Q+Art: Photographer April Winter Explores the Human Capacity for Loneliness
Photo“In space, no one can hear you scream,” goes the tagline from Ridley Scott’s 1979 magnum opus, Alien. Now iconic, the line is famous for teasing the film’s titillating scares, but it’s true appeal lies in just how lonely it makes us feel.
April Winter’s photographs, shot exclusively on film, cultivate a similar mood. Donning a domed astronaut’s helmet, the artist snaps glossy self-portraits that explore the effects of isolation on the human mind through a science fiction lens. Winter’s subgenre of sci-fi hews closer to heady space dramas—Solaris, Arrival, and Moon come to mind—than the creeping horror of Alien, but the feeling of an indifferent universe remains. “In the past years I’ve been focusing on how isolation affects the mind, playfully combining this with themes of space, dissociation and depression,” she writes in her artist statement.
Winter is no stranger to isolation. Cut off from shopping centers and strip malls by coastal waters, the artist stages her photographs from the privacy of her tree-shrouded Mayne Island studio. With a population numbering just under 1,000, the tiny British Columbian island might as well be on Pluto as far as Winter is concerned. “Living on a small island is a unique experience,” she elaborates. “Everything closes at 6 p.m. or earlier. I can really put my head down and work on my projects without being tempted by the human world.”
Both lighthearted and unsettling, Winter’s work captures a distinct narrative, one where the subject is plainly aware of the viewer’s presence. Defiant, Winter challenges our gaze through the layer of shatter-proof glass on her helmet. Her expression, placid and watchful, asks us to consider just who the voyeur is in this situation. “I try to straddle the line between what is visually attractive and what is repulsive, awkward, or strange,” she confesses.
Winter’s latest body of work, Exodus to Europa, imagines a fictional expedition, intended to colonize another terrestrial planet. “[The series] explores what types of fashion, statuses, biases, and ideologies we'd bring with us, and how those things would change over time as we adapt to a new way of living,” she notes. What’s become of Earth only Winter can say. For now, her work resonates with an age of physical distance, made manifest through social media and communicative disease. The prospect of being alone, she seems to suggest, is much more complicated in the future.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
April Winter discusses the administrative side of her practice, the challenges of living in a rural community, and separating her creative side from her regular day job.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
April Winter: Every human should read The Naked Ape and The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris. Every artist should read Art/Work by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melbar. And every photographer should read Light Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting by Fil Hunter, Paul Fuqua, and Steven Biver.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
AW: I look to concepts such as utopian-dystopian dichotomies, isolation, and voyeurism to play out my creative narratives.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
AW: I’d make it a dinner party with Polly Morgan (living taxidermy artist), Alexander McQueen (deceased fashion designer), Hyungkoo Lee (living sculptor/installation artist), Yayio Kasuma (living painter/installation artist), Wes Anderson (living filmmaker), Irving Penn (deceased photographer). I’d probably be so overwhelmed with all the surrounding greatness that I would just be silent and listen.
What are you trying to express with your art?
AW: I like to pair what is attractive or lighthearted with something that is odd or unsettling while also forming a small narrative. I like to catch the viewer in the uneasy position of finding my work both likeable and uncomfortable. I also stare into the camera in an emotionless sort of way to create a self-aware tableaux space, making the viewer aware of the artificiality of the photograph and their voyeuristic perspective.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
AW: Anything administrative. Taxes, curating, pricing, or hanging work. My professors focused on subjects like the principles and elements of design, and how to build a cohesive body of work, but neglected on how to apply that body of work past the studio.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
AW: Slow is cool. Once at a driving lesson, the instructor said that slogan and it kinda stuck with me. Gradually getting to your achievements versus going too fast and never getting there at all. Growing into what you have instead of buying the latest and greatest and never using it. Building strengths over time and being okay with where you are.
Let your hair down. People have often told me that I need to metaphorically let my hair down or let loose when they’ve wanted me to party with them. I’ve found that I’m much happier letting my hair down in my own way, and sometimes that looks a lot more like eating a pizza on the couch with my husband and dogs and watching Life Aquatic.
What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?
AW: Living in a rural community is both a gift and a curse. It leaves me plenty of quiet, undisturbed time to work on my projects but there is also virtually no art community. The demographic where I live is predominantly older, retired men. That being so, I don’t tend to share the fact that I take self-portraits because when I have, it has been seen as purely pornographic or titillating.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
AW: I work physically engaging jobs to make room and money for my mentally engaging artwork. By separating these two I don’t need to change my artwork to make it more commercially viable.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
AW: Creating the work that I want to see in the world, and being consistent.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
AW: I'm currently working on another self-portrait, a film photography project called Exodus to Europa. It's about a fictional space expedition to colonize another terrestrial place and is a costume-oriented project. It focuses on what I imagine could be the fashions, statuses, biases, and ideologies that stow away on the journey and how they may change with the new environment and conditions.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
AW: I have five main pillars in my life, and when I keep them all active, I find myself in my own best mental state. The pillars are family, work, creativity, education, and exercise. My family includes my husband, my three dogs, and my four chickens. I work physically demanding jobs, carpentry in the winter and a deckhand on a commercial diving boat in the summer. Apart from my physical job, I’m left with a lot of mental energy to constantly run through creative ideas based on my day's adventures. In the evenings I read up on topics to help my next creative projects, such as lighting and camera textbooks or just fascinating reads on random topics such as the life cycles of trees. And the most mentally stabilizing thing, pure motion. A long run in the morning and a cool swim in the evening are the cherries on top of a successful day for me.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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