In the Land of Hope and Grief

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From Pacific Standard: “When I arrived [in the community of Gambell on Alaska’s Saint Lawrence Island] in March of 2018, my task was to create a suicide-prevention program at the Gambell School in collaboration with the art teacher and staff. As a form of art therapy, we made papier-mâché masks with the students. Arctic indigenous cultures such as the Yup’ik are famously laconic, and not known for expressing their feelings, so this mask-making activity was designed as a socially acceptable way for teenagers to let out some of those pent-up emotions. I asked the students to work on two masks: one representing their internal grief and darkness, the other representing their joy and hope. We worked together for three weeks, taking cues from traditional Yup’ik masks that an elder talked with us about, and that we researched online and in books. Some of the students integrated references to pop culture.

My vision was to make photographs of the students wearing their masks in places that brought them closer to their griefs and their joys. For grief, several students led me outside. We went to a basketball court, a reminder of a well-loved fellow student and basketball player who they said had recently committed suicide. Standing in that place, I could feel the pain carried by the students, as well as their fortitude in facing that pain. […]

During our time together, I asked the students to reflect on suicide in their community and how it had affected them. It was clear that it affected just about everyone, but there were also deaths from cancer and accidents as well. Despite all this tragic loss, many of the students seemed to have a healthy approach to life. Their resilience made me wonder—if I were surrounded by so much grief, would I find the strength to go on?”

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