by CHRIS ROGERS
A barren, abandoned quarry might seem like an odd place to find solace. But Winona photographer Joy Davis Ripley found it somehow reassuring.
After being sexual assaulted, Ripley struggled with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “I tried meds, I tried counseling, and I just felt like I wasn’t pulling myself out,” she said. Then, one day, she walked past an old quarry and took a self portrait against the desolate cliffs. “There was something about how small I looked against these huge rock walls that captured some of my inner experience of PTSD,” Ripley said. “I think it was just a really good reminder that there is something out there beyond myself … It’s almost like that moment forced me out of myself,” she explained. “It was really comforting knowing that nature will still be there after I’m long gone,” she added. “After I took those self portraits, I actually felt some healing,” Ripley said.
Mental health is a topic many people would rather avoid, but in a new art exhibit opening Friday in Winona, Ripley explores the “inner landscape” of mental illness and gives fellow Winonans a chance to share their experience. Her show consists of interviews with local residents describing their experiences with mental illness and photographs of them in settings that act as a metaphor for their inner lives or represent an important place to them, a place of healing or the site of trauma.
Although one in five U.S. adults experiences mental illness in any given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it’s still something few people readily discuss. Ripley’s project tackles that stigma head-on. “I’ve been blown away by how many brave people reached out to me, because it’s not easy,” Ripley stated.
Mark Jacobson is one of several Winonans who responded to Ripley’s invitations for locals to answer the question, “How does your mental illness make you feel?”
“I’ve been dealing with depression most of my life,” Jacobson stated. “At 14, I started self-medicating with alcohol, and everything went off from there,” he said. “Those two fed off each other. The more I drank, the more depressed I got, and the more depressed I got, the more I drank.”
This March, Jacobson will be four years sober, an accomplishment he credited partly to a great support system at Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center (HVMHC). He now volunteers with the center’s peer support network, helping other people cope with their mental health challenges.
It was there, inside with the cozy peer support network, that Jacobson wanted Ripley to capture his portrait. “He wanted to be photographed there in that spot where he has experienced so much healing and helped other people in their struggle,” Ripley said. “I’ve grown a lot through this place, and I though it fitting to be photographed here,” Jacobson explained.
Ripley photographed Annie Kieffer up a tree and in an abandoned house. They tried all kinds of ideas. During the shoot, Kieffer wore dark, ripped clothes and tried to channel the intense feelings borderline personality disorder sometimes gives her.
“It was very emblematic of this broken down environment around me,” Kieffer said. “That feeling of desolation,” she added.
“I really got in my head thinking, ‘How do I feel when I’m experiencing really strong symptoms?’” Kieffer explained. “When you’re stuck in this, you’re so blinded to everything else externally. You feel like this small little girl trapped in this little shell of a body. You feel so small and helpless.” In other shots, she added, “I lot of my facial expressions are like looking off in the distance almost like a disassociation.”
While that kind of method acting was emotionally draining, being able to express herself was rewarding. “There’s a great deal of gratification just being at the point I am in my journey where I’m brave enough to put a face on it,” she stated. “Let’s talk about how normal this is and how many people face it.”
Getting to that point was a journey for Kieffer. “Nobody talks about it,” she said. “It’s a really shaming diagnosis.” Even as a nursing student, her classes made people with personality disorders sound manipulative and untrustworthy. After spending a year in dialetical behavioral therapy, Kieffer got to a point where she felt comfortable. “It made [my diagnosis] feel more normal. I was able to talk about things. Where previously with my parents, they would really walk on egg shells and it was difficult to talk about challenges,” she said. People noticed the difference. “You have your personality back,” they would tell her. “If I take ownership of it, it doesn’t own me, and I can be a voice for people who don’t have a voice,” Kieffer explained.
Stimga affected Jacobson’s journey toward mental health, as well. “In my dad’s life, depression was really never talked about,” he stated. “I never saw my dad cry. I never saw my dad get depressed, and I know he lived with it.”
In recent years, though, Jacobson has been very outspoken about his experience with mental illness, submitting columns to local papers and granting interviews about it. When he heard about Ripley’s project, he saw another opportunity “to get a little information out to people who were struggling.”
Why would Jacobson go to such efforts to share his mental health story? “There’s a misconception that a lot of people who have mental health issues … A lot of times they may be seen as lazy or incapable or basically unwilling to make changes,” he responded. People don’t realize that’s the disease, not the person. “Why judge the people for something they didn’t ask to live with?” he asked.
“Part of what I was trying to do was hold space for these stories, which, to me, almost seem sacred,” Ripley said. Working with the people who volunteered to be interviewed and photographed required a lot of sensitivity and care, and Ripley needed to listen to and collaborate with her subjects. “I’m viewing it as a work of art I’m creating with a person,” she said.
For some of her subjects, that was a powerful experience. “A number of them have reached out and expressed gratitude that someone wanted to hear their story,” Ripley said. She was a little taken aback at how grateful some were. After all, she was just listening. “I think it speaks to the need for more places where we can share stories like this,” Ripley added.
Joy Davis Ripley’s show, “Visible/Invisible” opens this Friday, January 24, at Public Launch, 119 East Third Street in Winona, with a free reception from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. The show will be up at Public Launch through February 21 and will be on display again at Saint Mary’s University’s Page Theatre from February 24 through April 3. Ripley won a grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council to fund “Visible/Invisible.” She plans to show a second phase of the project later this year.