With that in mind, Light Work Gallery collaborated with Hutchings Psychiatric Center to bring in Syracuse University artist, photographer and adjunct instructor Stephen Mahan and three of his students to work with Hutchings art therapist Amy Lau. Armed with 20 digital cameras, Mahan and Lau met with patients, urging them to create images of identity. The result is I Believe the Wind is a Beautiful Dance, 37 color photos, journals, drawings, writings and videos on display at the Link Gallery in the Warehouse, 350 W. Fayette St.
“This is very different than a lot of the photo projects I do,” said Mahan. “This one isn’t about that you work to have a show at the end, and it’s not about teaching people to be photographers. It’s about teaching people to slow down and look at their daily surroundings, to see the beauty in the mundane, to give people who are marginalized and labeled a voice and a chance to tell their own stories.”
So with Hutchings, 620 Madison St., as the setting, adults and adolescents alike set out to tell their stories. Because of confidentiality issues, many photographers couldn’t or chose not to shoot pictures of their faces. That, combined with the preconceived notions the viewer may possess about Hutchings, a state-operated mental health facility, resulted in an exhibit of stark, often desolate, photographs. But visitors to the exhibit will better understand the images if they look beyond the stigma of mental health and connect to the artists, people who live in an institution. There may be only 37 photos hanging on the wall, but there is no reason to rush through the exhibit.
Hands, shadows, obscured faces, stairwells give these photos a depth, something especially unusual from teen artists. “Simply having access to the camera seemed to energize the patients,” Lau noted. “In the process of taking pictures, they became more introspective and more engaged in creative and honest self-expression. I think that is really empowering for our patients—to be given the control and the freedom to show what they see around them.”
Some of the images are further detailed with hand-written notes or journal pages. “The journals were the best part,” Mahan said. “They become a concrete manifestation of the thought process of the whole project. Because you’re writing everything down and you’re cutting pictures out, that’s keeping the program going even when the students aren’t in class.”
Added Lau: “Some of those journal entries are very candid. Writing brought up all sorts of issues for them, sometimes they were issues that hadn’t come up in their therapy groups. So when the photos were shared with the rest of the staff, they saw a more flushed-out version of the patient. In that way, this project was also enriching for the staff to learn more about the participants.”
I Believe the Wind is a Beautiful Dance continues on display at the Link Gallery through April 3; gallery hours are Tuesdays to Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m. Both Mahan and Lau will give a gallery talk at a reception scheduled as part of Third Thursdays on March 19, 5 to 7 p.m. The exhibit moves to the second floor of Hutchings Psychiatric Center from April 6 to May 8, and will be available for viewing weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; a reception will be held April 16 from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information, call 443-5785.