Art Reflects Life
Written by Agnes Bahr // Photos by Alana Cartwright
An interview with CSU artist, Alana Cartwright, who specializes in photography
As social injustice, COVID-19, and the presidential election grip the attention of the United States, artists have begun to reflect these complexities in their work. I had the privilege to interview fellow CSU student, former teammate, and talented artist, Alana Cartwright. During the interview, we dove into her artistic process, what inspires her, and the message she conveys through her art. We discussed how the medium of art has a significant impact on the message expressed. Cartwright prefers photography over other mediums because she is able to objectively document life around her. This sense of documentation can be seen throughout her artwork, especially in the ways it relates to the recent protests concerning the racial infringements occurring nationwide.
The Start of It All
Just as each artist has a different style, artists have different points in their lives that turn them into artists. When I asked Cartwright about what experience inspired her to become an artist, her response was touching.
CARTWRIGHT: I started taking photos when I was about 14. My uncle died and we had no pictures, and you know when someone passes away you are trying to cling to all these memories, but memories become fuzzy over time. That’s when I realized I need to start documenting.
BAHR: How did that particular experience turn into what your art looks like now?
CARTWRIGHT: Since my goal was to document using photography, I took pictures of everything and that’s when I started seeing the beauty in the world around me. I try to incorporate that beauty and emotion in my photos now. Even though the pieces I work on are not always captured in real time, I believe it is still a form of documentation.
As Cartwright was describing this moment in her life, I felt that her experience with the death of her uncle and wanting to preserve his memory was familiar to most people. So often people find themselves having regrets after their loved ones are gone. Hearing that Alana was 14 years old when she made the connection between photography and the conservation of memories was incredible to me.
Each artist has their own unique method of creating art. I was able to talk to Alana about how she approaches the construction of her art, including how she decides on the message she wants to construe.
BAHR: I know we talked about the moment that inspired you to take up photography, but what inspires your art now?
CARTWRIGHT: After taking photos of basically everything, I started to see the beauty in existence, of the world and the people inhabiting it, but what gets me inspired is manifesting the complexities of the human existence.
Understanding Alana’s fascination, let alone her ability to then create from that enchantment of “the human existence,” was incredibly alluring. Cartwright showed me specific pieces that she felt best represented her style and process.
BAHR: What is your favorite medium?
CARTWRIGHT: Drawing is more of something I enjoy when I have the time for it, but photography — being able to capture physical human existence and visual storytelling — is my bread and butter.
Challenging the Culture of Nudity
When looking at Cartwright’s art, the emphasis is on the nude human body. In a world that manipulates nudity to often fit a sexual context, her work does not have that sexual aspect. Cartwright’s art is alluring without objectifying the bodies in the photographs.
BAHR: Looking at your work, I can see you use the nude human body as the main element in each piece. Tell me more about why people and why nude?
CARTWRIGHT: For one thing, I love the human form. I got into documenting the human body, and doing so I was able to fall in love with my own form and I could see the beauty that is the human body. I think that in the culture that is frankly porn-infested, the human body is so much more. It is your home, your temple. Your body is your vessel that holds all of your experiences. You want to be comfortable in it. So, by depicting the human body as a masterpiece, as a work of art, I want more people to think of themselves in that exact way.
BAHR: Is that the goal? To show something beautiful in just the human body that isn’t sex-related?
CARTWRIGHT: Of course. Your body shouldn’t be taboo. I really want my art to challenge people about how comfortable they are to embrace the actual human form and seeing a body that way. I want to show people something deep because all of my work has something conceptually deeper. I’m using the body to express raw human emotion.
A nude body can be perceived in different ways, and, unfortunately, the culture that surrounds us equates nudity with sex. The cliché “sex sells” may be true, but Cartwright’s hope for her art is that people can get so much more out of viewing a nude body than just for the sake of sexual appeal. Each piece Cartwright creates using her nude models is meant to convey a kind of human emotion. The way the artist poses her models, decides on an environment, chooses colors, and creates contrasts all impacts the kind of emotion that she wants the viewer to feel.
In the recent months of the year, more instances of social injustice have come to light. Social injustice has always been prevalent, but now more people are realizing and supporting those affected by the violations against African Americans.
CARTWRIGHT: I was able to go out and take pictures of the protests that were happening in Cleveland, and that was a really cool experience for me because my actual career aspirations in photography are to document real events.
BAHR: How does the current situation impact you in your art?
CARTWRIGHT: When it comes to art, I’m drawn to many different things outside of documenting the human body, which is what most people see in my art. I want to see all these different cultures and experiences and document real events going on right now and educate people. It's this idea of visual storytelling.
BAHR: So being able to be there during the Black Lives Matter protests in Cleveland was probably a great opportunity then. Was your motivation to photograph the protests completely for your own portfolio?
CARTWRIGHT: No one asked me to photograph the protests. It was something I wanted to do on my own. For me, the protest and everything going on was a cool way to get in that element. I could document people in pain and document the beauty in pain.
I loved that Alana used the reference of being “in the trenches,” because as we talked, it was clear that the environment of the Cleveland protest was not exactly safe. Cartwright took several pictures being surrounded by people being held at gunpoint, people being pepper-sprayed, along with cars being set on fire. In our conversation, the civil rights movement was brought up. The way the pictures objectively capture the events that were happening still were able to exhibit the emotions felt by the people in the photos. Cartwright is on a mission to educate people.
Objective documentation and human emotion are two things one would believe should be kept separate, although, given context this is not the case. When documenting something objectively the author should strive to not insert their own feelings and opinions. Where objectiveness and emotions can be combined is when what is being documented is emotional. The situations Cartwright strives to document are those with raw human emotion.
For the Future
Alana talked about her work with such passion — hearing from someone who was pursuing her passions as a career was inspiring. She is aiming to make a difference with her talent and knowledge gained by not only attending Cleveland State University, but also experiencing the world. I was curious to learn Cartwright’s plans for the future because she seemed to have a well established sense of purpose.
BAHR: What’s next for you after your last semester of school?
CARTWRIGHT: I have another year of studying through Cleveland Institute of Art in the Baccalaureate program. I want to gain more knowledge and insight to help me use my art to better the lives of others.
BAHR: Do you have a plan on how you’ll use your art to help others?
CARTWRIGHT: For a long time, I thought my vocation would be to travel the world and expose myself to different cultures in different countries, different socioeconomic backgrounds, and document what was happening. I want to do some mission work at the same time by photographing for an organization like World Vision.
BAHR: Do you see yourself documenting the different people and places you come across, or will you use your experiences to influence your more abstract work revolving around the human body?
CARTWRIGHT: The goal is to change people’s lives for the better by documenting everything around us so we can learn. People who are struggling are not in hiding. They just have not been brought to the eyes of people who have the power to affect them. I want to raise the standard of living by documenting people who have far less than the luxury of a proper house.
According to Alana, her calling has always been rooted in using her art to strengthen others, whether by showing the inherent, raw beauty of the human body or by shining a much needed light on people in need of help. In the beginning of my interview with Alana she said, “The hope for humanity is to see people’s differences, acknowledge them, and talk about them. That’s what I want my art to inspire.” I love the way this statement captures her mission.
BAHR: What are you going to be spending most of your energy on these next few months as far as your art goes?
CARTWRIGHT: I’m going to be spending a lot of energy preparing for my upcoming shows. I take a good amount of time putting my pieces together so that everything presents well. If I’m going to put my name on something I want to be proud of it.
Cartwright’s upcoming events include a solo exhibition at the Massillon Museum which will be showing March 6–28. Further in the future, her work will be presented at the Galleries at CSU during the Merit Scholar Exhibition, which will be taking place during the spring of 2021. These exhibitions will be showcasing an abundance of Cartwright’s talent. The Parma Artspace and Gallery also may display the photographs taken by Cartwright during the Cleveland racial justice protests in the future.
Cartwright’s approach of photographing the human body to express emotion is an intense approach not only because of the stigma society places on nude bodies, and places emphasis on the fact that while we can change our clothes, we can’t change our bodies. Cartwright talked passionately about how our bodies are such genuine representations of who we are, not who we want others to think we are.