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Girlfriends, diners, retro images ... or fine art?
Photographer Kelly Povo struggled with the question: Do I want to be considered a fine artist or have fun? She chose fun.
Photos courtesy of the artist

When you're at your wit's end, what can you count on? ... For us, that book was a way to say, 'Hey, you're going to make it; you're going to go places; you just have to believe in yourself.
- Kelly Povo

by Norma Smith Olson

Kelly Povo "earned" her first camera at age 7 by collecting 500 Bazooka bubble-gum comics. "That was a lot of gum chewing," she said of the opportunity advertised to win a prize. Little did she know that this first black-and-white camera would lead to a career in photography.

"I was the person in the family always taking pictures of everybody," said Povo, who saved her own money to buy film.

After graduating from Park High School in Cottage Grove, Povo hit the road and traveled for six months across the southern United States, from east to west. She returned to Minneapolis to take an 18-month course in studio photography at the School of Communication Arts, where she learned the basics of camera work and the darkroom.

After earning her degree, she landed her first photographic job in the early 1980s at Rod Pierce Photography, a Minneapolis studio specializing in advertising photography.

"That's where I learned how to hand color," Povo said. At 20, she was the youngest person working in the studio and was "elected" to paint the black-and-white prints carefully by hand with transparent oil paints. It's a process she has continued to work with throughout her career.

Flash forward

Povo still prefers shooting black-and-white film. She uses a 4x5 Crown Graphic camera for larger formats or a 2-1/4 Hasselblad for people shots. She still has a darkroom and she's still hand coloring.

Self-employed as a photographer for more than 30 years, Povo does have a digital camera that she uses for real estate or graduation photos, "but NOT on my 'girls' pictures!" she said.

The "girls" are a series of about 150 photographs with a retro or vintage feel. She collaborated with author Phyllis Root on several books, including "Hot Flash Gal" and "Gladys on the Go." The images feature hand-colored photographs of Povo's girlfriends dressed in retro clothes, sunglasses and hats, with vintage props and locations. The "girls" are also in a line of greeting cards.

"My photographs look to the fun in life for women, in spite of situations that we face ... hot flashes, divorce, weight gain or loss, or even household chores," Povo said. "They are meant to be humorous and to inspire."

"Gladys on the Go" came out of divorces. Both Povo and Root wanted to do a book that talked about "When you're at your wit's end, what can you count on? How are you going to make it?

"For us," Povo said, "that book was a way to say, 'Hey, you're going to make it; you're going to go places; you just have to believe in yourself; you can do whatever you want to do. ... And don't forget your friends. Your friends are going to help you get there.' "

"Gladys" - portrayed by friend Mary Johnson, whom Povo met in photography school - is the central figure in these book projects. "'Gladys' is such a good sport," Povo said. "She's willing to do whatever I ask."

In 2002, Povo returned to school, graduating with dual degrees in women's studies and art history from St. Catherine University. She now works full-time at St. Kate's as the alumnae relations chapter manager.


Spiritual divide

Povo has a more serious side, too. "I'm a Gemini, so I've got these two sides of me," she said.

She also has captured images in Europe, Mexico and Costa Rica for a series she calls "Sacred Spaces." "For those pictures, I'm searching for something spiritual or mystical in nature," she said.

In her "When You Dream" series about children's dreams - another collaboration with Root - Povo took photos of her daughter, Lucia, from ages 3 to 5. The theme, Povo said, is a mother "telling your child that whatever she can dream, she can do. And, that no matter what, a mother's love will always be with her."

"My entire photographic career has had that divide, doing the fun and girls images and then looking for the more spiritual aspects of nature," Povo said. "I am a positive, upbeat person. I like to laugh. I believe we need a little more laughter in this lifetime."

FFI: kellypovo.com

What: Kelly Povo will be participating in the 40th annual Stockholm Art Fair
When: Saturday, July 20, 2013, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: Stockholm, Wis.

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