An Artist to Know: Danielle Nelson Mourning

Danielle Nelson Mourning slipped into a thin white nightgown, dropped to her hands and knees and crawled into a muddy bog outside the tiny village of Maghery in Northern Ireland. The temperature was hovering just below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. As she floated in the frigid, murky water and yelled to her friend to start taking photographs, she stared up at the iron-gray sky and thought, “This is crazy and amazing.”

It wasn’t the first time Mourning’s photography career had put her in an unusual situation, and it wouldn’t be the last. Since 2003, she has been taking a series of self-portraits that reflect her family history. For authenticity, she journeys to the places where her forebears lived and dons period clothing (some items actually belonged to her ancestors) before striking poses inspired by old photographs, stories and memories. The quest has taken the San Francisco resident to locales as diverse as rural Mississippi, Niagara Falls and County Donegal, Ireland.

She traces her obsession with the past back to the tales she learned at her grandmother’s knee. Ruth Katherine Nelson moved from Kansas to California to be closer to her children. “My parents were away at work a lot when I was growing up,” says Mourning. “They were busting their asses to make a living. I spent a lot of time with my grandma, and my favorite thing to do was sit with her and look at photo albums and listen to her stories about the people in them. It was the best kind of storybook.”

Though she was perched on the edge of the continent, thousands of miles and several decades away from where and when the snapshots were taken, something took root in the little girl’s self-described “curious and melancholy” mind. But it wouldn’t flower into art until years later, when Mourning received a photography assignment while attending the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and chose to take a self-portrait. “I started recreating scenes from the snapshots,” she says. “And I just kept going.”

While earning her master’s degree at Royal College of Art in London, Mourning won a grant from Deutsche Bank that allowed her to go farther afield and further back in time. She traveled to Ireland, where her ancestors lived before the 19th century’s Great Famine—an event that saw a million people die and a million more, including Mourning’s family, leave the country. “In one photo, I am outside the stable that was the home of my ancestor, a kitchen maid married to a groom,” she says. “I was channeling what it was like to be a woman during that time. In another I was lying in a bog because that’s where many people were thrown after they starved to death.”

It is no accident that the photographs have an ethereal quality. “The photos work best when I completely let go and lose myself in reverie,” Mourning says. “When I look back, I can’t remember the moment the shot was taken—I was completely lost in time.”