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Artist's passionate, personal work revealing and healing in equal measure

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Local artist Arlea Ashcroft's new solo art show, Let It Burn, explores depression and healing.

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Local artist Arlea Ashcroft's new solo art show, Let It Burn, explores depression and healing. Photo Store

Last year, when Métis multi-disciplinary artist Arlea Ashcroft found herself trying to navigate through the dense black fog of depression, she put her raw emotions onto canvas.

She painted. A lot. In bold slashes of red and black.

Her latest solo show, Let It Burn, which runs until June 7 at Zsa Zsa West, sees her come out on the other side. Most of the works were produced in a prolific three weeks leading up to the show.

"It's funny, I haven't even written an artist statement yet because it came together so fast. I think (the artworks) work together because I did it all on instinct."

Ashcroft was originally supposed to do a solo show last year. "It didn't work out because everything in my life fell to shit," she says.

Then, three weeks ago, fellow artist Andrew Harwood -- who runs Zsa Zsa West -- dropped by Ashcroft's house. "He said he was holding a spot for me and said we should do the show," Ashcroft says. "And I was like, 'The only thing I have is all this real dark stuff I've been puttering with over the past year,' and he thought it was the beginnings of a show. And I asked him, 'But what's it about? It's all about suicide and depression and grief.

"And he said, 'That's the show.'"

Let It Burn is composed of four striking bodies of work. I See Red consists of five two-metre-by-two-metre canvases, each depicting the five stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- in exaggerated and grotesque self-portrait. The canvases were donated by the RMTC Warehouse from its 2012 production of Red, a play about abstract expressionist Mark Rothko; during every performance, a canvas was stretched and painted red. The colour is akin to dried blood.

Punk Rock Shaman juxtaposes gritty images from Winnipeg's punk rock scene with the beating black wings of the crow -- Ashcroft's spirit animal -- for a series that evokes passion, power, aggression and survival.

Glitter Suicide starkly depicts different methods of suicide -- a noose, a pill bottle -- each festooned in gold glitter.

"A few people have asked me about the glitter," she says. "A friend of mine who would sit with me asked me what it was like, and I said, 'It's like being in this black well and you can't see out.' I liken the glittery bits to grabbing the brass ring. It's the golden ticket out."

Glitter Suicide is a riff on the Dorothy Parker poem Resume: Razors pain you / Rivers are damp / Acids stain you / And drugs cause cramp. Guns aren't lawful / Nooses give / Gas smells awful / You might as well live.

Ashcroft says Let It Burn is a risk.

"It's only my second solo show. The first show I did was all about punk rock chicks called Iron Maidens, and I was working strictly off of photographs. This show is all from my head. It's all things that have exploded from myself -- things I'm trying to deal with or heal from or move on from, which is the big thing. That's why it's called Let It Burn: burn it up and move on.

"It's also a risk because of the subject matter. It reveals my own struggles, which is scary. I think I'm mostly known as a balls-out kind of chick. I'm known as a person who encourages other people. I'm not a revealer of my personal truths, as it were."

Indeed, she keeps her cards to her chest.

Still, these artworks have allowed her to open up in a meaningful way.

"It was super-cathartic. Art is a healing tool, and it's been incredibly healing for me." She no longer feels like she has to maintain that tough-as-nails veneer of "I've got this." She's allowing herself to be vulnerable, both in art and in life. "I didn't want people to know that I haven't left the floor of my house in three days," she says.

"The thing with mental-health issues is that people don't talk about them a lot. For me, it was the first time I'd even revealed to my close friends the struggles I was having, though it was very evident I wasn't myself. I found that was a huge comfort. It's amazing what a difference it made to talk about it."

Ashcroft is no stranger to suicide. In the past five years, nine of her friends have taken their lives. She hopes that Let It Burn keeps the lines of dialogue open. It's a safe space where people can talk about their own "deep darks," as it were.

"It's an opportunity to share. People have been sending me messages about their own struggles," she says.

The show's centrepiece is Chair of Truth, a sculpture of a crow-like figure in a gilded chair. Ashcroft has always had a chair of truth at her various workplaces, a seat by her desk where co-workers and friends would sit and discuss, vent or unwind. The sculpture is an homage to both that idea and her spirit animal, which is etched into her forearm. The crow is a harbinger of change and creativity. "I feel like I haven't been this creative in a few years," she says. "I regard the crow in a very special way.

"Doing all this has been such a cathartic experience. I feel like I don't have to pretend, which is huge. I don't have to pretend everything's fine; some days it's not. This has been one of the most intense experiences of my life but also the most satisfying."

While the exhibit deals with suicide, loss and grief, Let It Burn is not a show about death. It's a show about life.

"People have said it feels empowering. It's not depressing. It's full of passion. There's not a sense of depression, there's a sense of fight. My dad used to call me a survivor, and that's what this show is about."

A percentage of all artwork sales will be donated to the North Point Douglas Women's Centre.

 

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 G1

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