The Roots of Isolation
The piece "Isolation" originated from a fairly simple idea but ended up proving surprisingly difficult, on both a technical and personal level. It happens to be a difficult one to write about for the same reasons. There are some pieces I create that come out of what I think of as a general collective experience; these tend to be the ones that focus on feminist or socioeconomic subjects. I may have had a personal experience that triggered a particular piece but they're equally based in theories, stories, others' experiences, or independent research I've done on a topic that deeply appeals to me. An example is my involvement with poverty which has ranged from a personal familiarity with it at different times in my life, to involvement with others who are immersed in it, to listening or reading stories from others who live it. Making a piece that explores poverty then has some basis in my own experiences but also arises from my outward observation of the topic.
There is another type of artwork I create however, which comes almost fully from a deeply personal root - the uniquely singular, individual experience. The most challenging aspect of creating this kind of piece is how to take this basis beyond a form of therapy, where though it may be useful to my own psyche to create, it has little to no meaning for any viewer of the work. It is also much more difficult to see the work (finished or in progress) objectively or from an outside perspective when working with a subject that is so deeply intertwined with who I am or a particular life experience. Oddly enough, I'm finding out as I'm writing this blog post, the same standards and difficulties apply while writing about this kind of piece.
The work "Isolation" has it's root in my on-again-off-again relationship with depression. Having struggled with "the blues" since I was a teenager though, I resisted for years doing a piece of art about it. It's too close to therapy art, which is a very useful form of therapy but not a form of art that I'm personally interested in exploring; it's too easy to fall into a self-serving or pitying form of work; and if I'm truly honest, the art world is so fully saturated with artists' work about their struggles with mental illness, I never believed I could contribute in a way that is meaningful but isn't repetitive. The biggest challenge of this piece then was to take my unique, very personal experience, which I rarely speak about to those closest to me, and not only look at it from a more universal perspective but to also embrace my own intimate knowledge of this subject.
I began with looking at old journals, notebooks, scraps of paper that never seemed to be thrown away where I tried to write out myself out of depressive episodes. In doing so, I found similar images kept cropping up - towers, caves, empty rooms, the gray days of snow or rain (particularly prevalent in Ohio where I've lived the majority of my life), abandoned roads or buildings or railroad tracks, and always this perpetual feeling of isolation even when surrounded by others. In fact, being around others often made the isolation feeling worse as I felt like I was attempting to communicate while underwater, or behind a pane of glass, or obscured by a fog. It was the image of being in a fog behind glass combined with the feeling of loneliness from being the only one on the top of a mountain (inspired by a lyric from a musician friend), that formed the basis for "Isolation."
As the images I wanted to use began to crystallize, I created the towers first from images of ice caves and glaciers in Antarctica and Alaska. The images in each of the towers represented a different form that isolation itself can take - the girl alone in a dark forest, an empty chair in an empty room, a lone man on abandoned railroad tracks leading to a desolate building (this particular image is of the concentration camp, Auschwitz and a man mourning his family who had been murdered there during WWII). The bleak coldness of the icy towers led to the idea of a snow globe, a beautiful trinket that has no access from the outside world to its interior which is always obscured by both glass and the continually floating fake snow. I made the paper for the snow globe by hand, purposefully keeping it as fragile and textually inconsistent as possible, defining the boundary of the globe by its uneven snowfall rather than a perfectly shaped glass. The base of the globe is formed from images of desert and rock, as sharp as the snow is soft, but as isolating in its severe emptiness as the top or inner caverns of a mountain. The mottled blue and gray background is made from handmade paper found at a paper shop in Tijuana and continues the peaks and valleys of mountain ranges while keeping the overall color scheme dreary and discordant. The subtle, almost hidden, images of the girl fallen at the base of the towers and the skull head peeking from the top of the tallest tower warn of the dangers of continuous, extreme isolation.
One of the unforeseen challenges of this work that ultimately defined what it became was the sheer size of it. I hadn't yet attempted any piece larger than roughly 2 feet by 1 feet, and based on the subject of "Isolation" I was determined at first to keep it as small as possible. After all, what are some of the predominate feelings of depression and isolation? Smallness, inadequacy, invisibility. To make a piece about these essential emotions that was bigger than at most 1 square foot, seemed to defeat the purpose of it, and this pre-determination prevented me from even beginning this work despite not being able to think of starting any other piece. It sounds lovely to say I come at all art with an open mind and let the piece create itself from the beginning, but it's much more common that I have to force myself to let go of any expectations I may have had at the onset for the work. In the end, that wrenching away of expectations is what allowed me to create one tower, then the next, then the next, then the snow globe, until there wasn't any other possibility of size other than what it became, and also what enabled me to create from the original root of my own experiences with depression but not to get so lost in my personal story that it felt like a form of therapy.
A final note on the title - although this piece grew out of my desire to create something based on depression, in the end I chose a title that focused on a symptom rather than the underlying disease itself. Isolation is a near universal experience; I believe there are very few people who have never experienced it in at least some sense at some point in their lives. It has a connotation that can vary from person to person depending on their own life experiences. The word "depression," on the other hand often travels with a stigma attached and for many people, a very specific history - either their own or someone they have experience with. This continually fluctuating stigma is particularly prevalent when we think of artists and mental illness, whereby it is all too easy to group these artists and their work into one label or category and not look at them as individually as we might otherwise. With the title, "Isolation," I am hoping to bypass the specificity which can arise from the word "depression" so the viewer is able to regard it through a slightly more general, and hopefully more universal lens.