The Beauty in Walls
The Beauty in Walls: Sandpoint Artist Marie-Dominique Verdier talks Books, Photography and an Art-Full Life
Tucked away next to the historic Panida Theater in downtown Sandpoint, the gallery/studio for Sandpoint Photo is packed with vibrant color and art. The husband/wife artistic team of Marie-Dominique Verdier (her friends call her Do—pronounced “doe”) and Scott Kirby cover the gamut from music to writing, photography to painting. Scott—the featured “poster artist” at this year’s Festival at Sandpoint—contributes the watercolors and the piano to the room, while Do’s books, photography and photo studio take up the rest of the space. Outside the studio, Do is beginning to make a name for herself in the field of architectural photography, with recent work featured in Western Art and Architecture magazine.
Do has currently authored two books. The Alleys of Sandpoint are where, as is written in the blurb for the book, “time stands still.” New Orleans Walls: Still Standing takes us to the post-Katrina Big Easy and celebrates the indomitable permanence of the human spirit. Both books are packed full of Do’s unique, somewhat haunting, photography. The gallery, the books and the art are much like Do herself: full of more than what you see on first glance.
In the midst of numerous projects, Do took the time to answer some questions for people about the who-what-where-when-why-how of the artist’s life in Sandpoint.
Q. Give us a little of your background. Who is Do Verdier?
A. I grew up in southern France (the middle child of five), lived in Germany after graduating from high school, then returned to France to get my Masters in business and administration. My first job, however, was as a timber inspector for a French company that took me through a dozen U.S. states. Although I was offered to go to Congo next, I decided instead to organize a tour in France for four musicians I had met in New Orleans while doing an internship. After the tour ended, I joined my boyfriend back in New Orleans, and we were married the next year. (My husband of 20 years is Scott Kirby, this year’s Festival at Sandpoint poster artist). We lived in the Big Easy for ten years, where I worked in a recording studio before being offered a position at the French Consulate, doing PR, where I stayed for six years—until the premature birth of our first daughter, Sara, in 1998 (12 weeks early). We moved to Sandpoint in 2000, and had our second daughter, Leah-Marie, in 2002. In the midst of all this, I somehow became a photographer!
Q. How did that transition come about?
A. In the Fall of 1991, I was in a car accident that put me in a wheelchair for a few weeks. With the insurance money, I purchased my first camera. Photography became a passion. I took mostly “candid” black and white pictures, and learned how to process film and develop pictures the old-fashioned way—in a darkroom. Living in New Orleans, it was just a matter of time before I started taking pictures of musicians, which eventually opened some amazing doors. Several years after moving to Sandpoint, I discovered architectural photography and was hooked. Yet I still love taking pictures of people.
Q. You have crafted a beautiful book in New Orleans Walls: Still Standing. Do you feel a strong connection to New Orleans?
A. New Orleans is where I met my husband about 24 years ago, where our first daughter was born in 1998, and where we lived for ten years before moving to Sandpoint in 2000. I’ve kept in touch over the years with many friends in the Big Easy.
Q. How did your book come about?
A. It took 16 years or so from the time I shot the first New Orleans Walls images for the book idea to come about. Several years after moving to Sandpoint, I shared with a friend in New Orleans that I felt I hadn’t finished the project. She suggested I visit it again, but this time, instead of using my friends as models, I should use well-known New Orleanians. I had to get over my initial hesitance, and after reflecting for a few weeks, I was ready to give it a try. Having stories in the book wasn’t part of the initial plan, but as I was photographing all these amazing people, I was discovering them through our brief—or not so brief—conversations, and I became fascinated with these individuals who had been through so much. I heard a lot of hurricane Katrina stories, yet knew that this was not the direction I wanted to go with the book. Eventually, I just asked them to share a significant moment of their life. The book came out in February 2010.
Q. Your book shares the stories of some of your models’ “most significant moments.” What was your most significant moment?
A. Two months after my second daughter was born, I found out I had cancer. The next few months were a trip to hell, with daily doses of chemotherapy and radiation. Needless to say, I was really depressed and wasn’t enjoying life. My father came from France to help us, and one evening when my mood was particularly dark, he took my hand, and just said, “Come with me, I want to show you something that’s worth living for.” I followed him to the room where my baby daughter had been peacefully sleeping for a few hours. She was a very deep sleeper, and we were very quiet, yet she opened her eyes without moving at all, looked at me and smiled, then went back to sleep. I can’t explain it, but I took it as a sign, and from that moment on, I knew I was going to be all right.
Q. Why are proceeds from the book going to the St. Bernard project?
A. One of the conditions I originally set for myself with the New Orleans Walls project was that part of the proceeds from the book sales would go to at least one non-profit organization in New Orleans. I met Zack Rosenburg, co-founder of the St Bernard Project, through a friend of mine during the early stages of the making of the book. It’s a wonderful organization that has been rebuilding homes for hundreds of families since Katrina hit.
The New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic is now another beneficiary, which made sense considering the large number of musicians who have posed for the book.
Q. People describe Sandpoint as an ‘art town.’ Given that you and your husband are both artists, what’s your impression of Sandpoint?
A. Sandpoint is definitely on the right path to becoming a great ‘art town’ with all the efforts that are poured into the task, but it’s not easy. Ever since we moved here, we’ve seen several art galleries start and close. Our downtown space is more of a studio for us, and I don’t believe it would have survived solely as a gallery. For a town its size, Sandpoint counts lots of very talented people, as well as great minds to help support the arts, but ultimately we need more patrons.
Q. How did you end up in Sandpoint?
A. In 1998, my husband was playing the piano at a speak-easy in New Orleans, and one of the audience members, Dave Walsh (who back then was hosting a radio show in Sandpoint) approached him and told him he had been playing his music on the Sandpoint airwaves. Anyway, Dave scribbled his phone number on a napkin after finding out that Scott was going to be in Lewiston within a few weeks. Two things have always puzzled me: 1) my husband didn’t lose the napkin, and 2) he actually called Dave and went to visit Sandpoint.
Of course, he fell in love with the area, and had decided to convince me to move there before he’d even been across the Long Bridge. (He’d played a gig at what was then Swan’s Landing and stayed all night in Sagle.) As we were starting a family, the small town experience was rather appealing. Although I’m always in awe of our surroundings, it’s the people here who have really touched my heart.
Q. Your book provides insight into the people and places of New Orleans. If you did a similar book on North Idaho... what do you think would be revealed about us?
A. In a way, I already have! It’s called “Alleys of Sandpoint.” Even though it’s not exactly the same, the photos reveal so much about a side of our town that most people don’t get to see.
But if I were to create a book about this area that was exactly like Walls, then I would guess the book would be a very spiritual one. I have been impressed by how strong the spiritual side is in people who live here.
Q. How can people learn more about yours and Scott’s work? Where can they purchase the books?
A. Scott is more often at the gallery than me these days (302 N. 1st Avenue, next to the Panida), painting or playing the piano. He offers free music there every Friday night from 5 to 7pm—except during the Festival—with occasional guest musicians. Some of our work is displayed in the gallery.