out through an almost psychedelic haze of painted polka dots, swirls and outlandish, sci-fi hairdos.

Artistic revival

The original images were found on discarded cabinet cards that were collected by Johnquest’s friend and fellow artist, Stacy Waldman. Johnquest has painted on them, blown them up to poster-size or even imprinted semi-hidden “messages” in the way she has tinted the garments.

Cabinet cards were introduced around 1870. They were portraits of people taken at professional photography studios, mounted on a heavy card stock and put on display in cabinets and in photo albums with built-in paper frames for the 4¼-inch by 6½-inch cards. They were popular until about the 1920s, when snapshot photography displaced them in popularity.

Waldman runs a business called House of Mirth Photos and Ephemera in Easthampton, and shares a shop with Johnquest at 22 Cottage St. Waldman specializes in “vernacular photography,” mostly amateur photography culled from old photo scrapbooks in flea markets and tag sales.

“There’s a huge world of collectors out there,” Johnquest explained. “There are museum shows, and interesting genre shows where people are finding artistic details in the print that the original photographer may not have intended.”

About five years ago, Waldman threw a collage-making house party and put out some cabinet cards for her guests to use as material in their paper collages. Johnquest was there, too, and “Altered Ancestors” was born.

“I’ve always done collages and painted on everything I could get my hands on,” Johnquest said. “I was at this party Stacy was having, and I really honed in on the Victorian cabinet cards.”

Johnquest’s work on the cards is all hand-painted.

“Nothing’s photo-shopped. Everything’s low-tech,” she said. The work includes found objects, vintage photos, textiles and paint.

“The photo itself tells me where it wants the paint to go,” Johnquest said. “Sometimes they’re more humorous, sometimes more ethereal, but they’re all linked with the passage of time. It’s a kind of resurrection of this discarded, lost thing that might have otherwise ended up in the trash heap.”

“I very rarely paint on the actual faces,” she added. “I try to be respectful of the human being who was once alive, and of the (photography) studio, whose name is sometimes on the bottom of the card.”

Johnquest loves using found objects in her art and often juxtaposes an old art form with a new message.

Becoming BannerQueen

Johnquest grew up in Novelty, Ohio, where her early art influences included photographer Diane Arbus, who is famous for her photographs of sideshow performers, and “Zap Comix” cartoonist Robert R. Crumb.

After receiving a degree in fine arts, Johnquest worked as a sign painter, and then as a graphic designer for newspapers. Besides working at her studio, she is director of the Taber Art Gallery at Holyoke Community College.

In 1998, Johnquest turned to the old-fashioned circus poster as her inspiration for what became “BannerQueen” art. Johnquest, a former Ashfield resident, began painting her first “sideshow themed art piece.”

“I was struck with a powerful and undeniable sense of finally finding my way home,” she writes in a blog on her website. “My paintings are directly influenced by the old circus sideshow banners. … The old banners used garish depictions and verbiage to woo and seduce you into parting with cash to enter the tent. Usually these flashy promotions promised more than what the reality behind the canvas delivered.”

The Montague Book Mill banner is one example of Johnquest’s work. Among her most recent banners, on display near the lobby of The Blue Rock Restaurant, is Johnquest’s banner homage to Julia Child, painted in honor of the chef’s 100th birthday anniversary.

Another banner in the exhibition, “It’s Nature’s Way of Telling You,” combines a lyric from a 1970 recording by Spirit (that says “It’s nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong”), with a two-headed frog. Johnquest said she had been reading about malformed frogs in Minnesota, possibly from water pollution, and put them together in one image.

“Using pop cultural references with text and imagery, I create advertisements that do not sell anything,” Johnquest said. “These paintings are a balancing act of heartfelt sincerity and tongue-in-cheekiness.”

During the exhibit, signed copies of her book, “Altered Ancestors,” will be for sale. Throughout December, the Salmon Falls Gallery at 1 Ashfield St. is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week. An artist’s reception is planned on Saturday, Dec. 1, from 3 to 5 p.m.

To view more of Johnquest’s work, visit

Staff reporter Diane Broncaccio has worked at the Greenfield Recorder since 1988. Her beat includes West County. She can be reached at: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277.


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