It was a coin flip that changed Terri Garland's life, and there's probably a significant percentage of her friends and loved ones who wish that coin would have landed heads. If that had happened, almost 20 years ago, Garland may have found another field of interest as a photographer that didn't involve one of the most reviled and dangerous subcultures in America.

The Creatives


The following is the first in an occasional series of profiles of artists honored with the 2008-09 Rydell Visual Arts Fellowship Awards, administered by the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County in the name of the late arts mavens Roy and Frances Rydell. This year's winners include photographer Terri Garland, encaustic artist Daniella Woolf, theater set designer Skip Epperson and book artist Felicia Rice. Each of the recipients are awarded a $20,000 stipend to support their artistic activities, and were chosen from scores of Santa Cruz County artists. To read more about the Rydell Fellowship and Roy and Frances Rydell, go to www.cfscc.org.

But it landed tails. And, as a consequence, the Santa Cruz native has spent a good part of her artistic life getting up close and intimate with white supremacists and Ku Klux Klansmen in the Deep South.

"I was so naive," said Garland, who is one of four recipients of the prestigious Rydell Fellowship awarded to Santa Cruz artists for 2008-09. She's talking about 1989, when she and her preteen daughter drove a 1970 Volkswagen bug across the American interior -- no word on whether they were wearing Birkenstocks at the time -- to find that part of Southern culture that polite folks in those parts don't talk about too much.

"All I saw at one point were some mud flaps on a truck with the Confederate flag on them in Texas," she said. "We were having a great time. But I wasn't finding what I was looking for."

So, somewhere in the Mississippi Delta, they flipped a coin: Heads, they would go over to Tupelo to find the birthplace of Elvis Presley; tails, it was on to Pulaski, Tenn., which was where the Ku Klux Klan was established.

Tupelo would have to wait.

"So we got up there," said Garland, remembering that first trip to Pulaski, "and, as we are driving down the main drag, there are these giant orange ribbons on the homes and the businesses. We stopped for lunch, and I said, 'What's all that about?' And the woman in the cafe said that it was protest against the upcoming Aryan Nation Day. And I was, like, 'Bingo.'"

Since then, Garland has taken scores of photographs of the white-supremacist subculture, from you-are-there images of cross burnings to innocuous family portraits. But those photos form only a part of Garland's body of work, which seeks to find a wider cross-section of the history and culture of the South. She's shot former "Freedom Riders" and other participants in the civil rights movement, as well as people victimized by the violence of hate groups in the region.

She's also been active in documenting the lingering effects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Louisiana and Mississippi, with haunting images of post-Katrina New Orleans and Biloxi and portraits of those who live there.

What brought her to the attention of the Rydell Fellowship selection committee, however, was a series of images that was an unusual part of Garland's portfolio, a series she calls the "Katrina Bibles."

"In January of 2006, I went to New Orleans," she said, "and I was wandering around the Ninth Ward. I went into a church and I found this one Bible, and it was just caked in mud. You could see just a few tiny passages of Scripture. I thought, I'm taking this. It's not salvageable. No one's going to wash the pages and use it again."

She shot the Bible on her flat-bed scanner, and liked the effect, collecting many more Bibles and prayer books and scanning them as well. The result is a series of images -- books so encased in dried mud and sediment that some are almost unrecognizable as Bibles -- that serves as a powerful metaphor for what Katrina and Rita did to the lives of the people of the Gulf.

In 2007, the Bibles, under the name "The Good Books," were part of an exhibit put on by the Alan Klotz Gallery in New York City. Garland will have another show of her work at that gallery this summer. She's working on a book of her images called "Southern Discomfort."

Still, the Bible project did not require of Garland, a professor of photography at San Jose City College, that delicate diplomacy required when shooting white-power activists as they live their daily lives. After that fateful coin toss in 1989, Garland returned to Pulaski to observe Aryan Nations Day. Before doing so, she had read widely about the subculture and others' approach in documenting it. One account of a filmmaker who went undercover in such a subculture and ended up having a bounty put on his head convinced Garland to be clear and upfront with everyone she met who she was and what she believed in. She would not pretend to sympathize with their point of view to get their photo.

"I thought, Nope. Single mom. Two kids. I ain't going there. And part of my going to the South in the first place was to keep it all as far away from home as possible."

So she went to the demonstration, asking people for their permission to take their photo, though she didn't have to, considering they were in a public arena. "It was uncomfortable. They made the usual jokes about California being the granola state."

Later, she was invited to an Aryan wedding. But there was a miscommunication among the people involved, and she soon found herself sitting in a lawn chair, facing the road, surrounded by three armed men who instructed her not to turn her head.

A lot of photographers would have fled at that moment. But Garland has returned to the region again and again over the years, winning over some people with her persistence and her honesty, being rebuffed by others who don't trust outsiders.

She's been with families. She followed notorious Klansman David Duke during his campaign for governor of Louisiana. She attended a cross burning once billed as a Ku Klux Kristmas, all the while maintaining her emotional distance and being clear of her more progressive point of view.

It's all given her stories that may sound, particularly to sophisticated West Coasters, quite exotic and frightening. She's been in the presence of Klansmen during a rally when they were informed by law enforcement officers of an escape route in case of violence. She met a hard-core racist wearing a T-shirt, on it an image of a head in a rifle sight with the words, "Snitches are a dying breed."

She tells the story of just last summer going to an event that was being called a crawfish boil/cross burning. She was told to arrive in mid-afternoon, but when she showed up, several in the crowd were uncomfortable with her presence, and she was told that she couldn't shoot anyone until the evening when they had their hoods on.

"I'm used to Klansmen being kinda nice to me," she said. "So that was kind of a drag. So I just sat there on the porch while people glared at me."

Then, someone, perhaps taking pity on her, suggested they go out to see the birthplace of country singer Tammy Wynette.

"And there I go, jumping in the car with some Klansman I don't know."

That situation, she said, was unusual.

"I'm careful. There's an inherent risk in going to some of these places. But I watch my back."

The outcome of all that risk-taking is portraits of American people who often live beyond the attentions of polite society, to see what is hidden in plain sight.

"There are some people who say that documentary exists here and fine art exists over there," said Garland. "I find I do my best when I'm able to get those labels out of my head, and just go out and use my eyes and come up with something I find interesting."

Contact Wallace Baine at wbaine@santacruzsentinel.com.