Toronto-based artist, Barbara Cole uncovers an allegory of triumph, survival, and self-actualization in Surfacing—her latest collection of works. Like Venus rising from her birth, Cole’s subjects embrace beauty, femininity, and identity while floating on the ocean surface. Shimmered figures cling to each wave and ripple, hoping to break through the barriers before them. In this parable, the barriers define stigmas of mental illness. In the spring season of rebirth, Cole offers a new perspective on depression to alter the current dialogues that surround it. Teaming up with organizations like Bell Let’s Talk and Campaign to Change Direction has helped to further her mission, providing outlets for those struggling in silence. I spoke with Barbara to discuss Surfacing, de-stigmatized mental illness, and exhibitions to come.
Tell us about your newest series and exhibition Surfacing.
I never know what a show means until it is completed. This was true with Surfacing, even though it was fueled by my personal history in so many ways. I left high school at a very deep, low point in my life. It literally felt like I was drowning. Following my instincts for survival, over time I found art, and it lifted me up, and I have used this experience to mentor other women. I have had many challenges to overcome, but once the difficult times were worked through, I found myself becoming a focused and resonant storyteller.
Despite and perhaps because of my many years of struggle with anxiety and depression, I more fully appreciate my current life as a successful working photographic artist, mother, and wife. I’ve learned that even in its darkest days life isn’t hopeless no matter how much one might feel that it is. There are always ways to find resilience and personal strength. My story is an ongoing testament to that.
Against the enigmatic backdrop of the ocean, Surfacing captures shimmering figures, arising from the depths. At first glance, they may seem like magnificent sea creatures, but a closer look reveals women moving up towards the surface with fortitude and grace. Surfacing represents triumph, survival and self- sustainability. The women appear strong and timeless in a distinctly feminine way. They represent the power of one’s own personal will. These are women who represent beauty and strength, resilience and determination. We can be all those things at the same time. My favourite motto is “It’s never over until you give up.”
Is there a specific piece from Surfacing that resonates with you most? Why?
Of course, I love all the pieces, but one specific shoot epitomized everything I was trying to say. The subject – a professional ballerina – was collaborating with me at 7 am before her daily workout. She was dressed in a fantastic white gown with a 4-foot train and 60 pounds of pearls. For safety concerns, she was supposed to hold onto a metal bar just above the water, but she got carried away and let go. In horror, I watched as she sank to the bottom of the pool and tried unsuccessfully to get back to the surface. It was a big drama for all of us but not for her…not a word of complaint, no fear. She just turned to me and asked, “Did you get it?”
Exploring beauty, femininity, and identity, throughout your creative process, what revelations have you made on these topics?
On this question, I can only share what a friend and artist Gary Michael Dault, once wrote to me after coffee.
“Nobody poses underwater. Nobody has space for the luxury of self-consciousness. Nobody in the water is vain, trivial, ignoble, selfish or duplicitous. Honesty lives in the water. Our individuality blossoms in the water and our meanings open out from us like sea anemones. Water is a kind of lens. It magnifies us into what we really are, and what we have been all along.”
He has expressed this idea so beautifully I cannot possibly expand upon it.
How do you hope to de-stigmatize mental illness in working with Bell Let’s Talk and Campaign to Change Direction?
The best way to challenge the perception of what a person with mental illness looks like and combat the stigma of mental illness is to begin a free and open dialogue. That is what I am attempting to do with Surfacing. I would like to open up a dialogue on mental health, but also help to make those who are suffering silently aware that there are resources accessible to them. By working with the organizations Bell Let’s Talk (Canada) and the Campaign to Change Direction (in the US) to further their initiatives in spreading awareness and de-stigmatizing mental health issues I’m trying to point places to get help by providing links and resources.
The signs of emotional suffering are easily observable indicators that tell us, someone we care about maybe hurting and needs our help. Warning signs such as being agitated and withdrawn, feeling hopeless and exhausted, need to be recognized, taken seriously and most importantly, shared. My goal is to break the silence on mental health. To encourage compassion and action and sharing. To remove the stigma which I still believe is there, unfortunately.
How would you like the dialogues surrounding mental illness to evolve in years to come?
I would love to have played some role in removing the shame and eradicating the stigma. I have been affected by mental illness all of my life which means my family has been too. We all have a story; we are all affected. That’s why we are talking today. I would like to make it easier for people to find the help they need. By joining the conversation and using my voice, people can see that there is hope. There is no point in suffering in silence. With appropriate help and support recovery is possible.
Describe your relationship with water, as it’s a recurring theme throughout your artwork.
I have a very strong connection to the water both personally and professionally. As a child, my extended family congregated at my grandparent’s cottage where we could get to know one another around the waters of Lake Simcoe. I also went to summer camp both as a camper and a counselor, taking my cabin on canoe trips into Algonquin Park. As a teen, I raced backstroke in high school, and when I battled with near constant migraines in my mid-20’s, I began to swim almost daily as therapy. For the past 20 years, I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to combine my two passions – that of photography and swimming. The pool has naturally evolved into my studio.
As an artist, I’m always trying to create new ways of seeing and being. Some artists use paint, others stone. I use film and water and the human form.
What is the process of shooting underwater and bringing your concepts to reality?
Before I shot underwater, I did many series in studios. Both are very exciting ways of exploration, but underwater is more of a logistical challenge and a box of mystery. To be immersed in water means entering an alternate universe. Our senses are completely altered and because of the shared “otherness” wonderful accidents happen. One can plan all they want but what is meant to be happens.
What should we look out for in your months ahead?
Surfacing is traveling across North America for the remainder of the year. Currently, a selection of works are on display at Galerie LeRoyer in Montreal, and at Art Angels in Los Angeles. Next, a new selection of works will be making their way to Bau-Xi Gallery in Vancouver, and in September, the full series will be exhibited at Bau-Xi Photo in Toronto.
Second, to my underwater studio, my favourite place is the darkroom, where I create Tintypes for my Shadow Dancing series, using the Wet Collodion technique that was in common use more than 150 years ago. The otherworldly beauty that results from merging the past (tintype technique) and present (digital technology) in two separate but overlapping images, physically separated by empty space is startling and fascinating at the same time. In the colder months in Toronto, this is where you’ll find me. Shadow Dancing is about the evocative nature of memories that seem to stretch and compress the distance between the now, what has come before and challenges us to confront who we really are. These pieces explore a woman's relationship with her own present, past, and identity. The women in these images are testaments to the power of bravely embracing one’s alter ego.