By Brian Goslow
Photographer Erik Hansen calls his “She Learned to Smile Later” exhibition now on view at 6 Bridges Gallery in Maynard, Mass., the culmination of five years’ work. “It is a photographic novella of a therapeutic journey from adversity to triumph. Images begin with trauma, fear and violence subsiding to allow decision-making. Dawn beckons leading to clarity, hope and strength. Visual metaphors link the storyline and color is used to reflect emotions through this passage.” After growing up in the shadows of Manhattan, he studied art and art history at Rutgerss University; Hansen’s studio is based at ArtSpace Maynard. Artscope managing editor Brian Goslow recently “cornered” Hansen to discuss his show for the artscope zine.
HOW DID THE “SHE LEARNED TO SMILE LATER” PROJECT BEGIN?
I wanted an art project to work on and I think subconsciously I wanted to tell a story, a narrative. I choose “Triumph Over Adversity” as my theme. The intent has been to illustrate this theme.
I think we all have our own adversities. Some of us have more intense experiences than others. I choose childhood as a germinating time in life that can have profound effects later.
My final choice of a young girl who is abused is a subject that prevails all too often but secretively. I felt like expanding on this issue.
DID YOU EXPECT IT TO TAKE FIVE YEARS TO COMPLETE WHEN YOU STARTED?
No I didn’t expect it to take that long. I’m glad that it did because I was able to gain perspective on not just the story but how to illustrate it. Such as graduating from a doll representing a girl to real people. These decisions came about slowly.
Time has allowed creativity to be enhanced using digital tools. These tools allowed me to make more sophisticated, nuanced images. And lots of retro-fitting segments slowed the story line.
Any writer or artist needs time away from their project to recharge their batteries. This story is difficult emotionally as well as technically. Gaps of nonproductive time spread the project longer.
WHO IS SHE?
I named her Jenny. She experiences multiple traumas both with the burning of her home and with sexual abuse at a young and formative age.
REVIEWING THE IMAGES ON YOUR WEBSITE, THE SHOW FEELS LIKE A MINI-MOVIE WITH EACH PICTURE ITS OWN SCENE. WAS THAT SOMETHING YOU OUTLINED AT THE START OR THAT GREW AS THE PROJECT PROGRESSED?
Someone once remarked that my images seem so cinematic. Perhaps unconsciously I was making a film-like story but with each image special. In other words, each image links to the next but could stand on it’s own as an aesthetically strong.
I interrupted the narrative story with images that act as the girl’s dreams and thoughts. This progressed as I developed the project. They freed my imagination to reach beyond the specifics of the story. Therefore, they are thematically individual as well as pertaining to the story. In the end, the full collection of images can be looked at as unique pieces or even linked separate sequences.
THESE SHIFTING SCENES ARE CONVEYED BY SHIFTING THROUGH A VARIETY OF PHOTOGRAPHIC STYLES AND FORMATS. INDIVIDUALLY, ONE COULD CALL EACH PHOTO AVANT GARDE OR EXPERIMENTAL BUT AS PART OF A WHOLE, THAT STYLE HAS A PURPOSE. TO YOU — WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU REMOVE ONE OF THE PHOTOGRAPHS TO STAND ON ITS OWN?
You jump out of the story. The context is interrupted so you are not linking images. You could, in theory, be writing an alternative story that might be titled “Dreams of a Young Girl.”
When a photograph stands solely on its own, I can sell it or still exhibit it, depending upon who sees a need for the individual image. Yes images can be extracted from the story to fit a specific usage.
AT THE GALLERY, IS THERE AN INTRODUCTION SHEET EXPLAINING WHAT VIEWERS ARE SEEING — OR IS A GREAT DEAL LEFT TO THE IMAGINATION OF EACH VIEWER TO WRITE THEIR OWN SCRIPTS TO THE COMPLETE COLLECTION OF WORK?
Both. There is an introduction but it does not specifically tell viewers the details of the narrative. It helps guide viewers through the overarching theme of “Triumph Over Adversity”. I want the story to be taken in whole. I expect different interpretations from both women with difficult pasts as well as viewers who do not personally relate. There is no right or wrong way to view or interpret the images. My hope is that they can start a conversation that might help bring about healing. I have installed a private comment box for people to share their thoughts.
MANY PHOTOGRAPHERS UTILIZE BLURRINESS OR SPECIAL EFFECTS TO CONVEY MOVEMENT; AS PART OF A WHOLE, HOWEVER, I FIND MYSELF ASKING — WHAT IS THE CONNECTION OF THIS PHOTO — THE BURNING HOUSE OR THE SILHOUETTED FIGURES FOR EXAMPLE — TO OTHERS IN THIS SPECIFIC COLLECTION.
I’m not sure I understand your question, especially the word “movement,” I would often imagine the girl’s thoughts connected the images. Perhaps using words would connect them. I plan to link certain images in the sequences in a second variation in book form. Perhaps the girl will write her experiences in diary format.
When someone experiences traumatic situations, images and thoughts can jump quickly. Perhaps some of these photos do leap from what seems out of context because they represent thoughts and dreams.
YOU UTILIZE FOUND PHOTOS FROM ANTIQUE SHOPS; DID YOU FIND THESE BEFORE YOU HAD A “STORYLINE” OR DID YOU GO SEEK THEM OUT TO COMPLETE AND FILL HOLES IN THE STORYLINE?
There are a few found photos in the story. I discovered them as the story was in progress. I didn’t have to stage those particular images, such as the burning house or the ancestral portrait in the beginning of the story. I couldn’t make those pictures happen. I had to find them.
HOW IMPORTANT IS FOLLOWING THE WORK IN A CERTAIN ORDER TO THE END RESULT YOU’RE HOPING TO ACHIEVE?
It is very important. Also the transition of color wash helps emote the ideas and feelings. The stream of color follows the familiar spectrum from infrared to ultraviolet.
After five years of compiling the narrative, I found it necessary to engage with another person for an outside point of view so there could be more logical continuity as the story unfolds. It was difficult for me to see I had images that may or may not have contributed to the story.
WHAT TOLD YOU THAT THIS PROJECT WAS FINISHED — AND WHAT DID YOU FEEL LIKE THE DAY AFTER IT WAS DONE?
In order to finish the story I needed to employ an older couple, in their late 20s. When we accomplished these final photos I felt the story was complete. When I looked back on all my notes and sketches I would always say it is not complete. But the exhibit deadline tightened up the recognition that the story must be complete.
How did I feel? I felt proud and with the exhalation that I am done. Many aspects of this story have been emotional and draining for me.
Upon constructing the exhibit I built an installation that further helped me feel accomplished on another level.
Once I got the self-published book in hand, I felt the finality of five years of work. The book is the full journey that the current exhibit cannot express. The book lives separate from the exhibit where one does not have to grasp the emotion and the artistic all at once in the limited space available. It is part of the exhibit sitting on its own table with a chair available so that one can sit and contemplate the lengthy story.
YOU’VE THROWN YOUR HEART AND SOUL INTO THIS COLLECTION; WHAT WAS IT LIKE FOR YOU WATCHING PEOPLE LOOKING AT IT FOR THE FIRST TIME AT THE OPENING RECEPTION?
A number of people have seen parts of it through the process. Nobody had seen the full finished comprehensive artwork. Of course I am very proud of the entire project for its relevant message and also the beauty of the art. I manifested my artistic skills. I’ve never attempted anything like this. It has been an adventure and I am glad to share that now with all.
The duration of the project made me feel unable to present my story due to its incompleteness. The exhibit opening was my moment to engage the public in the total story. Finally I had got to this point where I could show the public what had been a fragmented and quiet journey for so long.
“The project,” as it is known, had strained my need to explain what was taking so long. Now the public can comprehend and appreciate my efforts. Going public has its own rewards.
THIS IS THE FIRST SHOWING OF THE WORK; YOU’VE PUT SO MUCH OF YOUR LIFE INTO IT — WHAT PLANS DO YOU HAVE FOR IT AFTER THE CURRENT EXHIBITION CLOSES?
My plan is to explore various venues, including the usual galleries and museums as well as groups who are working with trauma and healing. There are many possibilities for having individual images or smaller sections published for articles and exhibited. Because the project is so strongly psychologically-based, I am seeking members of the healing and therapeutic community which can be universities, non-profits and associations.
(“Erik Hansen: She Learned to Smile Later” continues through February 13 at 6 Bridges Gallery, 77 Main Street, Maynard, Massachusetts. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. and on Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, call (978) 897-3825.)