Sisterhood is powerful

Updated from May 19, 2004

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We received a lot of compliments on our story about Oak Park photographer Deb Donnelley and her book, In the Company of Sisters: Portraits and Reflections. Readers loved Donnelley's evocative photos of sisters of varying ages and backgrounds. She took most of them between 1987 to 1992, and followed up by re-interviewing the sisters 10 years later and turning the project into a book.

Donnelley, her husband Peter Power and their four young children moved to Oak Park in 2002. She's become an enthusiastic member of the community, and along with growing her portrait business, she's now immersed in two uniquely local projects.

For the first, which she describes as "six degrees of separation in Oak Park," Donnelley enlisted four other professional Oak Park photographers, all women, after she realized it was too big to tackle alone.

"We'll each pick five people we know, make a portrait of each one and ask them to give us the name of someone they know, are curious about, love, or want to honor."

The photographers will then move on to take portraits of those people, and so on, until each has done 25, for a total of 125 portraits.

Signed on to the project, tentatively titled "You are here: Oak Park," are Diana Rasche, Cindy Trim, Nancy Hlavacek and Karen Zaworski. Donnelley says they all met in various roundabout ways, "tentacles that connect, like the project."

At the moment, they're still working out the details, preparing releases and a brochure, and researching grants. There are only two rulesâ€""We're all strong-minded women; it's a miracle we agree on anything," she interjectsâ€"subjects must live in Oak Park and only two members of any family can be photographed by any one photographer.

Although all the women are portrait photographers, each has a different approach and a different style, a fact Donnelley believes will make the project more intriguing. That, and its unpredictable subject matter.

"For me, it's about how people are connected to people in their community. But I have no idea how it will turn out. The fun is the mystery. What people will be placed in our path? Will they overlap? All of us are excited about not knowing," says Donnelley.

They're also excited, she adds, "to have the opportunity to have work that isn't client-centered. We all talk about stretching photographically, trying things we've been wanting to do."

If all goes as scheduled, the finished project will be on display at the Oak Park Public Library next December. "We'd like to make it an interactive exhibition. People could map themselves into the showâ€"as in, 'Oh, I know this person,'" she explains, although how that would be accomplished is still to be worked out.

But before Donnelley gets caught up in that project, she's finishing up another one at Holmes School. It's a reading oasis in the school's media center, a longtime dream of librarian Jeannie Linss.

Donnelley was drafted by Linss a few years ago, and they formed a committee that came up with the concept. Called the Prairie Project, the space will have a cabin with an open rafter ceiling and an open end. Big enough to hold a bunch of kids, the inside of the cabin will contain bookshelves and handcrafted log benches. The height of the benches has been planned so kids sitting on them will be at the same eye level as kids in wheelchairs, a particular wish of Linss.

The bench cushions are also specially designed. "Fifth graders read folk and fairy tales from around the world and came up with images from the stories," explains Donnelley. "The students' designs were hand quilted by [local artist] Linda Hill and transferred to quilted cushions. Each represents a tale from a different country," adding both diversity and history to the project.

When not in use on the benches, the cushions will hang together on the cabin's exterior side, forming what appears to be an ever-changing, large quilt.

The Prairie Project will open with a party on Feb. 27, to celebrate all the hard work and support from the Holmes community, says Donnelley.

Apart from the major projects, Donnelley is busy getting her photography business off the ground, selling her book, taking private lessons (one "fills in the technical holes in my history," she says, and the other is in digital photography) and parenting four little kids.


In the Company of Sisters is still available through Donnelley's website,

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