I have been an artist my whole life, but it was only after a tragedy in my family that I discovered the deeper meaning I wished to share through my work. In 2010, my newborn son, whom we named Zachary, died in my arms from a cardiac tumour. That event has shaped who I have become as a woman, mother, artist, and photographer. It took me a year after my loss to return to my creative work. That was the time my art and photography morphed into an outlet to understand my sorrow. Little did I know that early work would be the genesis of an ongoing series I call The Quiet Rebuild. The series includes paintings and wood sculpture, but the most compelling component is the photographs. By 2013 I had arrived at a place on my grief journey where I felt compelled to tell the stories of others. I was the Artist in Residence at Harcourt House Artist Run Centre when I put out a call for volunteers to participate in The Quiet Rebuild. The online call went something like this: “Have you been through a personal struggle and are rebuilding your life? I’m looking for volunteers to share their stories in conceptual portraits.”
The response I received was tremendous. People from across North America reached out, marking the beginning of a unique collaborative process. Those who lived in (or could get to) one of the cities where I planned to shoot — Toronto, Edmonton, and Calgary — answered a questionnaire about their experience. They shared the life situation that had prompted them to contact me. There were those who had left abusive relationships, battled crippling physical or mental illness, or had lost someone they loved.
In getting to know these individuals, we talked about the words and images that described them both in their lowest moments and on their roads to recovery. It was impossible not to be inspired by these people. I also felt humbled that they trusted me. I spent time reflecting on all that they had told me and I meditated on a way to conceptualize their stories into meaningful photographs. This was the stage of the collaboration where I asked them to trust me. When they arrived at my studio, we sat and talked. These conversations were not the kind between “photographer” and “subject,” but between people sharing stories with vulnerability. We created a mutual trust for the work we would do together, and set a tone. Tone is very important for me when capturing the messages behind these portraits. I can sum up that message in one word: resiliency. The resiliency of the human spirit is what I find captivating. It is the desire we have to move towards healing, happiness, and fulfillment. Resiliency is the inner drive to get up every day and put on your pants, one leg at a time; to eat, work, and live — no matter what struggles or hardships you have faced. Though I was completely heartbroken after my loss, I recognized the seed of resiliency in me. That was also what I observed in every volunteer model in The Quiet Rebuild.
“Healing #14”, for example, features a Calgary-resident named Cassandra whose father passed away when she was 15 years old. Cassandra felt lost and struggled in school. Music is a big part of her life, which was something that connected her with her father. I just happened to have been given 88 keys from my friend’s old, rotting piano a month before meeting Cassandra. I knew they would be perfect for her image. Together we — Cassandra, her sister, my videographer (for the documentary on The Quiet Rebuild), and I — sat on the floor of the studio building a headpiece and other sculptural groupings of piano keys used as props. It was a collaboration between strangers with the goal to visually communicate a deeply personal, yet universal, story. We may have begun as strangers, but we ended up lifelong friends.
The Quiet Rebuild is an ongoing project. If you would like to participate, please email me, Alexis Marie Chute. See more portraits from this series at: www.AlexisMarieArt.com
We featured this story and other amazing photography collaborative projects in our FALL 2017 - Canadian COLLABORATIONS issue. It's not too late to get it in print! HERE.