Foreheads scrunched, heads bent intently toward screens, eyes narrowed with determination, the girls of Northwest Passage III scrolled through hundreds of pictures taken during their photo excursion to Interstate Park in St. Croix Falls. As I walked among the girls, they pointed with pride at their favorite pictures and navigated photo shop with ease, working with the other expressive arts interns, Caroline and Marit, to crop and enhance their photos. I had been set the task of facilitating reflection writing. Each girl was to choose a photo that made her particularly proud and write the story of that photo—How did she feel when she caught sight of that colorful burst of flowers or of the vivid red cardinal against solemn piney branches? What was she feeling when she finally captured the perfect shot? What did the photo remind her of, in particular? Did she see some of herself in her subject?
Never having worked one-on-one with the girls before, I was somewhat apprehensive. Writing, many students feel, is tedious, even daunting, work. A question that Ben Thwaits, creator of the In a New Light photography program, poses over and over to the his interns is “How do we unleash the expressive power of a medium?” He wants us to find ways to “demystify” different forms of creative communication. This includes writing. As I prepared to sit down with each girl to facilitate reflection writing, I turned over this thought in my mind—how could I try to make writing seem less scary?
My apprehension dissolved as I sat down with my first resident, and we began simply by having a casual conversation about her photo. She was a little unsure about how to start, so I asked her to relate the story of her photo, which depicted a vivid spray of pine branches on a gray, snowy background. What I heard was insightful and honest. She told me that she and the other girls had been traipsing around in deep snow toward the end of this year’s marathon winter, feeling tired and down, when she happened upon the scene of her photograph. She described how she felt as she looked at the bright springy branches of that pine tree. Her laptop screen showed that she’d written the word “breath” in yellow across the top of her photo. As I listened to her explanation, it seemed that in a word, her photo depicted hope. “Perfect,” I told her, and we worked together to write it down.
The next girl caught me off-guard. She was an independent writer—after a short conversation about how she related to the spindly black spider in her photo and what we might learn from it, she sat writing intently for the next fifteen minutes. The result was beautiful. In reading her prose, I saw a perspective that was compelling and wise. I stared with blurred eyes at the words she had written with such conviction that they were carved into the next 20 pages of my notepad, faint carbon copies of her insight. She couldn’t keep the smile off of her face when she saw how emotional her words had made me. I loved seeing her be proud of herself.
That was the most rewarding moment of the morning. A girl that faces great challenges in her life caught a glimpse of her great capacity to create something beautiful, something moving. From what I’ve seen in my first couple weeks here at Northwest Passage, that’s what the In a New Light Program does. It allows youth to see their capability to do something constructive, to put something good into the world. Many kids in the program are all too used to feeling like they don’t have something positive to contribute—especially when the some of the only feedback they get from their communities comes as a result of negative or destructive action. This program, however, proves to both kids and their communities their capacity to do great things—to make people smile, feel hopeful, and even, sometimes, to make them cry.
A sampling of the girls’ reflections:
Spider vs. Fly
“Take a Deeper Look”
Normally people take one look at spiders and instantly freak out and try to kill them. But what people don’t understand is that they’re a lot like us—in the most common ways. There is so much detail in them that you wouldn’t see if you look at them as a threat. Just think about it—spiders are just like us! They fight to stay alive, just like we fight for love. They create webs to live in, just like we build our houses to live in. If you honestly just take a moment to see their true beauty…you just might be surprised!
“Back to Life”
“Back to Life”
When I took this picture, there was still snow on the ground. I felt winter was never going to end and spring was never going to come. There I was, surrounded by knee-deep mucky snow, fixated on this breathing tree that was calling for my attention and a reminder to remain positive.
That’s when I concentrated and looked beyond the imperfections of my life. I was delighted to overcome this miserable winter. Therefore, I had hope and felt like I was coming back to life.
Little droplet being gently held up by a graceful blade of grass as sharp as a sword
The water magnifying the victories in my life
Around the sharp blade is where I have messed up and made me get some sharp edges
In the end we all focus on water droplets in our life and in my picture
That’s where we should all look at in our life.
“Shadows of Me”
“Shadows of Me”
for what I know not yet.
The sun shines brightly over me,
even though I am not happy.
I bask in the sun anyways,
looking at the shadows,
eerie, small ones
shadows of what haunts me.
I turn away from them,
and cast different shadows,
beautiful tall ones,
shadows of me.
By Marit Aaseng, Expressive Arts Intern
This quote in the newly decorated intern office at the In a New Light gallery perfectly sums up one of the biggest challenges that artists face: the fear of failure. The arts involve breaking outside of what is expected, unleashing one’s imagination, and expressing deep emotion. Displaying your artistic work for the world to see puts yourself on display and invites criticism. What if the world doesn’t like what they see? What then?
This question stops most people from reaching their full creative potential. They do what they think is expected in order to avoid judgement and failure. They keep their imaginations bottled up inside and they become their own harshest critics. They procrastinate. They convince themselves that they have no talent, that they are worthless, and that their ideas are stupid, unoriginal, or embarrassing. This internal fear of failure grows within people of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences. The girls of Northwest Passage III are no exception.
I have worked with the young ladies at Passage over the last two months, and I have been awestruck by the talent within each of them. During their time in treatment, they develop unique styles of capturing natural beauty, mastering the tools of light, subject, and composition. They create emotionally compelling narratives behind their work, and add deep layers meaning to their art. Yet, like all emerging artists, these photographers are overcoming their fears of failure. For many of them, failure feels like a defining feature of life. They have been shunned by society time and again, and have struggled to measure up to the strict standards of our perfectionistic culture. Depression, low-self esteem, and unstable relationships can often intensify universal fears of judgement, vulnerability, and abandonment. Instead of letting these things stop them, these girls fearlessly fight. Over time, they discover that their past can be used for inspiration, not to denigration. They realize that their creativity is something to be proud of, and not hidden. Most importantly, they discover that other people are not there to criticize, but to encourage. It has been such a pleasure to be one of those encouragers along the way.
Here are some of my favorite examples of the girls of Northwest Passage III not only overcoming a fear of failure, but triumphing.
Confliction by Zana
This is my photo just like this is my life. I am surrounded by conflicting feelings and thoughts. I feel people see what they want to. That is fine I guess but I don’t feel anything with this photo. I feel as though it is a mistake. At first glance it may be pretty. I want you to look closer and see all the faults with it. I do not find it beautiful or even interesting. To me it is ugly and I know people will see it for what they want to see it as. It is kind of like taking a person at face value, they may seem great until you peel back the layers. So I ask you, peel away the layers. Feel what ever emotion rawly and intensely that this photo brings you. If you are going to feel it don’t bury it, feel it. You obviously like this for a reason. Let it speak to you, let it whisper in your ear. Tell me what you hear.
Distorting Reflections By Lauryn
What do you see when
you look at yourself?
What do you see when
you look at someone else?
Some tend to first see their own imperfections,
and jealousy soon grows,
followed by self-destruction.
Next time you see yourself,
look, look, look,
and you just might see someone else,
another version of you.
The true you, not something distorted by magazines, models, and make up.
I love that you,
and I know some day you can too.
Black and White by Ana
Black and White
We rather choose beauty because we are afraid to take a risk because we fear that others will judge us. Why do we crave the need to be accepted and fear the result of other declining our choices? Do you ever realize the amount of decisions you are able to make but choose to make the one that others want you to choose even if you don’t completely agree?
This summer, the In a New Light program is wading into some completely new territory. For the first time, Northwest Passage is playing host to four expressive arts interns from across the Midwest who are looking to be part of Northwest Passage’s inspiring project to promote hope and healing through nature photography. I am one of those interns. Over the course of the summer, we will be using the In a New Light blog to chronicle our experiences here at Northwest Passage. As young people completely new to the therapeutic arts field, we are uniquely positioned to share what we learn from this one-of-a-kind program, its participants, and the people who make it happen. Visit the In a New Light blog often to keep up to date on the In a New Light project and to see photos and writings from the kids themselves. Keep reading to learn a bit about each of the interns that will be writing this summer.
Expressive Arts Intern
“Hi, I’m Caroline! I am from Chicago, and I’ve spent the last four years in Northfield, Minnesota as a student at St. Olaf College. I majored in History and Studio Art, studied Russian, traveled to Italy and St. Petersburg, pursued my passion for photography, and discovered new interests in bookmaking, design, and teaching.
My mission in life is to create art and explore new places, to share my passion for art with others through teaching and facilitating creative communities, to generate new ideas and pursue new possibilities, and to ultimately have a positive impact on people’s lives and on society. This summer, I hope to learn ways to advocate for mental health awareness and ways to end the societal stigma against mental health issues. I hope to develop my skills as a teacher and mentor, and I hope to gain experience that will enable me to implement expressive arts therapy in a variety of communities.”
Expressive Arts Intern
“Hello! I’m Marit Aaseng, an aspiring psychologist and artist originally from Alexandria, Minnesota. In May, I graduated from St. Olaf College where I studied Psychology and Studio Art, dabbled in music, volunteered in social justice student organizations, and worked in Residence Life. Thanks to my interests in art, culture, and the humanities, I have been given several opportunities to travel the world. Some of my most formative experiences occurred during a summer studying peace and justice in Norway, and a semester immersed in Renaissance Art in Italy.
The mission of Northwest Passage, and especially the In a New Light program, flows seamlessly with my own personal mission to work on behalf of underprivileged children in our society and their families. Central to this purpose is a belief in the positive potential within each and every individual, regardless of his or her circumstances. There are many ways to reveal this potential, including education, therapy, and mentoring. Above all, art has the power to transform people’s perceptions of themselves and the world around them. Art has the ability to communicate emotions that words cannot do justice. When this expressive tool is given to adolescents with mental health issues, the results are often stunning. Throughout the summer I hope to use photography as a medium to connect with the kids of Northwest Passage, and connect them to the beauty of this world we live in. Ultimately, I hope that this will lead to an end to stigma and a new age of acceptance of mental illness.”
Expressive Arts Intern
“Hi! My name is Laura. I recently completed my sophomore year at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa where I am working to complete an Environmental Studies major. My interest in the connection between environmental sustainability and mental health is what ultimately brought me to Northwest Passage. To me, environmental problems stem from deeply ingrained sociological and psychological suffering and intense longing for community support, love, and creative expression. Northwest Passage promotes healing in all three of these areas—especially through its expressive arts programming. I am excited to learn about the programming and to interact with and learn from those involved in the programs—both the kids and their mentors. I also have a passion for writing, and I hope this summer to better my skills through tutoring, blogging, grant writing, and trying my hand at a query letter or two. My personal mission is to be compassionate and to spread compassion. Only through compassion can we create a better world.”
Film and Video Intern
“My name is Corey Gipperich and I’m a Film and Video intern at Northwest Passage. I’m originally from Lake Orion, Michigan and attended college at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (on the coast of Lake Michigan near Grand Rapids). I knew I had to move somewhere immediately after graduating to officially kick off the rest of my life, and I didn’t care where it was. I saw this opportunity to help people at Northwest Passage as a challenge, but with the possibility of a huge reward. Now being over a month in, I’m already feeling the benefits. Seeing young kids here that have been through so much has taught me that I cannot afford to let my life go to waste. They inspire me to succeed each and every day and if I weren’t trying to do it for myself, then I’d be doing it for them. I hope this internship helps form my overall perspective of the world—which is kind of my motto. I believe we’re the sum of our opinions of the world and that any problem can be solved if you just look at it in a new light. I also hope to hone my skills in videography, photography, and filmmaking, and to make friends that will last a lifetime.
I am a storyteller through and through. Storytelling is something that has always mystified me, and I plan to dedicate my life to sharing tales that would otherwise go unheard. It’s the oldest art form, is certainly wired into us as a species, and it resonates within me quite strongly. My only goal in this life is to expose others to ideas and sentiments they’ve never contemplated before. I want to challenge people’s views and beliefs in efforts to sway their opinions to be more progressive in nature. If I can get through life and have others speak of how moved, or inspired, or awestruck they were because of the stories I told, then I will certainly be a happy man.”
Barb Klippel shares with P3 residents the Olympic Torch she carried.
For the second year in a row Northwest Passage 3 volunteered at and documented the largest cross country ski race in North America. The 41st annual American Birkebeiner and its affiliated events drew over 10,000 hearty souls to the 50 kilometer long remote ski trail between Cable and Hayward Wisconsin. P3 was at the 32 km mark handing out much needed refreshments to the racers. They offered water, energy drinks, bananas, cookies, and more importantly shouts of encouragement and smiling faces to the beleaguered racers. I, as one of those beleaguered racers, was relieved to see familiar faces as I passed through the feed station. Their cheers and accolades were the incentive that I and thousands of others needed to complete what was arguably one of the most difficult “Birkies” in recent memory.
Through the course of the day P3 witnessed world class athletes- men and women alike- from around the globe push themselves to chase their dreams of winning the Birkie. They also were there for the thousands of citizen racers like myself out to achieve their own individual objectives of racing in their first, fifth, or even 25th Birkie.
Barb talks and laughs with P3 residents in her home
Barb Klippel, the oldest woman to complete 20 American Birkebeiners, bestowed wisdom, inspiration, and joy to a group of P3 residents who visited her in her home recently.
P3 was later able to meet another such racer who persevered through myriad challenges that shaped her life. A few weeks after the race, Barb Klippel invited us into her home on the banks of the Nemakagon River to share her story and words of wisdom. She spoke of the importance of goals, fortitude, and not giving up in the face of overwhelming obstacles. She reminded us all that what is most important in life is not being the fastest or the strongest or the smartest; but being the one who sets goals and remains on their own true path that matters in the end.
Barb shared tales of growing up in northern Minnesota, being a school teacher, overcoming cancer, and completing her 20th Birkebeiner.
Courtney graciously enjoying Barb’s hospitality and company
Winter is releasing its grip on Northwest Wisconsin. Finally. As the snow recedes, and long-forgotten scents of spring fill the air, people and wildlife alike are on the move. Over the past few weeks, the young men at Northwest Passage I have found themselves immersed in incredible wildlife photography opportunities. Lenses zoomed in and hands steadied, they’ve captured some truly stunning photographs. Here is a taste of their recent adventures.
“Flight for Life” by Ethan. My name is Ethan, and I am from Neillsville, Wisconsin. I like doing outdoor art and photography because it really lets me express my personality, interests and love of nature to others. I have been raised in a family that has exposed me to outdoor activities all of my life. I am so grateful for the opportunity to continue and expand on these interests while I am at Northwest Passage. This turkey, tired from struggling to survive the rough part of winter has spread its wings to take flight to a more promising life leaving behind the struggles of the past with the sight in its eye to strive, survive and prosper in life to come no matter the hardships.”
“Little One” by Cody. “My name is Cody and I am 12 years old. I am from Poynette, Wi. Nature photography has helped me to love and appreciate natureThis Young deer looks like it doesn’t have a mother but even without her he will carry on with life and even without her he will be brave.”
“New Life” by Troy. “My name is Troy and I am 12 years old. I am from Elco, Wisconsin. Photography helped me to see all the beauty of nature and what mother nature can accomplish. If I ever think of the pain in my life I can always look back at my pictures and the memories that go with them.
This picture reminds me to let go of all the stress and pain from the past and take off into a new start of life.”
“Hidden Beauty” by Clay. “My name is Clay and I am 15 years old. I am from Antigo, Wisconsin which is in the middle of the state. I came to Northwest passage with a lot of anger and depression. Photography has helped me find new ways to deal with my anger. I love the outdoors and wildlife. Capturing these pictures is a distraction from my thoughts. I hope some day to make a living as a nature photographer.As the pheasant flew by in a blur, I had no idea of it’s hidden beauty, until I took the time to look closer at the images I captured. This is a lesson in life I will never forget. “
“Majestic Swan” by David. “Hi, my name is David and I am 17 years old. I am from Hayward, Wisconsin. I ended up at Northwest passage because of troubles with the law. Photography has showed me that there are things to do that can keep the law out of my life. When I get mad I have found that being outdoors and capturing nature can be a good distraction. As I stood on the bridge, the enormous wild swan seemed to calmly glide across the water towards me. I felt like the swan trusted me as it effortlessly swam closer and closer and knew that I would not hurt him.”
“Dancing Swan” by Damien. “Hi my name is Damian and I am 14 years old. I am from Marshfield, Wisconsin. I came to Northwest Passage for getting into trouble with the law. Before coming here, I had never tried nature photography. I never thought I would be able to take pictures that people would think are good. I hope to keep taking pictures.The Swan spread it’s wings as if dancing like a snow white angel in hopes to impress a mate for the spring.”