Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Stuart Neighborhood series.
In 49 years, Colleen Woolpert has lived in Florida, Massachusetts, Utah, New Jersey, New York, Washington, and Michigan.
The photographer and artist was born in Florida and schooled in Michigan, Massachusetts, and New York. She soul-searched in Utah and New Jersey, and cultivated her artistic outlook in Washington and New York. But she started her professional journey in 1989 at Western Michigan University, and as a resident of the Stuart Neighborhood.
“Kalamazoo is a good place for me because it packs a lot of art and culture into a walkable, affordable city,” says Woolpert, who returned to Kalamazoo in 2016 after living in four other states over a 13-year period. “I’ve found all the resources I need to do my work here and it’s also a great base from which to travel.”
Since July of last year, she has worked as an art preparator at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. She laughs at the title “preparator,” saying it means she installs and removes art exhibits and helps design solutions to allow art to be exhibited at the KIA. Prior to that, she taught photography at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, WMU, and the KIA.
Casting rubber for TwinScope Viewers.
She chuckled at the idea of being a self-described gypsy with wanderlust over the years.
Woolpert is first and foremost an interdisciplinary artist, photographer, and stereograph curator. She creates still and moving images as well as interactive artwork. With them, her bio explains, she “explores the meaning of vision -- from visual perception itself to abstract concepts like imagination, wonder, and doubt.”
She looks at things differently and tries to help others do the same.
She is also an inventor. Woolpert invented the TwinScope Viewer, a hand-held device used to see stereograph images in public exhibits. Stereographs are side-by-side pairings of two slightly different photographs or images to provide a three-dimensional experience. Extremely popular from 1850 to 1930, they were used to capture lots of scenes from long ago. Woolpert has used the TwinScope Viewer to exhibit her own contemporary stereographs.
(The View-Master, sold primarily as a toy since 1939, may be the most familiar stereoscopic viewer known to most people.)
Woolpert’s TwinScope Viewer, paired with wall mountings for stereographs in frames or display cases,
has been used in exhibitions of Woolpert’s work as well as in interactive exhibits by others in libraries, archives, and museums in the United States, and abroad, including the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the Stiftelsen Lillehammer Museum in Norway.
TwinScope Viewer, an exhibition stereoscope.
She makes each viewer by hand using laser-cut hardwoods, glass optics, and pressure-cast rubber (for the binocular-like eyecups).
"In high school, I wanted to study photography and film-making," says Woolpert, who was fascinated by a Mutoscope she saw at age eight while visiting San Francisco. It was a popular arcade feature that was typically the size of a stand-alone ATM machine. A precursor to animated motion pictures, it allowed the user to peer into the binocular-like opening in the machine and turn a hand crank to make a long series of photos flip on a spindle and create the illusion of motion.
Her artistic interest has always been tied to understanding the differences in how people perceive things. And that rises from life with her twin sister, Rani, who has monocular vision.
“My sister could not see in 3-D,” Woolpert explains.
After watching a 3-D version of “Return of The Creature from the Black Lagoon” on television, Woolpert realized, “She can’t see what I see.”
When the creature lunged forward and his hand appeared to reach into the audience, Woolpert says, “I was like. ‘Did you see it? Did you see it?’ And she was like, ‘See what?’”
When her twin sister Rani visited from Chicago in 2021, she used Colleen Woolpert’s SLIM TwinScope Viewer (vision therapy for her).
Rani (Woolpert) Young has strabismus, a disorder in which the eyes don’t look in exactly the same direction at the same time. But despite her visual impairment – or because it causes her to see things differently -- Rani has always been a gifted painter and artist.
She is a graphic designer and motion graphics artist who now lives and teaches in Chicago, where she creates “narrative, figurative oil paintings.”
“We’re like a stereograph,” Colleen says.
They are two people who look almost the same but are “like a shifted view of the same thing,” Woolpert says.
“We were really close growing up and she was always the dominant twin,” Colleen says of Rani, from whom she would take all her cues. “Even when I shopped for clothes, I would ask her, ‘Which one do I like?’” Colleen says with a laugh.
In 2000 on the lawn below Colleen Wolpert’s Stuart Avenue apartment.
Woolpert’s work “Red Twin Blue Twin” combines stereograph portraits she made of her and her sister in 2010 and ultimately allows them to be seen as one person rather than the Blue Twin and the Red Twin. Colleen wore blue as a child to be distinguished from Rani, who wore red.
In 2000, Woolpert discovered and fell in love with stereographic images when she found a stereograph viewer at the Kalamazoo Antiques Market. It brought life to images from the past she says. Since then she has learned that although stereograph images are created in pairs, many have been shown as singular images because a viewer for public exhibits is not always available.
With a stereoscope, Woolpert says in 2000 her sister was able to see in-depth for the first time, but only for a very short while. Rani’s depth perception has improved with years of vision therapy but that changed her artistic perception and caused her to stop painting for a time.
Woolpert and her sister were born at Eglin Air Force Base in Ft. Walton Beach, Fla., as their father served in the military. After their parents divorced, they relocated, grew up in the Grand Rapids area, and graduated from Caledonia High School. Colleen spent her junior year just north of Boston (in Bedford, Mass.) in order to spend time with her father. But she says she was also looking to move out of the shadow of her sister, who was very outgoing and already winning awards for her oil paintings.
The separation helped Colleen to become more self-determined and has ultimately helped to make the sisters closer. “Essentially I got to know who I was,” Woolpert says.
Woolpert now revels in learning that she and Rani are identical twins, although they were believed to be fraternal twins for most of their lives. (Colleen is taller and friends can tell them apart, she says.) Doctors said they developed in different placentas, which is usually the hallmark of fraternal twins. But Woolpert says she learned that about one-third of identical twins result from two-placenta births, and a genetic test determined that they are identical.
Woolpert has had a penchant for trying to understand sight and perception. As a freshman at WMU, she worked for the Michigan Commission for the Blind as a textbook reader for students with visual impairments.
“I worked with a few students who lived in the campus apartments and read their assignments,” she says. “At one point a student told me he had to watch a video and asked if I'd pull up a chair next to him and describe what was happening. Turns out I was doing audio description way back then. I later trained to be an audio describer for theater.”
In 2012 and 2013, she was a volunteer facilitator at a tactile art class for visually impaired people in Seattle. And after returning to Kalamazoo, she worked for the Kalamazoo Civic Theater as an audio describer
during its 2019-2020 season. She has included concepts she gleaned from blind friends in her artwork.
“I just have a wide-open idea that vision is different for all of us,” she says.
“Virus Romance” is a series of stenographs that try to capture the strange atmosphere of the COVID-19 pandemic by presenting flowers that died, marking the end of a fast-moving romantic relationship. “Time was abstract,” Woolpert wrote. “Two months felt like a marriage. … When they (the poppies) died at the end of the week, I packed my bags and went home.”
She says she returned to Michigan in 2016 because it’s close to family and friends. And because it’s a place that can accommodate her creative and inventive nature.
“I love the historic Stuart Neighborhoods because it recalls the mid- and late-1800s, the era that birthed photography and motion pictures,” she says, “which is so inspiring to me.”
She also says, “While in Kalamazoo the first time, my fave neighborhood was Stuart, (although I'd also lived in the Vine) because of the historic homes. I had three apartments in Stuart. The last one was from 2000 to 2001, in the same house I live in now.”
After answering an advertisement by a woman looking for a roommate, she ironically found herself living in the same Stuart Avenue apartment house she called when she first discovered stereoscopes in 2000 and 2001.
“Knowing I loved the Stuart Neighborhood, I answered a roommate-wanted ad with no address or photos, but just: ‘Seeking female roommate for Stuart Neighborhood,’” Woolpert says. “When the woman gave me the address, I realized it was the house I'd lived in before and I'd be directly below my old apartment.”
Woolpert was also surprised to see that after 13 years, the place still had the same letter carrier. He held a couple of her packages when they began to arrive in 2016, she says, because he remembered her name from years ago and thought they were parcels that needed to be forwarded.
Woolpert says her decision to relocate from Syracuse, N.Y., back to West Michigan involved some consideration. She says both of her parents had remarried and lived in the Grand Rapids area, Rani was living in Chicago, and they have extended family in Grand Rapids.
“I couldn't choose between Grand Rapids or Chicago,” she says, “and suddenly Kalamazoo made perfect sense because it was within reach of all my family, is a great community to be an artist, is also midway between the major cities of Chicago and Detroit, and I still had friends here.”
In Syracuse, she had earned a master’s degree in fine arts during the previous two years and operated an art studio in a complex not unlike Kalamazoo’s Park Trades Center.
She says Kalamazoo also “drew me back conceptually since it was the place where I first learned photography, discovered stereoscopes, and worked with blind adults. I delved more deeply into these interests in other cities (stereoscopes in Syracuse and blindness in Seattle) and was curious to see how everything might coalesce if I moved back to Kalamazoo.”
She says she has attended several events of the Stuart Avenue Restoration Association and she likes knowing her neighbors.
“I love walking past the historic homes in Stuart, through Mountain Home Cemetery, and around Kalamazoo College,” she says. “I can also easily walk to my current job as a contract art preparator at the KIA, a position I love because I’m surrounded by art.”