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Rapeseed's Harvest

This was one of those self portraits that I just HAD to shoot RIGHT THEN or I was going to explode.  It’s actually been a pretty rough couple of months; I’m fighting my way out of another bout of depression that came on for seemingly no reason.  This does happen periodically, so I tried to just give it time and let it pass, it always will eventually… but it’s been clinging like it hasn’t in a long, long time.

As depression progresses, it gets worse, not just additionally, but exponentially.  You can very quickly move from, “Ok, I don’t like this, but I’ll get through it soon,” to “Oh my god, this is going to be the rest of my life, I will never feel joy again ever; what’s even the point of living??” in shockingly short time.

For me, one of the best tools I have against depression and slowly losing my will to live is creating art, especially art that expresses how I’m feeling at the time.  It’s incredibly cathartic.  Working on this self portrait has been a huge help in keeping me sane lately, but the pessimistic side of me wonders if I’ll just be left right where I was before I started it, once I’m totally finished creating it.  I suppose that even if it does, I’ll at least still have a new image in my roster.  It hasn’t helped my depression to know that it’s been so long since I released any new images (there are far too many reasons to get into right now, but it’s been incredibly difficult to find and make time for art lately).

I was thinking about what I would say to accompany this image, which (probably obviously, belongs to both my DreamWorld and Eternal Storms series) and pondering how to explain what long-term clinical depression feels like to those who haven’t experienced it.  It’s not the same as just being sad or upset, it’s a stain on your soul which you can’t ever blot out.  Out, out, damn spot.  A stain which not only looks ugly, but spreads like a cancer and does you actual harm, emotionally, physically and mentally.

Depression, especially when it gets really bad, feels like your brain is beating and gang-raping your soul every day while the rest of the world goes about their business, either not noticing, or at best stopping to take cell phone videos of your torment, but offering no help.  And much like the unjustified stigma and shame victims of abuse feel, people who have trouble with depression and who don’t feel excited about being alive are often subject to the same kinds of judgements.  We must enjoy wallowing in our own emotional filth, or else we’d just get up, dust ourselves off and go be happy, right?  Or, ok, maybe it’s really a chemical imbalance thing; so just take an anti-depressant and let’s all get on with our lives, all right?  And she was wearing a short skirt, so she was asking for it.

I wish it worked like that; I wish it was that easy.  I can’t recall how many medications I’ve tried, not to mention the far, far greater number of alternative healing treatments, supplements, and anything else I could think of.  Some help more than others, but so far nothing has completely cured me.

For anyone wondering, no, I do not believe this bout of depression is really related to the ME.  The ME has been about the same as it has been since my injections kicked in, so there haven’t been any recent changes on that front.  It definitely doesn’t help anything, but I don’t believe it’s the cause.

Depression lays a gray film over your life.  Everything appears bleak and hopeless.  There’s no point to trying, no point to doing anything.  And there’s also the honest, nothing-to-do-with-depression frustration of having to be your own guinea pig as you try different treatments, often with horrible, horrible side effects, which may or may not stop after you discontinue the medication.  It’s been recommended that I add a psychiatrist to my team of doctors (I have a wonderful therapist, but she’s a psychologist, so she can’t prescribe medication) which I’m not looking forward to.  My depressive mind doesn’t want to go through the bother of more appointments, more co-pays, more explaining my symptoms and feeling judged, more trying new medications will probably make everything worse before it even might get better.  My rational mind says I should try it anyway, but I’m not looking forward to it.

So, back to talking about this image.  I chose the title even knowing it might ruffle some feathers, because I honestly don’t feel like there’s a better way to explain it to those who have been fortunate enough to never be so depressed that they feel they can’t go on another day.  It is your mind raping your soul, verbally abusing you, telling you you’re worthless, a horrible person, undeserving of love or bothering another person by asking them for help.  It’s a prison only you can see and feel; a prison you both hate and are afraid to leave, because it’s all you’ve known for so long.  (My first memories of what was clearly depression are from my early teens, but I wonder if the terrible anxiety and nightmares I endured since I was a very young child were a precursor to this.  The first time I gave serious thought to killing myself, I was 17.)  A strange Stockholm-like syndrome can develop where you long to escape, but are afraid to.  However, I hope it’s clear that I am in no way trying to take anything away from the trauma victims of the “regular” kind of rape suffer from.  Though our hells overlap in some ways, they are not identical.

I liked the idea of using “rapeseed” in the title, not only because it catches the ear, but because I feel it works on a metaphoric level.  Rapeseed is a plant which grows beautiful yellow flowers; it belongs to the mustard family from what I’ve read (and apparently the name has to do with the Latin word for root vegetables and nothing to with an act of violence).  Kirsty Mitchel shot part of her Wonderland series in front of a breathtaking field of rapeseed flowers.  It is also, apparently, what canola oil is made from (or at least used to be?  I’m finding mixed info), around which there is some controversy if it’s truly safe for human and animal consumption.  The word at once touches on horrible, horrible acts of violence and abuse, potential danger but still has immense beauty to offer the world.

In this image, I imagined a beautiful, unicorn-like creature, someone that would look completely pure and innocent, someone who looked like that would never have had a single bad day.  And I just poured my emotions into the shoot, letting them all out.  I’ve already said it was cathartic, but I can’t stress just how much it was.  I felt lighter that day than I did in a long time.  Even editing it was therapeutic.  Some images seem to fight you the whole way, kicking and screaming, into what you want them to be; this one felt like it was actively working with me to help me achieve my goal.  It’s one of the most gratifying feelings when art flows like that.

I have been studied makeup application a lot recently (mostly for upcoming images) and this was one of my first times being able to test just a little bit of my new knowledge out.  That was fun, although tiring.  But I’m pretty pleased with my first attempt at being a makeup artist!  I had to search high and low for some cosmetic-grade silver glitter of the right size and color to make the glitter-tears; you really wouldn’t think it would have been so difficult, but it was!  I eventually found some on either eBay or Etsy; I’ve bought some from both and now I don’t remember where this particular one came from.  I already had the silver wig, so I just grayed up my eyebrows to match it better.  I used Nyx’s Jumbo Pencil in Milk for the entire eye/cheekbone area along with a nice matte white eyeshadow from BH Cosmetics pallet, along with two shades of lavender and a darker purple in my crease and as blush.  I contoured with another Nyx product, an eyeshadow in Taupe which is perfect for my pale skin (even paler here, so I used a very light hand).  I highlighted cheekbones, lids and inner corners with Deviant Cosmetics Ghost Violet, which is just about my new favorite thing ever.  It has the most gorgeous flash of purple when the light hits it, and Deviant Cosmetics has four or five colors in their Ghost line; I recommend them all!  (If you’ve been eyeing the Kat Von D Alchemist Palette but don’t have the money, go see Deviant Cosmetics.  Their colors are brighter, more vivid, they carry one more color than comes in KVD’s pallet, and it’s WAY less expensive!  And since it’s mineral makeup, there are no weird or harmful ingredients to worry about.)

After I did my makeup and looked utterly insane in person, I set my camera up and a couple lights.  I actually really hate setting up lights, so I always try and make it as minimal as possible.  Luckily, this shot didn’t call for anything fancy, so I got away with only two.  I taped some white, mesh fabric to the inside of my front door, and it gave me a lovely, neutral whiteish backdrop that wouldn’t distract from the main subject.  I was nearly done shooting when I remembered I’d intended to wear my unicorn horn circlet from Firefly Path!  I quickly shot a few more images with it on, tipping my head at different angels and planning on adding it on to the final image in post, which I did.  (This is not the exact circlet that I have, my horn is silver and the crystals are lavender, but this seems to be the only one in her shop at the moment.)

Unicorns represent a lot of things to me, but innocence and purity are two big ones.  If a human is sad, well, that’s… sad, but normal.  If a unicorn is sad, it’s tragic.  That there could be anything their magic couldn’t overcome underscores the power of whatever is causing them pain.  To me at least, that emphasized the magnitude of the power depression can hold over you.  The working title for this image as I tinkered on it was Sad Unicorn, because that was all I could think of when I needed to save the file for the first time.  It still feels appropriate in a way.

I added the trees and birds on the background, as if perhaps the unicorn girl is longing for her forest home.  I specifically chose to add crows, both because they’re one of my favorite birds (did you know they actually make and use tools and are incredibly smart?) and because Native American legends say they escort one’s soul into the afterlife.  That felt very fitting giving the subject of the image.  She seems like she’s in an alien land, somewhere she doesn’t truly belong, which is how I’ve felt about my time on earth just about every single day since I was born.  I knew this was not my true home.  My true home is where my soul resided before it decided, for whatever insane reason, to incarnate into this life.  In a meditation, months ago now, I actually visited what I consider to be my true home and I sobbed and sobbed, because I was so glad to be back, even for a moment, and also because I knew I couldn’t stay.  That place, that timeless, unchanging Home, is where this ethereal creature belongs too.

Now that I’ve gone on for probably far too long, I’ll finally show you the image.  I felt it was very important to explain my reason for the title I gave it to give people a way in to understand it.  And for anyone concerned about me, thank you, but I’ll be ok.  I’ve been through worse.  And I didn’t even have photography back then.  I have an excellent support system, which I didn’t have nearly as much of before, including my really incredible therapist.  All that said, let’s get on to the first image I’m releasing this year!

Rapeseed's Harvest

Lastly, I don’t enjoy talking about my mental health (or lack thereof) to strangers on the internet, no matter what impression this post gave you.  I speak candidly and openly about it because we NEED to end the stigma around it.  And the only way for that to happen is for those of us who struggle with it to speak about our experiences.  A lot.  In detail.  Repeatedly.  I do think things will change eventually, but it will take a lot of voices speaking honestly, blatantly, about it.  My voice is only one drop in the ocean of voices, but to quote Cloud Atlas, what is the ocean but a multitude of drops?

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Lady Death is another DreamWorld character I’ve had in my head for a long time before I had the chance to photograph her.  Sometimes that can be frustrating to postpone your idea for so long, but in this case, I’d imagined the image for so long and in such detail that it made for an extremely easy shoot!  I knew exactly where everything should go, how to light it, the pose I wanted; it was all in my head and I just had to get it shot.

Lady Death © Sarah Allegra - detail

Lady Death © Sarah Allegra – detail

Let me tell you a little bit about the inspiration of her character.  Lady Death is, as her name suggests, the incarnation of death within DreamWorld, but I didn’t want her to be the common, dark, grim-reaper version of death we see portrayed frequently.  The concept of how she would appear came from a mix of Deerskin, by Robin McKinley, Come Lady Death, by Peter S. Beagle and a dash of my own attitudes and ideas about death.

I’m going to quote from Robin McKinley’s Deerskin and not give you the context which this passage is happening in, for one because if you get me started talking about Deerskin, it will take up more than this entire post, and also because it’s not incredibly important for my point and I want you to be intrigued to read it for yourself.  I will simply say that this all happens in the first quarter of the book, so it is not the end it sounds like.

“Lissar went on breathing as she looked, because she did not know how to stop; but as time passed she felt the cold upon her [naked] body, feeling it like a soft inquisitive touch, like the feet of tiny animals.  She did not recognize pain as present experience, for such distinction was too subtle for her now; rather it was that was what there was left of her, as screaming had been her existence some time before.  The creeping cold was a change, or further refinement, upon her existence.  But the cold was not content to pat at her skin and then grasp her feet, her hands, her belly and thighs and face.  It wormed its way inside her; but [she could not resit it].  Nor, she found, did she now want to, for the cold brought oblivion, the cessation of pain.

And then she saw its face, and it was not an animal at all, but Death, and then she welcomed it.  Almost she made her split lips work to give it greeting; but her voice had fled away some time before.

I am dying, she thought, in the guttering of consciousness, I am dying, she thought, in the encroaching stillness.  I am dying, and I am glad, for Ash is already dead, and it will all be over soon.”

I will quickly say that while there are some very, very dark moments in Deerskin, it has been one of my two favorite books for well over a decade.  Where there is darkness, the light shines more brightly, as in the case with this book.

Inspiration part 2 came, as I stated, from a short story Peter S. Beagle wrote called Come Lady Death.  In it, the grand Lady Neville, famous for her grand, opulent balls, has grown bored with her own parties.  In looking for a way to up the excitement factor, she decides to invite Death to her next party.  An invitation is sent out… and a positive reply comes quickly.  The guests nervously await Death, wondering what he’ll look like and are surprised when “a lovely young girl in a white dress stepped gracefully into the ballroom doorway and stood there smiling.

She could not have been more than nineteen.  Her hair was yellow, and she wore it long.  It fell thickly upon her bare shoulders that gleamed warmly through it, two limestone islands rising out of a dark golden sea…  She smiled, and Lady Neville tried to smile back, but her mouth seemed stiff.  ‘Welcome,’ she said.  ‘Welcome, my lady Death.’

A sigh rustled among the lords and ladies as the girl took the old woman’s hand and curtsied to her, sinking and rising in one motion, like a wave.  ‘You are Lady Neville,’ she said.  ‘Thank you so much for inviting me.’  Her accent was as faint and almost familiar as her perfume.”

While the two stories don’t seem to have a lot in common on the surface, and especially not in the small fragments you’ve seen here, there were a couple main points I took away from them both.  Death was a being or person who was a) not frightening in appearance b) not male,  as expected, and c) more warm and welcoming than anything else.  This fits in nicely with my own views on death and the afterlife.  Everyone has their own thoughts and views on the subject, which is fine, but I don’t view either as a scary thing, nor the end.  Of course, we grieve when death separates us from those we love, but I know that I will be reunited with them some day.  I suspect that the first batch of “people” I’ll see when I pass the threshold to heaven will be a menagerie of furry, feathered, barking, purring, squeaking, singing creatures I have loved 😉

Drawing from all these sources, Lady Death emerged in my head.  She should be warm, inviting, welcoming, maternal.  She should not be frightening, but soothing.  She should be connected with nature, because death is a natural part of life.  Her clothing would be dark, but there would be no black allowed anywhere in her costume.  And most importantly, when you look into her eyes, you need to know that all is well, all was well, and all would forever be well.  I knew I needed to bring my dear friend and mostly-retired model Aly Darling into this image to embody all these qualities.

What should Lady Death’s clothing look like?  The story Come, Lady Death is set in a slightly unspecific time; several hundred years ago at least.  People throw balls, wear gorgeous gowns, ride in carriages… it brings to mind the 17th-18th century for me, though I have not confirmed this with Peter Beagle to see if that was his intention.  I didn’t want to make her clothing especially period-specific, but it definitely needed to have an old-fashioned feel to it.  How silly would it look if Lady Death was wearing the latest looks from this season’s runways?  I settled on a semi-Victorian feel, which felt both old-fashioned and classic at the same time.

Since I wanted to stay far away from the typical associations with the standard Death figure, black was not allowed anywhere in her costume.  I chose a beautiful purple dress with bell sleeves (purchased on Ebay for a few dollars) and went to work creating a cape for her out of some gorgeous teal satin I found.

I based the construction of the cape off of an actual Victorian cape I own (also purchased through Ebay, but as a wrap at my wedding, not for a costume).

Victorian cape draped over a laundry basket so I could assess its shape and drape.

Victorian cape draped over a laundry basket so I could assess its shape and drape.  Note the multiple layers of ruffles around the collar.

I reverse engineered a pattern from the cape and cut the pieces out of the teal satin.  I gave my cape several ruffled layers of fabric around the collar also, which were then copiously covered in flowers, each one hand-glued in place.  I spent months slowly gathering the appropriately colored flowers in the amount I needed.  Many of these were repurposed from previous DreamWorld costumes, like Perennial Parasol, Efflorescence and In The Lilac Wood, but this will be their final spot.  I love the costume too much to take it apart!  But I have to say, Icertainly got my money’s worth from the flowers!

Lady Death cape from start to finish

Lady Death cape from start to finish, complete with flower-festooned collars

 

Next came construction of Lady Death’s bonnet.  I didn’t want her to have the standard hooded cloak, but I liked the idea of having her face framed in the way a cloak hood would.  Given the Victorian-ish look I was going for, I built a bonnet somewhere in between a Regency bonnet and a Victorian one.  When it’s your world, you get to pick and choose clothing details you like and use them however you want!

The base of the bonnet was some sheets of cardstock glued together into the general shape I wanted.  I tried it on a few times and refined the shape.  Next, I used spray adhesive to glue the teal satin to one side of the bonnet.  This ended up leaving unexpected streaks of glue when dried (see the photo in the lower left corner below) so I quickly decided that side was the inside of the bonnet.  I used a regular glue gun to edge the satin to the other side of the cardstock and the hem on the underside.  I happened to have a small amount of very sparkly purple mesh which I added to the inside of the bonnet.  This had the dual benefit of covering the glue streaks and adding some dimension and light within the darkness of the bonnet’s underside.

Bonnet construction

Bonnet construction

 

Next came the fun and slightly tedious task of decking out the bonnet!  Multiple layers of ribbons, trims and flowers were added to it.  And because someone already asked this, yes, I did glue those teeny tiny individual little flowers to the top and underside of the brim one by one.  I was not excited to do that, but it was well worth it.  You can see Maynard wanting to help in the last couple photos.  A beautiful, wide, dark blue satin ribbon finished the bonnet off and looked beautiful tied under Aly’s chin!

Bonnet decorating

Bonnet decorating – Maynard offering to help

 

I seem to have not taken any images of the staff construction, sorry about that.  I must have been rushed.  I’ll tell you about it though, it was pretty easy.  With the abundance of sticks of all sizes within my yard, I found a good staff-sized one.  I spray painted it a dark brown and kissed it gently with some metallic bronze spray paint.  I already had a string of small, battery-operated LEDs which I’d stuck through the middle of some small flowers.  The LEDs and flowers were taped rather roughly to the staff with masking tape, which I knew I could edit out later.  I knew it would add work in post, but it seemed the best solution at the time.

The bird skeleton is an actual bird skeleton and was incredibly delicate to work with.  I tried to be reverent and ask the bird’s spirit for permission to use it before I did, and so far the house doesn’t seem to be haunted by any bird ghosts, so I’m hoping that means the bird was ok with my use of it.  It was attached using a mixture of masking tape and fine wire.  I made a small wreath for it with the same tiny purple flowers I’d edged the bonnet with to take away a little of the creepy factor of a bird skeleton while also tying it in more directly with the overall costume.

Lady Death

Bird skeleton

Since Aly and I both have health problems and don’t live especially near each other, it took a while for us to find a time when we could actually shoot this image.  Eventually though, the stars aligned and everything went perfectly!  I absolutely loved the images straight out of camera and knew they wouldn’t need much editing.  However, I forgot to take detail shots of the costume while it was on Aly… so Calantha came to the rescue!  She actually enjoys it when I dress her up since she knows it means copious praise and treats.

Calantha modeling Lady Death's cape

Calantha modeling Lady Death’s cape

You can see how little she cares about the cape, she didn’t even move after I draped in on her.  She didn’t like the bonnet when it flopped over her face and couldn’t see, but as long as I kept it adjusted, she was really pretty cool about it.

Such a pretty girl!  She looks right at home in it.

Such a pretty girl! She looks right at home in it.

Calantha models the bonnet

Calantha models the bonnet, showing off the details you can’t see so well in the finished image

After all that, let’s check out the final image!  Scroll down for detail shots 🙂

Lady Death, by Sarah Allegra

Lady Death © Sarah Allegra

Lady Death © Sarah Allegra - detail

Lady Death © Sarah Allegra – detail

Lady Death © Sarah Allegra - detail

Lady Death © Sarah Allegra – detail

 

Lady Death © Sarah Allegra - detail

Lady Death © Sarah Allegra – detail

Lady Death © Sarah Allegra - detail

Lady Death © Sarah Allegra – detail

Lady Death © Sarah Allegra - detail

Lady Death © Sarah Allegra – detail

That closeup of Lady Death’s face makes the whole image for me.  The gentleness, the kindness, the love shining out of her face shows exactly who the character is.  Thank you very much to Aly for portraying her so perfectly, and to Calantha for modeling the costume after the shoot 🙂

Thanks to you for reading!  What do you guys think about the afterlife?  Would you find it comforting to find Lady Death escorting you to the rest of eternity?

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