Sunday, August 16, 2015
Bucks County Courier Times
By Gwen Shrift, Staff Writer
Photographer Greg McGarvey has an eye for the surreal — an accidental smiley face in the holes of Swiss cheese, the crazed and silvery splash a bullet made in a traffic sign.
He was well-launched on this path in early 2012, when he met the woman who would become one of his most evocative subjects in a representational photographic series.
Greg, a musician and artist who lives in Tullytown, began photographing Marcella DiSandro of Northampton. The two met in a local coffee shop after exchanging emails on a dating site.
That first day, he tried to impress her by playing a CD of songs he had written the week before. It worked. In two and a half years of dating, they wandered the region, exploring old buildings, beaches, smalltown streets and big-city landmarks, once venturing as far as Nashville.
Daniela DiSandro, Marcella’s older sister, recalled the pair as “hipster, in much more of a way that was genuine . . . these two were off living this beatnik, Jack Kerouac kind of lifestyle. I think he brought out and nurtured that aspect of my sister.”
Greg recorded those outings by photographing Marcella, or sometimes just her feet as she stood, in pretty shoes, on a patterned floor.
The artist captured her in Centralia, where a mine fire smolders in veins of coal and fumes rise from tortured ground. Marcella stands in the sun next to a small pool of water.
This image is of a piece with Greg’s other photos of Marcella. In these, she tosses a handful of cherry blossoms into the night air in Newtown, or gazes into the camera, arms akimbo, as if guarding a sacred space at the Magic Garden folk-art installation in Philadelphia.
Small moments produced memorable work. Marcella peeps through a yellow plastic cup and emerges on the other side in a cloud of multiple portraits. She reaches for a butterfly perched on a wall in Manhattan. She cradles a tangle of petrified Silly String in her palm.
Greg’s time with Marcella was more than usually lyrical for the songwriter/photographer. Marcella was “a step up in my happiness,” he recalled. Even when he was not with her, “I sort of felt there was a laser beam of loving coming toward me. “She was, like, a big hand-holder. She was the one to buy the most gifts. She always brought over a special dessert . . . even the most informal meal at her house was . . . the best Italian food ever. One Christmas, she bought me my favorite pen in bulk.”
Greg went back to one of the songs he had played on their first date and retitled it “Knit Hat Girl,” after a favorite image. “Now it’s about her,” he said. Marcella, a graphic designer, helped her boyfriend with his first photography exhibit, held in Princeton the year they met. He made her the subject of another exhibit, “A Few Moments with Marcella,” on view at the Langhorne Coffee House.
In “A Few Moments,” she looks, with a slightly bemused expression, at the people looking at her. She plays with flower petals, stands, serene, above subterranean fires in Centralia and gazes out over the ocean from an island in North Carolina.
When the latter photo was taken in the summer of 2014, Marcella was seriously ill, and knew it.
“She’d been through a bunch of stuff already, and had learned to live in the moment, which was unusual for someone in her early 20s,” said Greg.
In 1989, when Marcella was 3, her older sister, Adriana, died of leukemia at age 9. Then Marcella developed recurrent skin cancer. She became vigilant about her health. A genetic connection to cancer was found.
Marcella had Fanconi anemia, a disease of the blood and bone marrow that brought on colon cancer and brain cancer. In early 2014, a few months after the Nashville road trip, she was aware she would not live to see her 30th birthday.
Still, in early summer, she traveled to a beloved beach on Topsail Island, North Carolina, where Greg photographed her communion with nature.
“That’s one of my favorite ones,” said Daniela of the picture. “Here’s somebody who knows what’s going to happen to them, who’s 28 years old. She had her moments of panic and anger about it, but she was also very calm about it at times, too.”
To prolong her life, Marcella underwent chemotherapy. Then, “It was Memorial Day, and she had to stop doing chemo, because it had gotten too much for her,” said Daniela. Her sister said, “I can’t do this. I’m not enjoying the time that I have.”
After giving up chemotherapy, “She would spend every day outside, doing arts and crafts,” Daniela said. “Birdhouses, wind chimes, whatever figurines we could find for her to paint . . . she took those last few months and just enjoyed it.
“There was activity, and there was life, even in the midst of knowing that it wasn’t going to last forever. She lived her life the way that she wanted to. Whatever she did, she definitely lived.”
One day, Marcella went through her belongings, deciding whom to give this purse, that pair of earrings. “She was very thoughtful about every moment in that respect,” said Daniela. “I think that picture (on the beach) kind of shows you that.”
As summer drew to a close, Marcella entered a hospice in Philadelphia. On a day in late September, Greg brought his guitar and, with a friend, sang to her for an hour at her bedside.
Later, he played and sang solo for another hour. Fatigued, he went home to rest. While he was gone, Marcella passed away, his words and music in her ears. Daniela had recorded one of his songs and played it for her sister on the last morning of her life, closing the circle of a friendship that had started with music.
At Christmastime, Greg gathered his photos of Marcella into a book for her parents, Mike and Cleo.
Later, he got the idea to use the compilation for an exhibit. The works are on view in Langhorne through Aug. 31.
“A Few Moments with Marcella” captures a time of love and discovery, limpid water in a perilous landscape.
“We didn’t wait for perfect situations to go out and have an adventure,” said Greg.