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Martha A. Strawn was born in Washington, DC, in 1945, she grew up in Lake Wales, Florida, and now resides along the Santa Fe River near High Springs, Florida and in Tryon, North Carolina, with her husband, Bill Latham. She attended Mary Baldwin College and received her B.A. in art under Evon Streetman from Florida State University, her Basic Certificate from Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, and her M.F.A. in art from Ohio University. Strawn is Professor Emerita of Art at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, where she established the Time Arts program in photography, video, and digital imaging. Strawn co-founded The Light Factory Contemporary Museum of Photography and Film in Charlotte, and she has also served on other national arts and land/water conservation boards, including the Society for Photographic Education, Friends of Photography, Davidson Land Conservancy, Our Santa Fe River and Center for the Study of Place. She was a Fulbright Fellow in India and the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

Throughout her career, Strawn has been recognized for combining aesthetic and scientific interests in visual expressions of the spaces and places that surround us. She coined the term visual ecology in reference to her approach to the importance of geography and a sense of place in her photographic work. She works in silver, chromogenic, and digital photographic media. Strawn’s photographs have been exhibited and collected internationally in museums of science and art, including Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, Indira Gandhi International Centre for Art, Museum of Florida Artists, National Geographic Society Museum, Princeton Art Museum, San Diego Museum of Natural History, Science Museum of Minnesota, Smithsonian Institution, and Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. Her previous books are Alligators, Prehistoric Presence in the American Landscape (The Johns Hopkins University Press, in association with the Center for American Places, 1997) and, with Yi-Fu Tuan, Religion: From Place to Placelessness (Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2009). Her current work, Nousphere, involves the places around water and the intimate connections to water she has through her family’s history and her present living circumstances.

Martha Strawn
Rooster and Chicken Strut, 2016
22 x 17 inches
Archival pigment print

Martha A. Strawn has spent decades documenting the threshold diagrams that have consecrated Hindu spaces in India for millennia. In the Hindu world-view, threshold is a profoundly important concept that represents a passage between one space and place and another, creating a visual bridge between the secular and the sacred. Accordingly, the literal threshold a person crosses when entering and exiting a home or business symbolizes the threshold one crosses between the physical and spiritual realms of existence. Hindus have long believed it is possible to affect a person’s well-being by using diagrams to sanctify the “threshold space.” The diagrams do so by “trapping” ill will, evil, bad luck, or negative energy within their colorful and elaborate configurations, thereby cleansing those who traverse the space and sending them on their way with renewed spirit, positive energy, and good luck and fortune.

The creation of the threshold diagrams is steeped in Indian history and culture going back thousands of years. Practiced by women, it was long considered a vernacular art. But, as Strawn's pioneering book titled Across the Threshold of India: Art, Women, and Culture (2016) reveals, the diagrams represent highly sophisticated mathematical and cosmological underpinnings that have been handed down from one generation of women to the next. As India has modernized and rapidly become more urban, however, more Indian women have acquired more complicated lives, allowing less time to continue the practice of threshold drawing and relying, increasingly, on homogenized pattern books. And so a longstanding and critically important expression of Indian life, religion, and culture is becoming less common to the point the tradition is threatened.

Of this print, Rooster and Chicken Strut, Strawn writes, “This picture was made in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, in January 1986 during the Pongal Festival, which is synonymous with the South Indian New Year. The hammer and cycle is a sign of the political climate at the time. The diagrams are clearly for an auspicious occasion because they are made with white and red color. The primary method of application is by using a small cloth dipped in chalk mixed with water and dibbled off the fingers to form dots and lines. Inside the door on the floor you can see a dry application which is more delicate in appearance. That application uses dry rice flour held in the palm of the hand and pushed slowly onto the ground with the thumb and forefinger as the hand moves to create the diagram. The women who make these diagrams are very skilled in this practice.”