Nearly five decades ago, Marblehead photographer Rick Ashley quickly forged a tight bond with his brother-in-law, Michael.
There was a memorable trip to Disney World. Other times, they would just hang out.
But that Michael, who has Down syndrome, would come to serve as the centerpiece of a series of images that would gain national acclaim is something of a happy accident.
Residents can see many of those same images on display in the Larrabee Gallery at the Marblehead Arts Association through Feb. 26.
The project with Michael began when Ashley learned from his neighbor, accomplished photography editor, author and publisher Dennis Curtin, of a new way to transform a digital photograph. You could email the digital file to China, where it would be given to art school students. Before you knew it, you would receive back a canvas bearing the brush-stroked version of the original image.
“I thought that was a spectacular idea,” Ashley said.
But what kind of image would translate best to the canvas, Ashley wondered. He settled on an image of Michael as the archetypal author, sporting a tweet jacket and holding a pipe. That first “Michael” piece is among those now hanging at the MAA.
Ashley said that he was so pleased with that first painting, he went a bit “over the top,” filling a studio room with oil paintings.
This hero wears a cape
The next evolution of Ashley’s partnership with Michael came when Ashley started to incorporate Michael’s penchant for wearing Superman-themed clothing — there were the pajamas, and then also the daywear, with its built-in muscles — into the images.
For Ashley, it called to mind the way royalty would always be depicted in their finest oversized coats with fancy collars.
“I thought, ‘This is Michael’s formalwear,’” Ashley said.
With this concept in mind, Ashley created the first image at his sister-in-law’s house. Her husband is not a hunter but loves to collect taxidermy.
The first of the Superman images shows a pensive Michael sitting in his wheelchair, staring off into the distance next to a large-eared African dog with a moosehead overhead.
But when Ashley decided to merge the Man of Steel with famous works of art, it opened up new opportunities — and acclaim.
In one of these pieces, Ashley decided to play off one of the most iconic images from the French Revolution, Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat,” which depicts the murdered revolutionary leader in the bathtub.
In Ashley’s reinterpretation, Michael is on the couch, not in the tub. Falling from his hand is a VHS videotape, not a quill pen.
Ashley sent a copy of that image off to the curators at the National Portrait Gallery with zero expectations. To his astonishment, he soon learned that it had been chosen for the exhibit “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today.”
With the help of his trusted printer, Bob Korn Imaging of Eastham, Ashley created the “gigantic” version of the Marat-inspired image now hanging on the MAA’s walls. There is a notable photograph of Ashley himself and Arnould Gallery & Framery owner Gene Arnould lugging the freshly framed image up Pleasant Street to his studio, Ashley noted.
Another piece from this part of the collection is patterned after Andrea Mantegna’s “Lamentation over the Dead Christ,” which hangs in the Brera Museum in Milan.
In both Mantegna’s painting and Ashley’s photograph, the subject’s bare feet are in the foreground.
Years ago, Ashley had the opportunity to see Mantegna’s work during a visit to Milan and realized that the size he had made the photo — 16 by 20 inches — was not too different from the diminutive original.
When the Michael images have been displayed previously, Ashley said he would periodically have people come up and tell him that they thought it was horrible that he was taking advantage of his brother-in-law in such a way.
I’d say, ‘He’s taking advantage of me,’” Ashley said.
At Michael’s insistence, their work together then went down other avenues, Ashley explained. Michael is “very possessive” of that work, not taking kindly if a well-intentioned third party enters the frame seeking to help by, say, straightening an object on a table. While Michael has no speech, Michael’s “dirty looks” get the point across, according to Ashley.
“This is our project, no one else’s,” he said.
Another piece in Ashley’s exhibit looks like a giant contact sheet, the print of several negatives from a roll of film from which a photograph can review the images to decide which to print. In each of the six images, Michael is wearing a different mask — a way for Ashley to “take away the cue of Down syndrome,” he explained.
Other 8×10, black-and-white images of Michael have superimposed on them the text of letters. One is handwritten by Michael’s mother and relates to an appeal the family had filed over Michael’s schooling with the Maryland Board of Education. Others come from professionals who had evaluated Michael and recommended that he be institutionalized.
Ashley had “not submitted anything in ages” before approaching the MAA with the idea of hosting a new opportunity to view the Michael images.
“It is the first time there has ever been a selection like this,” Ashley said.
The new exhibit has also opened up an opportunity that Ashley said he was very much looking forward to. Ashley is a frequent visitor to the regular dinners hosted at the Philanthropic Lodge A.F. & A.M. on Pleasant Street for adults with developmental disabilities served by the local nonprofit Anchor to Windward.
When Ashley floated the idea of having her dinner guests tour the exhibit before sitting down to eat, chef Louise Moore leapt at the chance. In two waves, the Anchor to Windward participants — including the man who continues to enthusiastically greet him as “Mr. Leeann Ashley’s father” — will get a chance to see the exhibit.
Ashley said he has modest ambitions for the exhibit, accepting that changing people’s minds entirely may be beyond his reach. He realizes that not everyone has had as much exposure to disabled people as he has had — not just Michael, but a father who drew stares throughout his life after being left quadriplegic from a bout with polio.
But there was nothing wrong with his father’s mind. He graduated from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and ran two successful businesses.
With his loving images of Michael, Ashley may not be able to completely overhaul viewers’ perceptions of people with developmental disabilities.
“But maybe I’ll rattle their assurances a little,” Ashley said.
Rick Ashley’s “Michael” and the Marblehead Arts Association’s four other current exhibits may be viewed through Feb. 26 at the Hooper Mansion, 8 Hooper St., Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.