|Charley Ann Perkins Rhoads, in her studio, was preparing this fall for a winter gallery showing in London.
At any given moment, Charley Ann Perkins Rhoads ’60 might have her toes in Britain’s North Sea. She could be hiking through the bush country of Botswana or taking a quiet walk down the winding lane that leads to her Pennsylvania farmhouse. Or perhaps she’s in her studio, and her thoughts have wandered back to some of her favorite spots in France or Italy or Iceland but, always, some part of her heart is in Cuba.
More about that later.
First, though, comes the will of a woman to see that which is significant in places where most people don’t take the time—or have the heart—to look. Rhoads’ eyes are the starting point. If they’re the soul’s window, then her soul is gentle, inquisitive and full of light. It’s this light that compels her to experience other places.
Travel is in her blood—her father was a U.S. Navy admiral. But Rhoads has no interest in being a tourist, not in the traditional sense. Instead, she seems to have a fiery need to be a part of worlds outside of her own.
Fact is, her own world is lovely. She and Henry, her husband of 40 years, live not far from Carlisle in a gracious home in the country, and they spend five months of the year in their house on the water in Maine. But Rhoads
doesn’t want to lead an insulated life. Even as she and Henry were raising their three children, she found ways to bring the world to her: she participated in every exchange program that she could because she wanted foreigners in her home.
In her words, the only hope for peace is to know people.
Now Rhoads wants to be in places that are not comfortable, not predictable and not situated along the beaten path.
So she travels far and wide, and the light in her eyes captures everything, whether it’s beauty or pain or, most often, both at the same time, and she pulls it all in through the lens of her camera.
“I started taking pictures 15 years ago,” she says, looking back across her relatively new career as an award-winning photographer. “Before that, nothing. Except I had a Brownie camera when I was small.”
Art’s nothing new for her. She’s just been working in other media. She started painting at 3.
“My mother fostered that,” she says. “I took formal oil classes when I was 10.”
Dickinson didn’t have an art major, so she majored in French. But she took as many courses as she could in the arts—in drama, art history and fine arts.
After college, she became a high-school French teacher and even taught at Dickinson for two years. But, much as she has always loved the French language, she turned back to painting.
She earned a degree in fine arts from the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design and achieved incredible success. Her paintings were widely exhibited and won all sorts of awards. And they sold well. So well, in fact, that she hardly has any left … not that she minds.
She no longer likes most of them. “They’re disturbed paintings,” she laughs, as though they were created by someone else—someone whose mindset she no longer inhabits.
So she dropped the brush and picked up a Comtax G2.
It started with a trip to Africa, when she didn’t take a single picture. She left the photo-taking to her traveling companions and, once home, she discovered that their pictures didn’t capture the Africa she’d witnessed.
In that moment a fine-arts photographer was born. She studied the craft at Messiah College and at the renowned Maine Photographic Workshops, where she continues to hone her skills on occasion. There, the likes of Ernesto Bazan and other famed members of Magnum, the elite group of photojournalsits, have become her friends and mentors.
In these ways, Rhoads made herself ready to take on the world. When next she went to Africa, to Botswana, she recorded what mattered to her … not animals nor vegetation, not buildings and not the wide sky.
Rhoads photographs people. She works with black and white film because color, she says, distracts from raw emotion. And she doesn’t just show up, snap a picture and take off. She builds bridges between herself and these strangers, whether it’s in Africa, Iceland, Maine or the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. She gets to know them, and she finds the art already present in their lives.
“My photos are dramas,” she says, “They’re little stories. I won’t take a photo unless I feel like I know something. I don’t pose people; I build rapport with them. My pictures are rarely funny. And sometimes they’re so sad I can’t look at them. But I’m taking pictures of people I love, so I dignify them.”
Which brings us, finally, to Cuba. Rhoads made five trips there in three years, each time spending a few weeks.
“I fell in love with Cuba,” she says. “Everything is out in the street. Life happens outside there. It is the opposite of my quiet little road at home. And the people are gorgeous. Warm. Kind. Welcoming.”
She remembers specific moments in Cuba, like the time she stopped to chat with some men about their ’52 Chevy (big-finned “yank tanks” are about the only cars on the streets in Cuba) and ended up with an invitation to a 5-year-old’s birthday party. Or the Palace of Matrimony, in Havana, along the Prado, where there were civil ceremonies all day, and the state paid for the cake. The brides were queens for a day, and though they had only one bottle of champagne for all of the guests, they offered Rhoads a little cup, too.
“These people have so little,” she says, “but they’ll offer it to you.”
In return, Rhoads gives them her photographs, sending them from home to her new friends. “It’s not right to just take. It was wonderful, when I went back and saw some of the same people, and they had the photographs I had taken of them.”
Rhoads doesn’t spend time talking about Castro or the embargo. Just the people. What breaks her heart, though, is that she can’t go back.
“I’ve been inside their homes, but I can’t go there again,” she says. “United States policy has changed more recently, and now the authorization required is practically impossible to get.”
The pain of it is evident in Rhoads’ eyes.
In the meantime, she doesn’t sit still. Her most recent adventure was a trek across England with eight other women on the Wainright’s Coast to Coast Walk. It began at St. Bees on the Irish Sea along the Cumbrian coast, and it ended about 200 miles later, when she dipped her toes in the North Sea at Robin Hood’s Bay.
She took her camera on the 14-day hike, but the weather didn’t cooperate, so she brought back a different sort of treasure from this trip: a new idea.
“I’m not an athlete, but this hike changed me. I was ecstatic,” she says. “Hiking and taking photos. It has changed entirely my thinking about how I want to travel.” •
As promised in the print edition of Dickinson Magazine, here are more photos from Charley Ann Perkins Rhoads ’60’s continuing romance with Cuba. Note: Eight of her photos were chosen for exhibition in England in early 2006. Gallery 27, 27 Cork St., in the Mayfair section of London, will show her work from Feb. 20-25. You may reach Charley at: email@example.com.