Shannon Leah Halvorsen Portfolio Contest Winner
Words: Larry Lytle
How many of us have felt that we are metaphorically drowning? It’s a common sensation, experienced enough to be conveyed by clichés like drowning in work, drowning in debt, just being able to keep our heads above water, and so on. The analogies are never pleasant ones, though it’s not a fate many of us actually experience. Nevertheless, in some fashion, we are able to relate to the feeling of one moment bobbing in tranquil waters, the surface molecules thick, floating like a leaf by this tenuous grace. But once the calm is broken we find ourselves unable to keep above that equalized line between air and water; we give up the struggle, and sink into the depths. One can also imagine that this might be the feeling people get when suffering from bipolar disorder just as they sense themselves slipping below the thin line between air and water—frenetic buoyancy descends into suffocating depression.
Many artists have had manic-depressive, or bipolar disorders. One need only access the Wikipedia page to see a long list of notable people who suffer from this. Yet many of them have utilized the effects of those disorders to make stunning, disquieting and insightful art. Such is the case with this series by Shannon Leah Halvorsen, who, as a teenager, was diagnosed as being bipolar.
As Halvorsen’s life unfolded she made the decision to utilize her mental state to make artwork. Adept in several media, she uses photography—particularly the series shown here, Above // Below—to not just express what she confronts, but to create elegant imagery that helps us see and understand what she feels, and what her world is like.
Halvorsen says, “Without the manic, I would be a different person, and I happen to like who I am. But in order to balance the manic, my brain will often send me into terrible depressions. These, unfortunately, are something I simply have to get through in order to come out the other side. But in lieu of medication, I try to embrace and recognize (and sometimes celebrate) this hurricane that happens in my brain. This series is very much a celebration of this chaos. While these are not technically self-portraits, I see myself in every one of these photographs. It is said that when we dream, every person we come in contact with is simply a different part of ourselves. This series is very much like that for me.”
Halvorsen’s imagery uses the blacks, whites and grays inherent in black-and-white photography to convey more than tone and composition; they are examples of her mental states of being. Above the water—which we see only through the fractured reflections and refractions, and in which only her head or a portion of it is breaking the surface—represents her manic phases. The water below is sometimes calm, sometimes turbulent; bubbles, foam and pervasive darkness seem to represent her periods of depression. The figure, though, appears calm in its submergence, hanging in space. It is the water surrounding her that is stormy.
“I am drawing a finite line with the surface of the water,” Halvorsen says. “Above, there are chaotic reflections that are ectoplasmic in a way (as though possessed), a feeling of being scattered and undone. This is the manic. Below, there is darkness, silence, even a sleepy kind of peace. This is the depression. Each photograph embodies both of these elements: the good and the bad, the light and the dark. All the good things that happen in life happen in the gray areas. Rules are black and white. Facts are black and white. But the blending of these opposing elements is where the magic happens. My bipolar disorder forces my brain to extremes. My creativity is the only way I’m able to blend those extremes and live in the gray.”
In many ways, but to a much lesser degree, we can see ourselves in her photographs, as we all experience states of happiness or turmoil. Halvorsen’s unique accomplishement is to convey her extreme states of being while allowing us to connect with the expression of her disorder. It’s in these moments of grace that thoughtful art allows us all to swim in the same waters.