At the door: Daphne Maxwell Reid captures one side of wonder

“Flight of the Phoenix” is one of Daphne Maxwell Reid’s door photographs, taken while traveling the globe. Photo courtesy of the artist. “Flight of the Phoenix” is one of Daphne Maxwell Reid’s door photographs, taken while traveling the globe. Photo courtesy of the artist.

When you view a photography exhibit that focuses exclusively on doors, you can’t help but feel a tinge of desperation to know what on earth is behind them.

Artist Daphne Maxwell Reid makes no such offers in her current show at The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.

“Everybody starts with the same curiosity. Every baby will go to the kitchen cabinets and want to open the doors. The sense of wonder, of childhood, is what keeps life interesting to me,” she said in a recent interview. “When things get to be well-known, they get boring. I’m a change artist, and I love change.”

If you watched NBC’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” between 1993 and 1996, you know Reid as Aunt Vivian Banks, but aside from a playful reference to the show on her website (titled “Daphne Maxwell Reid’s Fresh Prints”), she treats the role as one of many in a life of transformation.

“Before I was an actress, I was also a fashion designer for the McCall pattern company,” she said. At Northwestern University, where she received a degree in interior design and architecture, “I would knit sweaters while I was studying, and I handcrafted sewing patterns, knowing I could make a business out of it.”

Her experiences include acting in a number of movies and TV shows, including JT’s mother, Frances Hunter, on the UPN sitcom “Eve,” and Juanita Lawrence on the BET sitcom “Let’s Stay Together,” as well as modeling. (She was the first African-American woman to appear on the cover of Glamour magazine.)

These days, the Petersburg resident sits on the Board of Visitors at Virginia State University and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. She runs New Millennium Studios, a full-service movie studio with her actor-director husband Tim and creates prints and calendars of photos she takes from her travels around the world.

“I woke up on my 60th birthday and declared myself a photographic artist,” she said.

While her emergence as a photographer may be new, Reid’s interest in the art is not. Though she was taught that art “was not something that one should pursue because you needed to make a good living,” her father helped set a different example.

“My father always took pictures. He was an army photographer. He always had a camera and I did too. Since I was 9 years old I can’t remember being without one.”

She also saw at-home examples of women creating “hand arts,” as she calls them. “My mother and aunt were sewers, knitters and crafters, which intrigued me,” said Reid. “I like the value inherent in something that is handmade or one of a kind. I like the personal touch.”

Her fascination with craftsmanship inspires her love of doors and door frames, particularly overseas. All of her door photos were taken in back alleys “and other interesting places” in countries like Italy, Morocco, Spain and Tuva.

“I don’t do anything domestic,” Reid said. “I try to capture the craftsmanship of the culture and the way the light is different in different places. They’re not into keeping up with Joneses over there.”

On her travels, she takes photographs to capture a sense of wonder and adventure. “The door is a metaphor for so many things in life. A decision to go in one direction or another, to have the curiosity that’s the basis for learning. I hope I’m inspiring a bunch of kids to dream and adults to remember how to dream. That’s what leads me to continue to do it.”

Daphne Maxwell Reid’s “Fresh Prints” are on view at The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center through January 11.

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