Alice Hawkins, Dear Dolly

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Baron Books (here). Hardcover (with tipped in image), 32×26 cm, 200 pages, with 112 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes a foreword by the artist, essays by Susie Rushton and James Barker, and a thumbnail image array with titles and dates. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Many years ago when I was visiting art schools with my son (who was a prospective student at the time), when the Q & A period arrived during the information sessions, most of the questions tended to center on the same urgent topic – what did the schools really want to see in a student’s art portfolio? Of course, this question was never really answered directly, much to the frustration of many of the parents and students in attendance who were desperate for any hint of helpful direction. But I do remember one offhand prohibition issued by a momentarily forthright admissions counselor – “no fan art.” At the time, I assumed this quip was aimed at reducing the number of Star Wars character drawings, Twilight vampire portraits, and earnest Frida Kahlo reproductions that might be submitted; the implication seemed to be that this kind of art wasn’t serious, and that the schools wanted to see your own artistic inspiration, not your talents at copying someone else’s.

Alice Hawkins’s recent photobook Dear Dolly reminded me of this sweeping judgement against fan art, and more generally of the institutional dislike that might often be applied to a project like hers. And yet, in the context of a summer that has been joyfully overrun by the cultural juggernaut that is Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie, perhaps a sensitively seen, female identity-centric photography project featuring self-portrait impersonations of Dolly Parton might not be so quickly discounted.

Hawkins is a British fashion photographer, who has made a name for herself crafting images filled with glamour and female positivity. Her first meaningful encounter with Parton seems to have come in 2002, at a concert at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, where Hawkins was entranced by the country music star’s warm authentic persona. But it wasn’t until almost a decade later, in the context of a commissioned editorial for Ponystep magazine in 2011, that her connection to Parton deepened. Unable to meet Parton directly for the series, she instead travelled to Tennessee with a stylist and a hairdresser, and made meticulously staged self-portraits dressed as her subject.

As collected here, Hawkins’s images were executed with an obsessive level of care, commitment, and investigative research. With a massive platinum blonde hairdo and an ever changing lineup of jump suits and figure-hugging country wear, she set herself up in various Nashville bars, hotels, and diners, with additional stops at the local record store, the beauty parlor, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (posed with a wall of gold records), and a bronze statue of Parton with her guitar. Hawkins has a sharp eye for surrounding mood and staged atmosphere, and several of these images are bathed in warm reflected light, the pink glow of neon, and the red flare of a Marlboro sign. The journey then continued to the front gates of Parton’s house in Brentwood, to a rented cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains (where Hawkins posed in meadows of wildflowers and perched on the kitchen counters and in the fireplace), and of course to Dollywood, Parton’s namesake theme park, where Hawkins befriended staff members, rode the Dollywood Express, stood with Parton’s tour bus, and visited the chapel. Each image in the extensive project feels precisely controlled and arranged to replicate a particular look and feel, with Hawkins genuinely trying her best to walk in her idol’s shoes and inhabit her persona. And in none of the images can we find even the slightest trace of caricature, irony, parody, or cynicism, Hawkins’s authentic sincerity giving the pictures a hint of almost wistfulness, transforming play-acting impersonation into something much more personal and aspirational.

The next chronological chapter in Hawkins’s project came a few years later in 2015, when the photographer was pregnant with twins. During the later stages of her pregnancy, she made a series of self-portrait nudes, once again styled as Parton (at least in terms of the platinum blonde hair). These images have an almost “how would Dolly have done it” flair and feeling, including a round mirror reflection, several odalisque poses, and a draped curtain studio setup. But the photographs also have a subtle undercurrent of uncertainty, with the Hawkins and Parton identities seemingly wrestling for dominance, within the larger celebration of self-acceptance and idealized femininity.

A few years later, Hawkins expanded the scope of her Dolly Parton identity project to include several other passionate Dolly fans and impersonators in Britain, with whom she seems to have formed an informal kind of kinship or sisterhood. These women each became active collaborators in the photographs, resulting in a selection of portraits in their homes, with their families, and around town. Hawkins’s images made with Trixie Malicious are particularly striking, in that there is a doubled effect in several pictures where both women are dressed as versions of Parton. They pose together in a pink bedroom (with lots of gaudy rings), in the bathroom (where the doubling multiplies into four), arm in arm in tight pants, and as nude silhouettes with a guitar near a curtained window. Other pictures (with Kelly O’Brien and Claire Moore) recreate gauzy stylized setups on horseback, with guitars, and in sunsets, and then insert the Dolly persona into more real life scenes in a bodega, at the nail salon, at the train station, in a launderette, and at the local KFC. Each woman has adopted the Dolly identity in slightly different ways, adapting it to their own dreams and fantasies.

Like any enthusiastically addicted fangirl, Hawkins seems to have gone through a scrapbooking phase, where she collected all her Dolly-related ephemera and created collaged page layouts with pictures, maps, song lyrics, and other drawings and notes. Several of these pages have been included as a final section of Dear Dolly, the spreads shown against light pink paper. Each diaristic notebook page has its own design, featuring concert tickets, airplane boarding passes, her Dollywood entry pass, and various images of both her idol and herself, creating a intermingled record of Dolly admiration. That she included these innocently obsessive scrapbook pages in her photobook tells us something about Hawkins’s willingness to let us see the truth of her interest, revealing these private pages almost like a badge of affirmation and legitimization.

In the history of photographic self-portraiture, viewers have often wrestled with questions about whether the figure being presented in an image “is” the photographer in some way or just a role that he or she is playing, appropriating, or subverting. When fandom like Hawkins’s comes into play, we find ourselves in slightly different conceptual territory, where the artist’s identity is actually wrapped up in the role to an unusual degree. It is this ardent intensity that separates Hawkins’s work from that of other photographic self-portraitists – her diligence to the Dolly identity seems sincere and heartfelt, rather than an artistic calculation. In this way, Dear Dolly is an unexpectedly poignant record of evolving selfhood, filtered through the guise of an esteemed role model. When hooked to a potent symbol of “unapologetic, ostentatious femininity” like Dolly Parton, maybe fan art has more of a place in real-life identity creation than we’re willing to admit.

Collector’s POV: Alice Hawkins does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her Instagram page (linked in the sidebar).

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