For 14 years, Lee Harper has created skeleton dioramas celebrating the fascinating and untold stories of people lost in history. Starting as a fun art project for Halloween with a “macabre version of Elf on the Shelf,” Harper was shocked to learn that her husband, Andy, had been sharing her work on social media without her knowledge. She garnered a significant fan base.
The projects became more intricate over the years, and after the push from a friend, Harper finally decided to start sharing her work on Instagram. She was hesitant, but she finally held a launch party for the Instagram page and website of History Bones in 2017.
Megan Wolfe, a photographer from Holly Springs, and Harper are showcasing their art at Sarahfest, a celebration of art, music and writing that showcases female and queer creators. This year’s theme is “Crossing Borders.”
Harper said she loves the theme because many of her pieces reflect individuals who were the first to do something.
“I love it when I find somebody amazing that nobody’s heard of, and you can kind of bring them back to life and share their story,” Harper said.
Harper doesn’t purposefully seek out stories about certain races or genders. She looks for the most captivating stories, but “most of the forgotten history is about women and minorities,” she said.
Harper was never interested in history in school but discovered that she was a self-proclaimed “history nerd” years later. She said that digging into the past often uncovers some inspiring, and even terrifying, stories.
One of her favorite pieces, Frances Glessner Lee, is also one of her greatest inspirations. Lee revolutionized forensic science with her Nutshell Studies, a series of miniature crime scene replicas.
Harper was enamored by the fact that Lee’s parents never allowed her to pursue her interest in forensics and that she had to wait until they died to follow through with her dreams. Lee used her skills from sewing clothes and building dollhouses to create the crime scene dioramas, which are still used to train detectives today.
Harper recreates history using skeletons because it prevents people from presuming anything about the person, forcing them to read the story behind it. There is a storycard beside every diorama.
“There’s something beautiful about bones being the great equalizer,” Harper said on her website. “They represent all of us, no matter the gender, race or nationality.”
Theresa Starkey, an instructional associate professor of gender studies and associate director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies, which organizes Sarahfest along with the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, said that showcasing the work of artists who have been marginalized increases understanding.
“The world becomes more diverse,” Starkey said. “We can cross borders and imagine new realities and worlds that are more equitable, fair and just for all.”
Starkey also thinks Harper and Wolfe’s art was perfect for this year’s Sarahfest.
“It inspires us to think about space and gender in unexpected ways,” Starkey said. “(Harper’s) dioramas are a form of storytelling that is funny, smart and macabre.”
Megan Wolfe fell in love with photography as a freelancer and has been doing it professionally for 10 years.
Wolfe thinks that after years of photographing products and events, she is close to ending her career in commercial photography in favor of doing more personal work.
“Anything to do with the queer community, local community, like, that stuff is more personal for me,” Wolfe said. “I enjoy that on a different scale.”
Seeing how dimensional Harper’s work is, Wolfe wanted to add some dimension to hers, pondering how she could bring her photos to life.
Anyone walking into the Powerhouse Community Arts Center will be greeted by an instillation of furniture wrapped with Wolfe’s photography. A couch is draped with the image of a drag queen wearing studded black bodysuit. To the right is a chair covered in fabric with another photo of the same drag queen. On the wall above hangs an enlarged photograph of another queen playing the guitar. Gold streamers and smaller photographs hang on either side of the image.
Drag is a good example of ‘Crossing Borders,’ Wolfe said, because it challenges other people’s comfort. She wanted to use her installation by wrapping images of these queens around pillows and blankets as a way to make people comfortable with them.
During her time in San Francisco, Wolfe was one of a handful of active female artists on the scene for several years.
“It’s so important to have quality female artists actually out there and speaking about their work,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe spoke about the impact of increased awareness of female artists. Sometimes, little girls are surprised by her, and they approach her to hold her camera or take a picture, she said.
“So, to kind of put that in the mind of a kid that, ‘Hey, if you want to, you could do this,’” Wolfe said, “to me, that’s something that’s very unique. And that really kind of motivates me a little bit.”
Price Walden is a musician from Booneville. The senior was approached by Starkey to perform in Sarahfest in 2017, and he did so in collaboration with the Living Music Resource, a musical performance group at Ole Miss.
“What’s fun about Sarahfest is that you can bring in all these different departments and people to try to bring something new and fresh to the campus,” Walden said.
Influenced by women composers and church music, Walden has played piano for 18 years and started writing music in high school.
Identifying as a queer Christian, a lot of Walden’s work grapples with the “gap between the beauty of the hymns (he) grew up loving and the homophobia” he experienced.
Thinking about the theme, Walden said it is important to think beyond the binaries that society upholds. He also appreciates the sense of community that surrounds Sarahfest.
“I think it’s really important to find these people whose voices were shut out of the conversation and bring them to the forefront,” Walden said.
The Sarahfest Art Show started on Sept. 4 and will continue until Sept. 27 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Powerhouse Community Arts Center.