Recently I sent out a questionnaire to a bunch of people I know in the art world. Some are friends, some acquaintances. Some have made a living from their craft, while others do their artwork out of pure love or possibly even need. Many, if not all, have more than one job, or families to care for, and despite facing regular challenges they’re still at it in some way, shape or form. As an art therapist, I admire this. I admire their staying power, I admire their inspiration and best of all I get to admire each of their styles and unique aesthetic that has emerged over time. In the premise for my questionnaire, I shared that I was “operating from the belief that all artists find therapeutic value in their work, in some form or another.” I got a lot of positive feedback. This week I get to share with you the artwork and insight from a very talented photographer, Beth Dubber. Beth grew up in a working class family in Cleveland, Ohio and through sheer will power and tenacity, made her way onto the tv and movie sets of Los Angeles. You can check out her artwork here.
Rachel: Why do you create artwork?
Beth: To communicate something I am feeling but unsure how to express myself verbally.
Rachel: What medium do you prefer to work with and why?
Beth: Photography, I have studied and worked with this medium since 1988 or so. At this point, it seems ingrained in me and is simply second nature.
Rachel: Do you feel that your work has been therapeutic in some way? If so, how?
Beth: I remember the very first time that I felt like I communicated an uncomfortable feeling I was having. I was miserable in my marriage and did not have any tools or knowledge about how to talk about that. I married at a young age, just out of high school. In college, my second quarter of photography class, we had an assignment to create self-portraits. I had no idea what to do so I dabbled and played around. I created a story with 3 images and it was how I felt about my life at the time. I didn’t realize it until our class critique about our assignments. We all printed our final work and hung them on the wall; everyone had an opportunity to talk about each other’s work. Only then did I realize what a triumph it was for me. I communicated an idea and my classmates got me! I was elated, from then on; it took me to a new level of interest in photography.
[Side note here, when I asked Beth about these photos, she presented images of what looked like herself as a young teenager, scantily clad with curlers in her hair, sitting with a gun and open bottle of Smirnoff. In the last image, she is pointing the gun at the viewer. She offered this about them: “Regarding the triptych, it was a surprise with the 3rd image, everyone at the critique said they expected the gun to be pointed at myself but for me, it was taking my power back. This is also a creepy foreshadowing of my alcoholism. I thought that the relationship was the problem and cause for my drinking. I felt like I was drinking too much but had a good reason. This was done in 1994, I got sober 2007.” I think it’s ok – and significant – to add here that the gun belonged to Beth’s then-husband, it was something of which she did not approve – the gun I mean…but I guess that goes for the ex-husband too…all I know is that he’s still alive :)]
My biggest influences at this time were photographers Cindy Sherman & Nan Goldin.
Rachel: Can you say something about the therapeutic nature of the process?
Beth: In 2006, I was desperate to get my career as a photographer going. I was only getting little jobs here and there, nothing substantial. A friend suggested that I go out and photograph events to practice my craft. This turned into a series I called, “The Photo of the Week”, which I shot from 2006-2016. I would then select one image and email it to people on my list every Sunday evening. This became my routine and I felt grounded in it, especially since I have always had an “ungrounded” lifestyle. This 10-year journey of practicing my craft has helped me in many ways. Here are a few examples, it has made me a better photographer, I enjoyed having a creative routine, it kept me accountable to creating and distributing work weekly, I learned to let go of my perfectionism and allow myself to send out an image that I felt was imperfect.
Rachel: What, if anything, is therapeutic about the finished product?
Beth: I didn’t realize that I would experience relief when I stopped my “Photo of the Week” series, but I did. Now I will work on putting a book together this year. The sense of therapy is taking a project through completion for this one in particular. In my latest series, “Persona”, I am doing clown portraits and interviews to investigate and portray the lives of the modern-day clown. I had this idea because I wanted to “lighten up”. I am learning to laugh more with and through each subject. I am also incorporating audio with this series, this is new for me and I have enjoyed the challenge and learning new software and equipment.
Rachel: Has there been a particular time in life when your artwork pulled you through?
Beth: Yes. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 39. From the point of diagnosis to surgery was about 12 weeks. I was in a high state of fear and anxiety. I kept working on my weekly series and I remember 2 images in particular that were reflective of what I was going through. Just keeping busy, doing my craft and not meaning to, I was creating a visual journal of that time. Keeping to my regular schedule and in contact with others, helped me to stay out of high fear, at least it was more of a lower level fear. It got me to the other side of the disease. I am healthy for 5 years in a row now!
Rachel: Has there been a particular time in life when the artwork of others was especially inspirational?
Beth: There are times when I need to put my camera down. Since I work as a professional photographer and also working on personal work, there are times of burnout. These times, I love to find time to look at other mediums. I feel inundated with media and images especially online so I love to see works in person at galleries, museums, etc.
Rachel: Has your artwork helped you to find your voice in some way? If so, how?
Beth: In a surprising way this year, I was working on a photography job where I was sexually harassed and had to file a complaint. I was very scared. I felt like it was my fault like maybe I did something to warrant his behavior. But since I am used to reaching out to people, I did just that. I asked many other women in my field and they all said it was wrong and I should file a complaint. I did not want to. I wanted to ignore it and hope it would go away. But I listened to the ladies’ words of wisdom. I felt like I was going to die. In the end, it turned out better than expected. I feel like I have gained 100% more courage. I am grateful for the support from other women.
Rachel: What artists inspire you? How have you embraced their concepts into your own work?
Beth: Aline Smithson I have been taking classes from her for the past 2 years. She is the best teacher I have ever had, shares her wealth of knowledge and the way I present my work has gotten exponentially better. David Strick I have been following his work for years and it cracks me up. His work is smart, and full of humor. Jaimie Trueblood He is the person to introduce me to photography on film & TV sets, where I work today. He has been a friend and mentor.
Early influences: Bruce Davidson – his book “Subway” was a huge influence. David Hockney.
Rachel: Are there particular metaphors in your artwork that have been especially meaningful to you in some way?
Beth: I notice a common thread is “irony”. I think it is reflective of my Midwest upbringing. And I just try to keep laughing, life can be way too serious and I have gotten caught up in that too.
Rachel: Do you have any other influences you’d like to mention? Any last comments? Words of wisdom?
Beth: Whatever your medium, writing, painting, sewing, etc. Practice it every day; just keep going no matter what. Don’t pay attention to what others think about it, if you are enjoying it, keep going.
Beth’s current series, Persona, on youtube:
Copyright 2016 © Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.
Rachel Braun, ATR-BC Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA
Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders.