Breaking Free from the Unseen Force

Interview with Firefly Institute Teacher Brooke Shaden

Brooke Shaden is known for mysterious fine art images imbued with a dark fantasy. Her subjects levitate, submerge, shed rose petals and blend with smoke and trees. The women are always real, and are often self-portraits of Brooke herself; it is the settings and the secrets they disclose or hide that are otherworldly. A viewer can return to her depthless images again and again, finding more to see each time.

Brooke’s latest series The Fourth Wall was recently on display at the Joanne Artman Gallery in New York City. I spoke with Brooke about the series and her process for creating it. We also talked about teaching, learning the practice of creativity and, of course, Firefly Institute’s fall photo camp for women.

I read that when you prepared for this Fourth Wall series you asked others to tell you what they felt they couldn’t tell other people. How did you use that in your work on this series?

I asked people, very simply, “If you met a stranger right now, what do you feel you couldn’t tell that person, what would be the thing that you wouldn’t want them to see?”

There were two common answers. One was a feeling of loneliness. The other answer was feeling trapped—by themselves, by time, by their circumstance. We all feel that way at some point in our lives, like there’s some unseen force holding us back.

I pulled a lot of inspiration from those conversations.

When you asked others the question, did anyone ask you?

Yeah, definitely. What I don’t like to tell people about is feeling fragile, feeling like I am weak or that people view me that way. So I wanted to deal with fragility in one of the images.

I had this image planned in the series from quite early on where I knew I was going to do a self-portrait and have that be my very personal image in the series. It’s an image that features egg shells.

And how did you feel after that—not just sharing with other people, but creating the self-portrait with the thing you don’t like to share with others?

I felt proud. Once you communicate the thing that scares you the most then suddenly you realize that nothing is that big of a deal and, not only that, but everyone feels similarly. They might not use the word fragility to describe themselves, but nonetheless there is a feeling of being less somehow, in most people, somewhere in their life.

When I attended the big gallery opening, to talk to people about it, and say, “This is my picture, this is me, this is my emotion,” and then hear people’s responses was powerful. And the response is always, “Me too.” That’s what everybody says.

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In your New York gallery opening, you had a glamorous setting very different from these intimate conversations that inspired your work. You were on display! People were all dressed up.

It is quite a different experience, and of course I showed up looking like a little pixie, so out of place!

I know that in pretty much any situation, I am going to be the weirdo in the room. That has just been my experience for the last few years! Any convention where I speak, I’m always saying something quite drastically different than most of the speakers there. I have come to embrace that element of surprise with people when I’m talking to them. If I am going to be in a social situation--which I don’t generally like, I am a very shy, timid person a lot of the time--so if I am going to be in that situation I am going to embrace it fully. I like to walk right up to people and ask what their greatest passion is, or what they feel they can’t tell other people.

They don’t expect me to just ask outright: “How do you relate to this, or what are your innermost workings?” But that, to me, is always the best part of a social engagement.

You talk about yourself as being shy, and then you come to this place where you love sharing yourself really authentically. There’s a journey there. How did that come about?

I started to realize that nobody cares about me, in a really good way. Not poor me nobody cares about me, but strangers don’t care about me. I care about me more than any of those people do, so as long as I can get over my embarrassment and fear there is nothing to worry about. It was very freeing to realize that, at best, I’m going to be somebody’s fun dinnertime story at the end of the day.

Let’s talk about your teaching a little bit. You have this wonderful fine art career: why also teach?

I wanted to be a teacher from the earliest I could remember. I have always loved the idea of exploring something with somebody. And I love anybody who is willing to learn because I find that I myself am not always so willing. I love meeting people who are, and who seek to know themselves more through their art.

You say that you can learn creativity, is that right?

Yes, I definitely think so.

Creativity happens when you are able to access yourself with no outside inspiration and come up with something to create. If you simply spend the time doing things that force you to look inward, then you will find that something creative comes out of it.

You’ve got four classes at Firefly Institute camp: From Blank Space to Beautiful Image, Video Storytelling, Creating a Levitation Image, and Creative Compositing.  

Pick one of those and talk about what you would like students to feel and to learn and to do. 

The Blank Space to Beautiful Image class--that is one of my favorite topics because when you say, “We’re going to start from nothing and we are going to make something from that,” it’s a very interesting process to watch. Some people really thrive from that place of having a blank canvas. And other people really freak out because they would like some sort of inspiration already. What’s so beautiful with this class is that we are going to start from the ground up. We are going to learn techniques where you can build a set with no budget, you can composite even if you don’t know Photoshop that well. We are going to go on a journey, where we all start from nothing and get to the creation of a well-rounded fine art image. 

Why are you excited about being part of Firefly Institute’s Photography Camp for Women?

There is a certain vulnerability in a space that is all women. You will be understood more intimately than would happen in an impersonal situation.

I also love the camp style: this little contained space where you are with people who inherently understand you because you are there for the same reason and have the same passion. It is a bond and sisterhood that is just phenomenal and I am so excited for it.

 The World Above, by Brooke Shaden

The World Above, by Brooke Shaden