KETCHIKAN — Photographer Heidi Poet has created an exhibit to illuminate the personal experience of mental illness through curator Jeff Fitzwater’s “La Folie Circulaire: A Journey Into Bipolar Disorder” Main Street Gallery show, which opened April 5.
Modeling in Poet’s photos are Austin Hays and Cat Hindman, both who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Poet said.
Hindman, who became a close friend of Poet’s when both had roles in the 2010 First City Players show “Cinderella,” said the exhibit is a true collaboration.
“I’m one of the artists and bipolar individuals guiding Jeff and Heidi through the journey of bipolar disorder,” Hindman said.
They said Claire Bartek and Anna Shaffer also were a big part of the show’s preparation, with Bartek volunteering her makeup artistry and Shaffer — who owns Starboard Frames and Gifts — put in a lot of time preparing frames for Poet’s photos.
Fitzwater said the photos were planned very carefully at the direction of Hays and Hindman, who knew what aspects of the disorder they wanted to illustrate or highlight.
“Every shot was for a specific purpose; a specific theme,” Fitzwater said. Hays and Hindman had experiences they definitely wanted conveyed; Poet would suggest ways to portray those. Fitzwater acted as a producer — finding props, locations and managing the project.
Many of the photos required complicated planning and much effort, they said. One long day involved hauling a piano to a beach, to the woods and then to the old pulp mill to be incinerated. Another day required Hindman to lie in the saltwater on a rainy February afternoon as part of a photo shoot.
Hindman said she had worked in theater and done some writing, but had not tackled a creative photo project previously.
“It was my first real foray in a project like this. It was very intimidating ... but very, very fun and fulfilling,” she said.
Hindman said she shared her experiences with her disorder, then she and Poet began to talk about a project that would allow other people to have a glimpse into the experiences of having a bipolar disorder.
The project began to take shape and build its own momentum.
“It kind of spiraled from there,” Hindman said. “It was a scary spiral, then an un-scary spiral.”
They decided that they should have more than one person’s perspective to create an exhibit, and contacted Hays, knowing he also had been working through bipolar disorder, to ask whether he would be interested in helping.
“No two people’s journeys will be exactly the same,” Hindman said.
One of Poet’s photos, “The Shroud,” which won first place in the 2011 Blueberry Arts Festival show, also will be in the exhibit. It depicts a mocked-up suicide scene, and “people loved it,” Fitzwater said.
He added that when he and Poet submitted their idea for the La Folie Circulaire exhibit, they got feedback from the Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council that it was the most controversial show proposal they’d ever received.
Fitzwater stressed that the show should be viewed only by adults, who could then decide whether to allow their younger family members to see it.
Poet said 20 of the photos in the exhibit feature Hindman and 20, Hays.
The exhibit also will showcase music composed by Hays from his “bipolar series” which features “four mental states.”
Poet said she plans to set up the show not as a typical gallery exhibit with some artwork displayed on the walls, but as a full experience.
A seven-foot mirror, a small circus tent and a spin board are just a few items that will fill the exhibit.
Shaffer, who was the team’s framing expert, helped them to find the perfect frame for each piece, and also to modify the frames to match the concept in each photograph.
One of Poet’s pieces, “Dichotomy,” which she planned from the beginning to be the key image of the show, portrays Hindman walking up floating stairs. Underneath the stairs, a crazed-looking version of herself reaches up with clawed hands.
“I’m trying to go up,” Hindman said, “and always something is reaching for me, and sometimes it gets me.”
She said her experience with bipolar disorder often feels like there is a wild thing inside of her that sometimes needs to be loosed and acknowledged. That wild thing often can do amazing, creative and positive things, she said.
Fitzwater pointed out that many people have made great art, music and other creative endeavors in the “up” swing of their bipolar disorder. He listed Winston Churchill, Michaelangelo and Vincent van Gogh as a few examples.
He also said the disorder, more recently, has gotten almost too much press, and has been a bit sensationalized. There is the danger that some people throw out the term as an excuse for bad behavior, because of that, he said.
Hindman said she has read statistics that 5.7 million American adults have been diagnosed with the disorder.
“It’s a bigger problem than people realize,” she said.
It is a positive thing that the disorder has gotten more attention over the years she added, because people with the disorder can feel very alone.
“They’re not. They’re not alone at all,” she said.
She was diagnosed in 2009, and said she had been in denial for quite a long time before that.
“It felt like I wasn’t good at life,” she said. Getting diagnosed and medicated “enabled me to find tools to live; to get through those times ... it was enormously empowering.”
Poet said it was extremely difficult, at times, to work on the photographs of Hays and Hindman.
She said she was “terrified” the project might exploit her subjects, and even “broke down a couple of times” during the two-year project.
During manic episodes, some people gamble, or shop and spend thousands more than they can afford. She said her mania was focused mostly on books. She said one day she bought 15 books about the Amish, for instance. Another day, she bought 17 posters of the 1972 Cosmopolitan magazine nude centerfold photo of Burt Reynolds. She then gave the posters to friends.
She said the manic episodes actually were quite helpful when she was studying to be an emergency medical technician. She said she could get three hours of sleep, study like crazy and get straight-A grades.
She works with children now, through Community Connections, and said it is the perfect career for her. “Kids are the best therapy there is ... they are so grounding,” Hindman said.
Fitzwater said he and Poet are hoping the show will create awareness and more help for people with bipolar disorder. They are working on obtaining grant money so they can move the show around the state, with that in mind.
“We’re not trying to romanticize or glamorize bipolar disorder,” Fitzwater said. “We’re trying to open up a dialogue.”