Filmmaker and Honored Photo Collagist Francesca Danieli, 52

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006

Francesca Danieli, 52, a late-blooming artist whose collages were described as "disturbing and seductive" and whose video and photographic projects challenged contemporary political rhetoric and mortality, died of breast cancer June 27 at the Gilchrist hospice of Baltimore.

A nationally honored photo collagist, Ms. Danieli was more widely known for a film she made with Julia Kim Smith called "One Nice Thing." The first-time filmmakers asked people at the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 2004 to say a single nice thing about the opposing political party -- and really mean it.

"It's a very small gesture, a small thing. But maybe if everybody did small things, the situation would change. We're not expecting to end the political rancor, but we just wanted to do something," she told the Baltimore Sun in 2005.

Their video became a 9 1/2 -minute film, a romp in which political operatives struggle to find the humanity in the opposition and in themselves.

"What results is not so much a list of what's right about politicians and politics as it is an illustration of what's wrong with us, a meditation on why we personally can't find common ground with our political opponents, a laserlike focus on how political opinion attaches to each individual's identity," said a reviewer for Urbanite magazine.

The film was an official selection for the Sedona, Maryland and San Francisco film festivals in 2005.

Ms. Danieli and Smith also collaborated on a photographic show called "10," in which they documented the feelings of breast cancer patients facing their mortality.

"We just finished the film, and she was diagnosed with cancer," said Smith, who described Ms. Danieli as witty and driven, with a can-do attitude. "She said she had to do something with breast cancer, so we came up with the idea of a list of 10 things to quantify the fears [of women with breast cancer] and empowered them by giving them cameras."

Ms. Danieli actually had lymphoma in 1984, but radiation treatments temporarily conquered the disease, said her husband, Gary Gensler. Her breast cancer was diagnosed years later. "She didn't flinch in the face of her own mortality and her own disease," he said. "In a world where people speak in euphemisms, she spoke clearly."

As an artist working on photo collages, Ms. Danieli created a series of striking pieces that showed diseased body parts trapped within opulent furniture. They are "extremely tough images. It's so beautiful formally, a combination of horrific imagery and formal beauty that just ignites," said Joe Mills, who taught Ms. Danieli at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. "You can't look at it, and you can't stop looking at it."

He met her when she enrolled in his class about 1997, "a very beautiful woman, very wealthy and for the first two weeks a bit lost artistically," he said. "Then, she brought in the first of about 110 collages that were visually the most stunning work I've ever seen."

Mills called the collection a "historically important body of work. This is from a woman who had never had a gallery show, never sold a print. This is not your average road as an artist. There was a special something growing inside of her because of the cancer, and an expression came out of her ferociously before she died. The purity of the work . . . just came out like a bird."

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