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A Cry From The Darkness

A self portrait that belongs to my Eternal Storm series, which explores depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. A Cry From The Darkness © Sarah Allegra – a self portrait – detail

Wow, it feels like FOREVER since I finished my last piece!  This year has not been conducive to creating art.  I’ve done my best despite the circumstances which kept popping up (moving, medications, long ME flares, devoting a ton of time to the gallery show, stress from my recent battle among other things) but it’s felt like a very dry year creatively.  All I can do is my best though, and even when the ME really cramps my style, I still manage to get pieces finished… just much more slowly than I would like.

It was in this depressed feeling of “I haven’t created anything in the longest time imaginable” that today’s image was born.  When my regular creative outlets are blocked to me (by, say, solid weeks of migraines as I adjust to each new medication dosage), I become despondent and depressed.  Life slowly loses its flavor and color and if I’m not careful, I’ll sink into a pit of despair just like Artax in The Neverending Story.  Luckily, I have Geoff and my friends and family around to cheer me on and make sure I never sink too low, but much of it is outside of anyone’s control.

As I mentally pictured how I felt, this was it.  A big, ugly cloud of despair, depression, worthlessness, swirling around my head.  But this time, unlike my last self portrait which explored a similar theme, I wanted to show a bit of hope at the same time.  The cloud is surrounded, penetrated and pierced by beautiful, golden rays of light.  They stream in through the darkness, weaving through its thick blackness.  The darkness cannot survive in the light.  It will be broken up and dissipate.  And while I know this will probably not be my last battle with depression, I also know that each round will eventually be over… and once again, the light will have won.  That is the hope I cling to when the clouds cover me.

I’d like to mention my friend and very talented photographer Robert Cornelius’s Dust to Dust series as it provided some inspiration in my planning out of the darkness cloud.  Thanks, Robert!  🙂  He’s an incredible photographer and all-around cool dude, so check out his work if you’re not familiar with it!

A Cry From The Darkness © Sarah Allegra - a self portrait

A Cry From The Darkness © Sarah Allegra – a self portrait

This image belongs to my Eternal Storms series on depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.  These topics are still seen as quite taboo to discuss, something I hope to help with by portraying what living with them is like openly and honestly.  Silence and shame never helped a single illness get cured.  We need to be able to speak openly about our experiences, without judgement or fear, if we’re ever going to healed from them.

A Cry From The Darkness

A Cry From The Darkness © Sarah Allegra – a self portrait – detail

A Cry From The Darkness

A Cry From The Darkness © Sarah Allegra – a self portrait – detail

 

Do you have depression?  Try being a little more honest next time a trusted friend asks how you are.  You don’t have to go into excruciating detail, but try to avoid the temptation to simply answer “fine,” unless you actually are.  And if you have friends or family who you suspect or know suffer from any kind of mental ailment?  Invite them to tell you about it, ask some questions, assuring them that talking to you is safe and you will not judge them or call them crazy.  It is crucial that you answer whatever they tell you with love.  It is incredibly hard for people to open up and talk to others about these problems, so take their trust very seriously and treat it with the gentlest and greatest respect.

A Cry From The Darkness

A Cry From The Darkness © Sarah Allegra – a self portrait – detail

A Cry From The Darkness

A Cry From The Darkness © Sarah Allegra – a self portrait – detail

As we approach Thanksgiving, let’s be thankful for the help and support we have.  For the people dedicated to helping us win our fight.  For the people who will listen to us with only love and understanding in their hearts.  The people who give us hope.  The inner strength we are able to find when we think we’ve exhausted it all.  Those extra beams of light when we need them the most.  We need more people like this in the world.  Let’s try and all be them to each other.  The simple fact that there are people in the world who try to reach this goal is something I am very thankful for!

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 This is a big piece for me, not just size-wise, but for what it represents as well.
Like A Storm © Sarah Allegra - detail

Like A Storm © Sarah Allegra – detail

I shot this self portrait a week or two ago after enduring months of worse-than-usual depression.  Some was due to outside influences, bad news, being sick and other things that any normal, healthy person would feel depressed about.  But a lot of it was that irrational, heavy, demanding, life-draining depression that is clinical depression.  This is not feeling sad about things that you should feel sad about.  This is round-the-clock, punishing joylessness, sucking the beauty out of everything, leaving all around you colorless and meaningless.  This is clinical depression.

 

I’ve battled this beast since it first started manifesting in my early teens.  It took me some time before I learned that what I was feeling was an actual condition, a potentially solvable problem, not just a bad mood that hung around for years.  I’ve also tried more remedied to it that I can recount; anti-depressants, therapy, energy work, supplements, yoga, getting more exercise (before I had ME; over-doing exercise now could do me great harm), self-help books, seminars, journaling, art therapy… on and on and on.

 

And it still clings.

 

I decided to start a series specifically addressing mental illness; clinical depression and anxiety in particular, since those are the two I fight with most.  I manage them, sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse.  Sometimes I want to just die.  I don’t know if it will ever go away completely, thus the series title Eternal Storms.

 

I identify with Eeyore from Winnie  the Pooh, with his constant dark cloud covering just him.  I’m sure that was subconsciously part of the inspiration for this piece.  When I’m going through a bout of depression, this is what it feels like to me.  A dark storm raging round my head, that only I see and feel.  It makes the idea of asking for help feel pointless; even if I break up this cloud, another will come.  And the social stigma of admitting you need help at all, let alone help with your mental health, makes it all the worse.  If I’m having a week where I have to talk myself into continuing to live each day, I can’t talk about it except for a few select, very trusted friends who have also been there, as well as my therapist.

 

I shot this self portrait as a way to work through the cloud I was under, yes, but more importantly, to directly address depression and its stigma.  Admitting you have or struggle with depression doesn’t make you weak or unworthy.  It doesn’t make you a bad person.  It doesn’t mean you’re not trying hard enough, eating right or getting enough exercise.  It just IS.  And society needs to learn to stop judging those who do manage to ask for help.

 

The alternative is that we suffer in silence with our tormentor.  And that can kill.

 

Joel Robison happened to put up an insightful blog about his own battle with depression recently, which was a happy coincidence.  I’m very glad for people like him who will stand with me and admit that yes, we have depression.  It may not make sense to you, you may not understand it, it might *gasp* make you uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean it will go away.We are no less human that you.  We did not ask for this fight.  This is not an attention-seeking behavior.  This is real, this illness is out for blood.  This is just our fight.  This matters.  And it can be won.One storm at a time.

This series is dedicated to all the others who fight this battle with me every day.  You are all so strong and so brave.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.

Like A Storm © Sarah Allegra

Like A Storm © Sarah Allegra – click on the image to see it full-sized on my site!

Like A Storm © Sarah Allegra - detail

Like A Storm © Sarah Allegra – detail

 

Like A Storm © Sarah Allegra - details

Like A Storm © Sarah Allegra – details

Like A Storm © Sarah Allegra - detail

Like A Storm © Sarah Allegra – detail

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Poor, patient Katie shot this same concept with me three times, spanning almost a solid year from the first take to the last one.  I assured her each time we reshot it that the problem was not her, because it honestly wasn’t.  This was a case of me having a very clear vision in my head of how the image should look, but not taking the time to inspect it closely enough.  Each of the other two tries at this shoot came close, but there was always something just enough wrong with it that I knew I needed to reshoot it to be truly happy with the final images.

Flora Awakens

Flora Awakens

Here they finally are!  Flora is a DreamWorld character I’ve had in my head for a long time; an obvious statement given how many times I’ve tried to capture her visually, but much longer considering all the time I spent conceptualizing her and building her elaborate costume.

Flora was a nature spirit to me, the bringer of spring, renewal and life.  I strongly pictured that wherever she walked, flowers would grow in her footsteps.  I thought this was quite original until I remembered…

When I was young, I watched (over and over and over) an animated version of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, which remains my favorite film version of the novel to this day (it’s the only version which, in my opinion, gives Aslan a truly “golden” voice as CS Lewis describes it, for one thing).  In this take on the story, when Aslan is resurrected and romps with Lucy and Susan, flowers spring up wherever he steps, leaving a trail of paw-shaped floral clusters.

Ok, so the idea wasn’t exactly mine.  But at least I realized where I’d gotten the idea before I started calling it completely my own!

I started with a beautifully embroidered corset top at a local second-hand store.  I spent a while deciding if I would keep it as part of my personal wardrobe or use it for this costume, and the costume obviously won.  I decided I had enough pretty things that I don’t wear often enough as is, and it really added a lovely depth to the costume with its subtle ornateness.  The other base piece of clothing was a lovely, fluffy aqua-colored skirt made from layers of the lightest, softest netting.  This was another thing I had to seriously debate weather to sacrifice to the costume gods, but in the end, I decided I could always buy another one for myself.

bts10

 

Over the aqua skirt, I added an airy overskirt of ivory tulle, lifting it in two spots at the front with a small spray of flowers to hold it in place.  I added a layer of tulle around the top of the bodice as well to give flowers more to hold on to and also give it a dropped shoulder.

Creating is usually a messy process.

Creating is usually a messy process.

Next step, as it so often is, was to cover it with flowers!  My handy hot glue gun proved its worth again.  I tried to pick flowers which enhanced the shape I was creating in the clothing.  The wisteria dripping down from the shoulders seemed so perfect to me!

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Once I had the front looking pretty much like how I’d pictured it, I started working on the most exciting part; the train!

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This dress’ train started at the top of the back and went all the way down to the bottom of the skirt; a very old-fashioned and somewhat unusual style of train.  Since I knew I was going to have use my flowers carefully and wisely to make them cover everything I wanted them to, I hemmed and hawed over this part a lot; pinning flowers in place, moving them around, flipping this one and that one… Eventually I just had to start gluing flowers in place and trust that I would figure it out as I went.

The finished train!

The almost-finished train!

 

After I was satisfied with the dress, I started working on the flower footprints.

Fabric feet

Fabric feet

I traced the shape of my feet onto paper and then cut four pairs of feet out of some nice dark green material I had leftover from another project.  Again, the next step was to cover with flowers!

bts3

This gave me a total of eight feet.  I would have liked to have done a few more, but I was running out of flowers, so I had to make due.

bts2

Beware of hot glue drippings.  I still have a faint scar from where this guy landed a year ago.

Beware of hot glue drippings. I still have a faint scar from where this guy landed a year ago.

Apparently I didn’t take any making-of photos of the flower pieces for Katie’s face, hair and hands, which is too bad.  For the pieces in her hair, on her eyebrows and ears, I cut rough shapes from a thin sheet of plastic; I knew the glue would melt the plastic where it came in direct contact, but it would provide just enough of a frame to make my life easier.  They were very free-form creations, which I put together on my foam head to make sure the proportions were at least somewhat reasonable.  I had planned on cutting them slightly to fit Katie’s face when the shooting day came, but they ended up fitting her beautifully!  The pieces in her hair were held on with bobby pins and the ones of her face stayed on with a little help from garment tape.

bts cute

Katie being adorable and showing off her new prosthetics.

Her “hand flowers,” as I was calling them, were meant to show life just springing off her, literally dripping from her fingers.  These were only constructed the day before the third shoot, and I loved what they added to the images, so perhaps it’s lucky that the first two takes didn’t turn out 🙂  These were very, very easy to make.  I tied a loop of clear, stretchy cord to slide over Katie’s palms.  From each of these loops I tied three lengths of monofilament thread and randomly glued little petals and blossoms to them so it looked like they were falling.

bts hand flowers

At this point Katie and I shot the concept… then we reshot it… and then we finally shot it for a third time, which was the one that stuck.  It goes to show, if something doesn’t go right the first time, just try and use it as a learning experience!  With Katie, we always have a fun time, no matter what we shoot, so when concepts aren’t perfect right away, I haven’t wasted anything.  I had a good time with my friend, and I hopefully learned something about how I don’t want my final image to look!

With that said, allow me to show you the finished trio of images, with detail shots beneath each of them!

Spring's Awakening - detail

Spring’s Awakening – detail

Spring's Awakening - detail

Spring’s Awakening – detail

Spring's Awakening - detail

Spring’s Awakening – detail

Spring's Awakening - detail

Spring’s Awakening – detail

 

Spring's Awakening - detail

Spring’s Awakening – detail

Spring's Awakening - detail

Spring’s Awakening – detail

 

Joy Of Renewal

Joy Of Renewal

Joy Of Renewal - detail

Joy Of Renewal – detail

Joy Of Renewal - detail

Joy Of Renewal – detail

 

Life Eternal

Life Eternal

Life Eternal - detail

Life Eternal – detail

Life Eternal - detail

Life Eternal – detail

 

And here’s a few more detail shots to cover all my bases!

Flora shoot details

Flora shoot details

Flora shoot details

Flora shoot details

Flora shoot details

Flora shoot details

Flora shoot details

Flora shoot details

Flora Shoot detail

Flora Shoot detail

 

If you have a favorite of the three, I’d love to hear your opinion!

 

Lastly, before I go, I’d like to mention the lovely interview I did with the well-respected photography site PhotoFocus!  I was very honored to be their Photographer Of The Week 🙂

Read the interview HERE!

PhotoFocus

Thank you, PhotoFocus!!  And thank you to all my readers and supporters!  And an extra big, special thank you to Katie Johnson for being so patient and willing to keep redoing this one concept with me and knocking it out of the park every time!

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To give credit where it’s due, I have to say that I originally got the idea to shoot my grandmother for DreamWorld from Ashley Lebedev’s beautiful portrait of her grandmother.  It immediately struck a chord with me, and I began brainstorming concepts for my grandmother right away.

My Gramma is a really cool lady. She’s led a fascinating life and has been a inspiration to me of being a strong, spiritual, independent, loving woman. She taught kindergarten for 30+ years (and is endlessly patient and cheerful, as you would expect), is well read and recently got her first Iphone. I have such fond memories growing up with her, and I am so glad to have her in my life! I wanted this photo to celebrate her, and all that she is to me… or at least all that I can cram into one photo 🙂

My grandfather tragically died quite suddenly of a heart attack when I was 17. He was the love of her life… and really, the love of everyone who he came into contact with. He was a truly remarkable man, and I will tell you more about him one day when I finally get the photo honoring his memory shot in a way that I’m satisfied with. But for now we can say that he was extraordinary, and everyone was shaken by his loss, most of all my grandmother. I can only imagine how incredibly difficult and painful that must have been.

But Gramma handled it with such grace and strength, I was deeply impressed, even at my young age. She delivered a celebratory and wonderful eulogy at his memorial which left everyone smiling through their tears. And since then, though we all miss him greatly, his memory has been kept alive in a spirit of appreciation and love.

After my grandfather’s death, Gramma became even more involved with her church and eventually became a deaconess! For many years she helped lead a support group for those who had lost loved ones, something she could draw on her own experiences of her path to healing and let others know that it was possible to get through, no matter how dark it looked at the time.

So when I sat down to figure out what I wanted her photo to be like, I tried to distill Gramma’s essence into a single image. I saw her as a gentle leader, always leading by example, indescribably warm and accepting, looking for the best in people, and of course someone who is quite spiritual as well. It seemed like a shepherdess would be the best way to portray all of these qualities. I especially wanted to play up her radiating light in a world that is often dark, so I began to think of ways I could show that as well. A crown of light, I eventually decided, would be just perfect.

So, now to build a crown of light. After Googling a lot, I discovered electroluminescent (EL) wire! It’s wire that comes in a wide range of sizes and colors and every bit of it glows. It’s not just a string of LEDs in a plastic tube, this stuff actually produces solid light all on its own with a handy little battery pack. Perfect! I ordered some and eagerly waited for it to arrive.

DSC_0487

I wanted to give it a little bit of an art nouveau flavor, since that’s one of my favorite visual styles.  I started building a light wire frame, enforcing it as I went.

DSC_0488

After I had the frame fairly sturdy, I started adding in nouveau-like swirls with the EL wire.  You can see one of my Mucha books under the crown for inspiration as I went along.

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Ok!  It was a little rough, but the general shape was there and it definitely glowed!

DSC_0495

At that point I strung along some very small, light, and also battery-powered LEDs, which I would encase in a small flower.  You can see one here covered with a flower while the rest are bare.

IMG_20130710_230331

The finished crown!  I knew I’d be doing some adjusting of it once I actually saw it on Gramma’s head, so I didn’t worry about making it 100% perfect right then, but the bones were all laid.  Now there was the problem of finding a lamb….

IMG_20130710_233542

Google again came to my rescue by connecting me with Terry from Task Farms.  Terry is just a sweetheart of a man.  He runs the farm just out of the pure pleasure of it and has lots of sheep and goats.  None of the animals end up on anyone’s dinner plate, which made it an even more perfect place to shoot!  I ended up getting several photos taken that day, but you’ll hear more about the farm in detail when I get the rest of the images worked up.  As it happened, he had an adorable and very silly little lamb named Too Cute who was just perfect.  Task Farms is out near Palmdale, which is a bit of a drive from here, so Katie, Brooke, Meredith (who wanted to take behind-the-scenes photos) and I all drove out together.   I had Katie put on the costume Gramma would be wearing, chose a neutral location and let Katie be Gramma’s stand-in.

Thanks to Meredith Lynn for coming along and taking great behind-the-scenes photos like these!

Thanks to Meredith for coming along and taking great behind-the-scenes photos like these!

Once I had the photos of Too Cute, I set up a shoot with Gramma, which was delightful.  She is a natural model, and I found out during this that she had been a live model for art classes while she was in college!  What a fun fact to know about her 🙂

So what do these photos convey to me?  They show my grandmother being the strong, gentle, and completely loving woman that she is.  She is a ray of light in darkness, someone who always lifts you up, cares for you and supports you.  She has been one of the most supportive people in my life when it comes to my art, always encouraging me and loving what I do… and I sincerely think it’s not just because she’s my grandmother and she has to like whatever I do, but because she genuinely believes in me and loves what I do.

So please meet my grandmother, Lucea, a truly wonderful and remarkable woman who I am so thankful to have in my life, and to have had the chance to photograph her!

The Shepherdess

The Shepherdess

The Shepherdess - detail

The Shepherdess – detail

The Shepherdess - detail

The Shepherdess – detail

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