Aleksandra Stone is an artist and photographer from then Yugoslavia by way of the U.S. Her delicately intricate self-portraits straddle both photography and sculpture, taking an incredible amount of time to construct with a high production value. Her self-portrait work aims to express her feelings around living with depression and human vulnerability.
Could you explain a little bit about your background — where you’re from and how you found your way to Louisville, Kentucky?
My mother, father, and I were admitted to America in 1998 as refugees evading war and persecution during the political upheaval in what is formerly known as Yugoslavia. Prior to our arrival to the United States, my family had been residing in Germany for a number of years following a difficult and perilous escape from the country of my birth. Our move to the U.S., and more particularly to Louisville, Kentucky, was one of a handful of options presented to us by the German government following denial of our request for permanent residence. Actually, Germany approved two out of three of us for permanent residence, but my parents chose not to split up the family, and we packed our life into four suitcases and headed into the unknown.
How old were you when you began to take photographs & what drew you to photography as a medium?
I have always been interested in photography; in fact, it was the only common ground my father and I shared. I remember from a young age it was one of the few things in which he possessed the patience to educate me. I spent most of my formative years dabbling in all types of creative media, but in all honesty, I excelled at none of them. In Louisville, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to attend one of the best secondary schools in the area. However, the only thing I gathered from my experience was that I was extraordinarily inept at painting, drawing, textiles, and ceramics. Even though I felt a great sense of belonging in the art studio, the quality of work I produced was mediocre at best. By the time I made it through University, I had abandoned art entirely. It was not until the passing of an incredibly dear friend in 2012 that I picked my camera up as a means of coping with the grief. Initially, I did not know where the experience would take me, but it occupied my mind, and instilled me with a sense of purpose when I needed it the most. It has now been a little over three years, and my biggest accomplishment has been abandoning variations of the mantra “…if you only know how to do one thing, do it well.”
This may not necessarily be true for others, but in my experience, this expression was incredibly detrimental to my artistic experience. In years prior, I spent entirely too long determining what, exactly, my one “well” thing was. It was not until recently that I embraced a different approach, which led to my understanding that it is acceptable to be okay at a multitude of things, and to use these building blocks as a framework for something greater.
Your photographs are highly conceptual in their execution and often have a high production value. What is the process of creating a photograph like, including the headpieces?
From conceptualization, my process of creating a portrait begins with self-made costumes, masks, sculptures, and oft elaborate set designs that are integral in conveying the scene and setting the tone of the photograph. It can take several weeks to months to create delicate pieces out my preferred media, fabric, glass, metal, stone, and animal bones. It is crucial that it all be real and tangible. The production of the three-dimensional pieces is typically arduous and mind-numbingly repetitive. The completed products are incredibly delicate as they are most always made from pieces of something that used to be whole. The entire process mimics different stages of depression; a barrage of the same tiring thoughts day after day, picking up the pieces in attempt to put yourself back together, but what began as strong is now fragile.
Many pieces become irreparably damaged during the photo shoot, casualties of rough or constant handling. The ones that make it get to live on forever as a separate entity outside of the photograph.
You talk openly in your work about your experiences with depression. How has photography helped with your mental health and in what way?
I have a tremendous admiration for storytellers; oral, visual, and written accounts have been indisputably integral to our advancement and enrichment as a society. My presence behind my camera has instilled me with a sense of purpose, and given voice to a narrative for which I otherwise lacked words. Presently, I am on a quest, one I feel every person has the ability to set out upon. It is grounded in the belief that each individual is capable of making a positive and significant impact in the world. I am of the opinion that topics pertaining to mental health have been dwelling in the shadows of history for too great a time. Only as of late have we begun to unveil and understand the stifled voices of the past. The world is now a better place than ever, in part due to social media, which enables individuals rather than institutions to become vehicles for disseminating information about mental health. Photography has become my voice in this ambitious undertaking to share my journey with others. It busies my mind and my body. This is immensely important, as depression tends to feel akin to swimming in an ocean with no sight of land; you can tread, swim, or float but no matter which method you chose, survival requires constant effort.
What do you hope viewers take away from your images?
Through my work, I aspire to illuminate the vulnerabilities of what it means to be human, no matter how unflattering. While life before the camera can be intimidating, I disallow it to be defeating. Behind every self-portrait endeavor is a dedicated effort to create a piece that is exempt from the scrutiny of the self, so that it may convey a message of perseverance and authenticity. My primary goal is to establish a personal connection with the viewer by entrusting them with my narrative, and welcoming them to participate in an open discourse about the prevalence of mental health issues in our society. I have no doubt that each member of my viewing audience has something crucial to contribute to this conversation, whether be an introspective assessment of their own life, an improved understanding of an unfamiliar subject matter, or the discovery of art as an avenue to communicating their own psychological frailties.
What are you working on now, and what’s next?
At the moment, I am in the process of creating pieces for a solo show that transpires over the course of two months next summer. I am also attempting to ready myself for a move to New York City later this fall. Presently, I am uncertain of what to expect of the latter, other than the inevitability of having to get even more creative managing a clutter of pieces in what will indisputably be a microscopic space. I am enormously curious to see how that change of scenery will affect my work.