Last winter at Point Woronzof in Anchorage, 85 gray figures faced the ocean. As the tide rose, it was as if they were slowly walking into its icy maw.
This was the original concept artist Sarah Davies came up with, and she realized this vision by the help of many people as she travelled Alaska, casting the figures of people touched by mental illness and suicide for the temporary art installation by the waters of Cook Inlet. She called it the 100Stone Project.
“I hid my story because it was so dark,” Davies said, adding that she had realized she needed help for her severe depression. “I was able to look back on … that world that I was living in, and I saw myself surrounded by hundreds of people. What I saw in that vision, which is how 100Stone came to life, I didn’t see it as scary or dark, I saw it as beautiful.”
100Stone was Davies’ way of showing others “hiding in that same nether world” that they are not alone.
Davies came to Juneau from Anchorage to speak about her art and advocacy for the first forum of Inside Passage for National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Juneau, a series which will run until April 2017. Every second Tuesday, the forum hosts a speaker to give a public presentation on mental health issues. Executive director Crystal Bourland, who herself was a participant in the project by getting her face cast, introduced Davies to the audience and expressed excitement for her arrival, saying NAMI has been following her work for a while.
To the small gathering at the Bartlett Regional Hospital Boardroom, Davies showed pictures and video of herself on the road casting folks, installing the figures on the beach and the tide slowly hiding their existence.
Before she launched into the tale of 100Stone, she said she strugged with her mental health but was able to go “from chronic illness and episodic wellness to chronic wellness and episodic illness.”
In a video, she said she had been struggling with her mental health since she was young — she was 6-years-old when she first had suicidal thoughts. These thoughts continued well into her adult life, and she made several suicide attempts. While working as a high school science teacher in Anchorage, at the end of one particular school day after her students had left, she had a panic attack. She just felt that today was the day that she would die.
“Somehow, in that moment of confusion and catastrophe, I was able to think to call for help, and I did,” Davies said. That moment two years ago was the beginning of the journey of the 100Stone Project, she said. She said she got the medical attention she needed, and support from love ones. She took a year off of work to focus on getting well. She does not describe herself cured — she still has depression, but it’s rare that she has suicidal thoughts now, she said.
“This project is a storytelling project,” Davies said, standing in front of the room. “Although people like to characterize it as a project on mental illness, it’s not. It’s about vulnerability, human vulnerability, and how all of us share that vulnerability in this world.”
Davies received grants to fund her vision of casting 100 people and installing them on a beach. It began small with her and just a team of five people, but it became a statewide creative civic engagement and social art project that touched hundreds of lives. Over 600 people volunteered for portions of the project, whether to be casted, install the figures, store the figures, scout for people to be casted and more.
As she travelled from town to town, with a trailer hauling her materials and previously casted figures, she reached ahead to the next town and requested people to show up and get casted. The people who heeded the call ranged in their vulnerabilities they wished to express intimately with their form: mental illness, suicide of a loved one, grief, trauma, chronic illness, substance abuse, physical disabilities or nearing the end of one’s life.
When the people came to be casted, some of them shared their stories, but oftentimes many didn’t, Davies said.
The places where she casted, she said, “was way for me to create a space and place for people to come because they knew that this project was a part of who they were. … Whether or not it’s them or one of the people they love, this was a place for us to not feel like we had to speak the words that can sometimes re-traumatize us. But we could tell our stories in this really quiet, careful and really creative and imaginative way. And a really messy and awkward way too.”
The casting was intimate, Davies said, as she put the plaster all over people’s bodies, every roll and crevice. That meant over chests, thighs and back and undersides (all with plastic bags protecting the people’s clothes which they wore underneath).
Some of the 100 figures never made it to the installation, leaving her with 85. Some broke during transport, and later, some of the figures washed away into the inlet due to unexpected warm weather. Two were permanently lost, but the rest were recovered through the help of the community.
When it came time for the installation, Davies said there was something so powerful about the gathering of people supporting the project and coming to witness the art, and having their experiences embodied and seen. On the 100Stone Project website, Davies described this visiblity as helping sever “what might be the taproot of actualized suicide — shame and isolation.”
“Our darkness is not something to be afraid of,” Davies said. “It is something to invite people to sit with us in so we can walk out hand-in-hand.”
• Contact Clara Miller at 523-2243 or at email@example.com.
Editor’s Note: Want to support the project? Consider buying one of the cast figures. Davies is selling them, ranging from $500-$2,500, and other merchandise in order to raise money to create her own grant. The grant, unnamed at this time, is her way to giving back to all those who made the project possible and to encourage more art advocacy. The casts are being sold until Dec. 31. For more information, visit www.100stoneproject.com.
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