(Trigger warning: this article discusses the representation of depression in photography and descriptions of a photograph that might cause unease.)
From May 22 to Aug. 14 this year, Chapel Hill-based photography artist Heather Evans Smith’s series “Blue” will be exhibited in Cassilhaus. Located between Chapel Hill and Durham, Cassilhaus is simultaneously a Bauhaus-style architecture and an art project. Cassilhaus takes its name from Ellen Cassilly and her husband Frank Konhaus who brought this project to life. With a primary focus on photography, it runs both exhibitions and an artist-in-residency program throughout the year. Guests are required to RSVP for events of interest to them or contact Cassilhaus via emails provided under each exhibition page for private viewing requests.
Blue is symbolic of melancholy and sadness. Inspired by her depression developed around the time of her father’s passing, Smith intentionally used the recurring blue tone while she tried to place her emotional journey through depression and how it “affects those around [her],”,as she wrote on her personal website. She drew on her personal experience and interweaved her imagination as she created these photo-based artworks. On the exhibition’s website, Konhaus pointed out its “beauty'' and “vulnerability,” drawing a parallel between the photo series to Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue”: “With her ‘Blue’ photo series, [like Joni Mitchell], Heather Evans Smith hasn’t left much off the table either.”
The pieces in “Blue” can be seen as either depression in motion or depression’s aftermath. For instance, “Paint It Blue” is a metaphor for depression in motion. A woman is stepping into the murk between blue foliage, with her left hand as the only part of her body not tainted by darkness. Perhaps only someone who has undergone depression can illustrate the desire to escape and the uncertainty and withdrawal associated with depression so vividly. Leaves in the photo, which nearly enshroud the woman, were spray-painted blue by Smith, hence “paint” in the title. “Until There Is Little Left” is a somewhat violent image of depression in action, representing a destructive urge to rid of things that are typically considered beautiful, precious – until there is little left to cherish. According to Smith, the butterflies in the photo were specimens that completed their full life span. A photo reflecting a less intentional aspect of change brought by depression is “Rewind.” In this piece, viewers can see a woman with a blue cassette player in front of her eyes. In fact, the round spinners on the player are positioned in place of the woman’s eyes. Meanwhile, her hands hold onto part of the cassette tapes. “Memory is a funny thing. I don’t think we ever remember things exactly how they were,” wrote Smith under her Instagram post of this work. This work speaks to how memories are intrinsically subjective and filtered, implying that depression can lead people to filter out the good memories and only rewind the bad ones.
“Soak” can be interpreted as an echo of the destructive act shown in “Until There Is Little Left.” Broken pieces of fine porcelain lie in a blue sink and a hand reaches into the shards. Whether the hand is attempting to salvage the broken pieces after obviously intentional destruction – there are simply too many broken pieces for it to be an accident – or trying to worsen the damage already done, is up to the viewer to decide. What illustrates the concept of vulnerability the most in this series, is probably “Veneer.” Veneer is a thin decorative piece of fine wood. Delicateness is apparent in this word, posing additional nuance onto the already emotion-laden image. Beneath the thin layer of the miniature horse sculpture buries a heap of blue pills, most likely antidepressants. Once the outer layer is cracked, the seeming grace and invincibility recede to a sense of vulnerability betrayed by scattered pills all over the ground.
Smith confronts and records her loss with a respectable candor. She does not water down the sadness, obsoleteness and emptiness that are inevitably associated with depression. Rather, her series invites viewers to experience this sense of blue both in color and mentality. Photos can often convey sounds. In the case of “Blue,” it conveys mostly tranquility, which emboldens an immersive aesthetic without losing realistic depictions of depression.
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