GREENCASTLE, Indiana – “I have had a camera in my hand since I was 13,” says former Muscatine resident Cindy O’Dell. She is now an associate professor of art and art history at DePauw University in Greencastle.
Cindy’s first camera was one she won as a prize selling subscriptions for the Muscatine Journal. “I still have the camera,” Cindy said. “I did not replace it until I was in graduate school.”
She graduated from Muscatine High School in 1989. Her dad, Lou Robles, was the carrier supervisor at the Journal for a number of years. He is deceased. Her mother, Judy Burg, lives in Muscatine.
“The Stanley Foundation changed my life, as a kid and as a counselor,” she said. “I did their summer cultural program, through the Muscatine Community School District.” The Stanley Foundation’s summer program still exists and is currently titled “Investigation You”. It helps students learn more about themselves and their community.
Bob Campagna, former director of the Muscatine Housing Commission, who currently has a photo art gallery in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, was the summer program’s leader in 1982-92. “He taught me so much about photography, including how to make an image appear in the darkroom. I was hooked. He was such an inspiration. He also photographed our wedding,” said O’Dell.
“That summer program was, and still is, innovative and powerful for children. I also spent at great deal of time at the Muscatine Art Center, and in many ways, this was my first introduction to art,” she added.
“I had a great deal of amazing teachers in Muscatine,” she said. “John Deason, in particular, was a great advocate of my work. He helped bring the world of photography to me, and we are still in touch.
“Beth Hetzler (now deceased) let me do a photographic word and image project in the 9th grade. This was my first documentary project out of hundreds.
“Dan Kitchen trained me how to make high quality photographs. I spent endless hours in the high school darkroom. It was my refuge. I often went to Spanish class with my hands smelling of developer.
“I randomly found the book “Photographers on Photography” by Nathan Lyons in the high school library. The section on Dorthea Lange became a foundational text for me in college. I am grateful for whoever had the insight to purchase that book. It is a rare book now.
“I was lucky to have parents, teachers, and a community that supported and even fueled my passion.”
Cindy is currently on a sabbatical from DePauw, and is working on two projects. “One is titled ‘Charlie’s Barn’ and will explore climate change, the farming community in my area, our barn which was lost in a storm in 2008 and Charley Day. Charles was born on the property in 1905 and died in 1994. His legacy as a trapper, farmer and conservationist is legendary in the area. The work will culminate in a video/photography installation.
‘The other project is titled ‘Maggie’s Light’. It will incorporate photographs and writing to explore motherhood,” she said.
O’Dell has taught at DePauw since 1998. “I have a B.F.A. with honors in photography and a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Iowa. I received my masters in photography and media studies from the University of Colorado.
“I teach courses at DePauw in lens-based media in a variety of techniques and conceptual strategies. We utilize both the darkroom and digital studio. Students are challenged to develop a personal vision within a critical framework
“I also take students on photographs trips for winter and spring terms. This last May, Professor Joe Heithaus and I took students to an island off the coast of Maine to photograph and write.”
Work from one of her projects, titled “An Impossible Homeland: Longing for Sea, Land and Sky”, was recently exhibited in London at the Renaissance Photography Prize exhibition. One of the photographs was a 2012 award winner in the category of memory. The portfolio was also chosen for inclusion in the International Photo Ireland Festival 2012.
This project explores disrupted familial memory and Irish heritage. Cindy took the initial photographs in 2005 during a residency at the Burren College of Art in Ballyvaughn, Ireland. An early phase of the work was published in the exhibition catalogue for the 2009 Indiana State Museum show, “Making it in the Midwest – Artists Who Choose To Stay”.
Her thesis exhibition “Common Threads” consisted of larger-than-life photographic quilts depicting women living with breast caner. It garnered national attention and traveled to more than 15 sites, including two in Manhattan.
“The 2010 multi-channel video/photography installation titled ‘First Breath, Last Breath’, which explores the death of my father and birth of my daughter, was awarded an Indiana Arts Commission Grant in 2010. Overall my work has been shown in more than 60 exhibitions and screenings throughout the United States and Europe,” she said. She has received numerous faculty awards and research grants at DePauw.
Cindy and her husband, Scott Cooper, have a four-year-old daughter, Maggie Pixel O’Dell Cooper. Cindy’s brother, Tim O’Dell, is a jazz musician and is on the faculty at the University of Southern Maine.