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On the Job: Artist traces pasts to illustrate lives

| Monday, Dec. 22, 2008

Meg Dooley lives in other people's pasts.

In a converted bedroom that serves as the McCandless artist's studio, black-and-white photographs hang from room-length strings just above her head. On a table in the middle of the room, a well-worn children's book sits open, waiting for Dooley to find its place in the story of someone else's life.

These are the raw materials of her business, a 2-year-old company called Finders Keepers Design. Customers commission her to take the faded bits of their or their loved ones' past -- photos, a sheet of music, a nursing degree -- and create something unique.

"She has to sit down with the client and talk through the person's life," Matt Dooley, 60, said of his wife. "After she's constructed the story in her mind, then she takes sometimes boxes of information" to sift through.

A friend calls her an itinerant curator. Meg Dooley, 56, jokes that she's more like a benign stalker.

"It's a very odd feeling" to pore over the life of someone she's never met, picking up a thread from infancy and following it through to the present, she said. "It's not a real relationship, but it feels like it."

The products of her personalized anthropology are most often visual.

One is a collage commissioned by a woman whose mother had just died. The woman wanted a gift for her brother, who had cared for their mother in her later years. The pieces of the collage contain no obvious pattern, yet a viewer's eye is drawn, image by image, in a slow spiral around the piece through childhood, adolescence and the stages of adulthood. The trip ends at a photo of the elderly woman, smiling, in the center.

The process can be an emotional one, as customers guide Dooley through their pasts and sometimes stumble over a forgotten moment or lost relationship. The emotion fills in more of the story for Dooley, and she tries to translate it into her work.

Others bring Dooley an old photograph or two. Using computer programs, she'll restore the torn edges and can alter the photos to look, for instance, like an impressionist painting. She turned photos of tiles on Prague's streets into beverage coasters for a friend, and created a slideshow, with audio and animation, for someone's wedding.

Prices can run into the thousands but vary based on the time she'll have to take for the final project, the logistics involved -- such as how much photo restoration is needed -- and the number of pieces she's asked to include.

Finders Keepers grew from her own past. Dooley's grandfather experimented with photography during its early days. Her father was a radiologist by trade and a musician, composer and photographer by hobby. He built the harpsichord sitting in the family's living room.

Dooley discovered much of this when she and her husband bought their home from her mother. At the back of the attic, she found forgotten boxes holding a jumbled family history.

"The treasure was the attic," she said.

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