The great artist Louise Bourgeois once said, “An artist can show things that other people are terrified of expressing.” This one line serves as my strongest motivation in my artwork. As an artist, I have the ability to raise uncomfortable and fearful topics that others shy away from. With this opportunity comes a responsibility—a responsibility to talk about the uncomfortable things that I believe need to be said. My artwork examines fear and the internal struggle that is created when people experience a traumatic event. A traumatic event can have a wide variety of causes: being a victim or witness of sexual assault or other violent acts, suffering from a chronic illness, getting trapped in a fire, and so forth. A traumatic event isn’t about what caused the trauma, but about a person’s perceived vulnerability or endangerment; what those who share this experience have in common are the emotions that come afterwards. These resulting emotions are the focus of my artwork—the uncomfortable topic of conversation that needs to be exposed.
Displaying a psychological mindset, knowing the particulars of how the mind reacts to different stimuli, is a critical task to undertake. Understanding how trauma effects the psyche, along with the subsequent emotions and coping mechanisms, is key in the creation of this work. It takes a multifaceted understanding—scientifically, personally, objectively, and hearing others’ stories—in order to visually describe these realities in an accurate way. My work embodies the psychological mindset that a person inhabits and the internal struggle that arises after a trauma. This mindset often includes feelings of darkness, loneliness, and vulnerability. I use a combination of hard and soft materials: a vulnerable exterior covering and stretching over a hard, disfigured internal form. The size of the installation’s elements ranges from small enough to fit in your hand to just larger than human-sized. My work consists of knitted yarn pulled and shaped by the biomorphic welded metal forms it protects. This process results in a soft and vulnerable covering holding together an internal struggling figure, permitting a viewer to observe this encounter in varying opacities. The sculptures work both individually and together as a group, displaying their differences in scale, opacity, and color, while sharing the same materials and presenting tears and openings as a metaphor for wounds. Each sculpture is an individual, yet these individuals make a community.
I am greatly motivated by visual artists who have come before me and who have approached themes similar to those that inspire my work. Louise Bourgeois, who is easily my biggest influence, not only inspires me as an exemplar of what an artist should be and do, but also by the work that she created. Throughout her life and career, Bourgeois drew from her memories of traumatic childhood events to reveal the pain she experienced due to those experiences. In an interview with Susi Bloch, Bourgeois noted that the creation of her work wasn’t about the physicality of the art itself as much as its meaning, explaining, “I was less interested in making sculpture at the time than in recreating indispensable past” (Bloch, 373). Bourgeois is a master of using raw emotions to create visual art that explores these feelings in sculptures and installations that investigate a psychological state. Critics speak of Bourgeois’ works, saying, “Her three-dimensional re-creation of these haunted places is less specifically about her own life and more generally addressed to the experience of physical isolation or solitude” (Storr, Bourgeois, Herkenhoff, and Schwartzman, 82). I look at Bourgeois’ mastery of a task that I take on myself, the job of putting into a visual language the emotions that follow trauma. The ways in which she successfully mastered this task have helped me learn how to speak employing a similar visual language.
A crucial aspect of Bourgeois’ success that Storr speaks to, as quoted above, is her ability to take her personal and specific pain and use it to address a more universal experience. As I began working with the themes of trauma and pain, I started with a narrowed and specific focus, making my work about my own experience with chronic illness. As my work evolved and I learned from those who inspired me, such as Bourgeois, as well as those who taught and critiqued me, I was able to expand my own visual language not just to discuss that which applied to me, but to confront the general experience associated with a trauma such as living with a chronic illness. As I grew as an artist, my work broadened to encompass all types of trauma as well as how people develop emotional responses to it. For me, the psychological states people are often left in after experiencing trauma are the universal experiences that I knew I had to re-create in my artwork, just as Bourgeois did when addressing her experience of solitude.
Tim Hawkinson also greatly inspires me with the themes of his work: life, death, and the passage of time. When someone experiences a traumatic event, he or she is often left with these three themes as ongoing curiosities. One’s thoughts and philosophies on life, death, and the passage of time often change and are considered more often than before the trauma. Hawkinson works with re-imagining his body. He re-imagines how he sees himself and then makes self-portraits of these new and fictionalized bodies that were first created in his mind. I am intrigued by Hawkinson’s mastery of body representation. My works also represent bodies, manipulated and re-formed by the emotions they experience. Seeing how Hawkinson successfully represents the warped body helps guide me in my own creation of figurative-like forms. Similar to Hawkinson’s, my pieces are not literal or realistic iterations of people, but fictionalized bodies. Each individual form is created with its own personality, its own coping mechanisms, and its own experience. The forms are fabricated in a similar process, each piece created organically in the moment rather than meticulously planned out, becoming the product of how it naturally forms as the metal is welded together and as the stretching of the knitted material adjusts its shape. Each object is a re-imagination of an individual who has suffered a trauma. Each stands alone, yet they also stand together, although they do not directly interact with one another.
In addition to being inspired and influenced by specific artists, I am deeply inspired by the surrealism movement in art, which is understood to reflect a psycho-spatial dimension. Working closely from the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud, artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Gorgio de Chirico bring psychology and dream theory into their artwork. As someone who is heavily drawn to psychology, I am intrigued by the way in which Freud’s worked influenced these great artists. By pinpointing how the Surrealists’ art was impacted by their study of psychology, I work to bring similar success to the projection of psychological themes into my artwork. The surrealist artists allowed Sigmund Freud and his theories on dream space to influence their work without directly speaking about these topics of psychology that intrigued them. The general awareness and understanding of Freud’s theories allowed the artists to confront these topics without referring to them in a literal and obvious manner. This subtlety is one that I strive for in my work.
In addition to artists who explore surreal and psychological themes, I am also greatly drawn by the work of artists who explore form and materials. For instance, Martin Puryear challenges the boundaries of materiality, pushing to see just how far they can go. In my work, I explore morphing materials, using the interior structures to push the boundaries of the exterior. Observing Puryear’s mastery of material manipulation encourages me to explore the limitations of my material in various ways, creating additional tensions that I otherwise might not have been able to realize. In the creation of this series, I challenged many boundaries—the boundaries of scale, of color, and of material flexibility and stability. For each of these parameters and more, I push until I can see if I have gone too far in order to find out just how far I can and should go to make the work successful.
A master of biomorphic form, Lynda Benglis is another great influence on my work. Although the concepts in our work differ, Benglis also uses biomorphic, or organic, shapes to engage with the viewer. Benglis has mastered the art of manipulating form to extract an emotional response from the viewer, an endeavor that I embrace in my work as well. Extracting an emotional response from a viewer is a task that many artists undertake. I choose color and size to reveal personality as just one part of eliciting an emotional response from viewers. However, what I have learned from Benglis is demonstrated in my work in the way I use weight, tension, or lack thereof, as well as movement in the forms of individual pieces. For instance, in one piece this may mean suggesting a feeling of defeat; the internal weight leaving a limp skin lying on the floor. In another piece, this may mean alluding to a sense of determination, showing movement flowing upwards despite holes that imply internal pain caused in the past.
Psychology has always been my first love, and therefore a huge part of who I am as an artist. Several specific scholars who specialize in trauma have had a particular impact on my art as I confront the importance of the emotions caused by experiencing a traumatic event. Jean Laplanche is a scholar of Sigmund Freud’s work and psychoanalytic theory. Laplanche studied Freud’s theories and comprehensively defined trauma as “an event in the subject’s life, defined not by its intensity, but the subject’s incapacity to respond adequately to it and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the psychological organization” (Laplanche and Pontalis). People often associate trauma with the objective severity of an event, when in fact it is more about the severity of the perception of the person experiencing it. Dr. Sandra C. Paivio, author of the books “Emotion-Focused Therapy for Complex Trauma” and “Working with Emotions in Psychotherapy,” is a scholar of emotions and emotional responses that are caused by trauma. By studying her work, I am able to further understand how these emotions are discussed in a verbal language. This deeper understanding allows me to be able to discuss these emotions more successfully in a visual language.
Dr. Eve B. Carlson and Dr. Johnathan R. Davidson are both scholars of assessment of trauma exposure. Carlson, the creator of an assessment of trauma exposure and responses, and Davidson, the creator of the widely used Davidson Trauma Scale (DTS), are experts on how the reactions of people who have experienced trauma can predict how strongly they perceived the trauma. Studying their work furthers my understanding of the pain a trauma can cause as well as the accompanying emotional reactions such as isolation, loneliness, and confusion that my artwork articulates.
My work initially stems from my own personal experience, most significantly living with debilitating health issues. As someone who suffers from multiple immune system disorders, illnesses that are very difficult to track and diagnose, I have experienced great trauma from living with erratic health concerns. Due to the unpredictability and harsh symptoms of these illnesses at the moments when they are least managed, I’ve been left with feeling a lack of control of my own body and in my own life. As I began creating artwork that spoke to these concerns, they were specific to the cause of my personal trauma: the illness. As my work grew and matured, its focus became less about the specific trauma I had experienced and more about the common emotional responses that all those who experience trauma of any type suffer from. I interviewed those who had experienced a variety of traumatic experiences as well as those who come from a variety of backgrounds, and what I found corroborated what my psychology research had revealed: the base emotions caused by experiencing a trauma, no matter what the traumatic event itself may be, are all the same. My exploration of these themes went from being focused on myself to being universal as a topic of conversation that is important for all people to talk about. As stated at the beginning of this paper, Louise Bourgeois has noted that artists have the ability to reveal emotions and psychological states that others are scared to discuss. I believe, as artists, we therefore have a responsibility to discuss these topics that people keep buried. The pain that results from experiencing trauma is a pain that many people have felt, to varying degrees, yet people refuse to talk about it. It is my responsibility as an artist to show it and discuss it purely because of the fact that it is so often ignored.
As described earlier, my combinations of soft exteriors stretched or wrapped around harder internal bodies serve as a metaphor for a soft and vulnerable casing attempting to hold together the hard and troubled structure inside. The tension of the external layer displays the strain experienced by someone who suffers from these emotions and is expected to simply go on without help, ignoring or sublimating the pain. The biomorphic shapes used in the interiors of my pieces depict the internal battle of the person who has experienced trauma. I employ chaotic or sharp structures made from metal and wood as metaphors for the acute anxiety inside the body of each individual. Lighting surrounding the work allows for varying degrees of perception; as people, we are never able to clearly see the struggle inside another individual. For some pieces, the lighting allows the viewer to see the harsh interior structure only from certain angles; other angles only allow a view of the soft external structure hiding the true struggle inside. In other pieces, the only amount of pain the viewers are able to see is the extreme tension caused by the sharp internal structure pulling the skin in different directions. Yet in still others, there is an honest transparency, allowing the viewers to realize both the external tension and internal struggle from all angles. Some people who experience these pains, just like these pieces, allow others in, while others hide all of their internal struggling from the outside world. For most, it depends on where the people in the outside world are standing.
My thesis exhibition is both an installation and a series of individual pieces that viewers can walk through. Each individual piece has a story, a personality, its unique coping mechanisms. Some pieces are rather small, reflecting my attempt to explicate feelings of limited self-worth. Some explore the feeling of defeat, while others demonstrate movement and a persistence to stand strong. Although so many emotions people are left with after experiencing a trauma are the same, there are also ways in which they differ. Coping mechanisms, continuation of self-perception and self-worth, and the degree to which certain emotions take precedence over others all differ, depending on the individual. As mentioned before, each individual brings his or her own experience and subtleties. As you look at a large piece that stands firm on the ground, you may be able to see more holes or a more transparent and overstretched skin, allowing the viewer to examine the internal struggle. You may look at a medium-sized piece, clinging to the wall, brightly colored, insisting on a positive view moving forward. That piece may sit not far from another, duller in color, that appears to be hanging by a thread and serving as a metaphor for a more pessimistic outlook on how its life continues. These individual pieces work together to display strength in both their similarities and their differences in the eye of the viewer. They are close together and share many of the same pains, yet they do not touch.
Following in the footsteps of great and influential artists that came before me, I use art as a visual language, employing form, tension, transparency, and weight to have a conversation with the viewer about emotion. Combining my own personal experience with what I have learned from others’ experiences and psychological studies, I have sought to find a new way, a visual way, of talking about the emotions and psychological tension associated with trauma. As stated earlier, the individual pieces in this show, as well as the collective, reveal shared feelings of pain, isolation, burden, and vulnerability. Their placement, scale and lighting within the installation allow the viewer to see the extent of these emotions, each to varying degrees. The hard structure and chaotic interior of the pieces, along with added weight, display the difficulty of the internal struggle. The soft, stressed exterior shows the vulnerable and thin layer protecting oneself from the outside world. It is an attempt to hide and conceal one’s internal pain from those surrounding them. Each sculpture’s relative opacity or transparency represents a greater or lesser desire to keep others out or allow a glimpse of the inside. As described earlier, some allow for a greater transparency only from certain angles, representing that individual’s desire to open up only to certain people at certain times. The exterior is stressed, forming holes in areas where the tension was too great. Each piece of work is a body, a soul that has been pulled into a horrible experience and spit out on the other side. All individuals have their own struggle, their own pain, their own reason. Yet at the same time, these individuals are a community. They may or may not realize that they are surrounded by other individuals struggling with shared feelings and emotions, emotions that so many are experiencing, but few are talking about with one another. My intention is to reveal to my viewers the pain of others, and in turn, also allow viewers to recognize their own pain, thereby eliminating the isolation and marginalization of the suffering, allowing the experience to be openly discussed, shared, and thereby alleviated.
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