📷 Justin Lawson’s photography is exhibited at Jacob Edwards Library, January 2019. Helen Boyle photo of exhibit.

Jacob Edwards Library Hosts an Unusual Exhibit With Mental Illness Theme

By Sarah Champagne, Managing Editor

SOUTHBRIDGE – An exhibit at Jacob Edwards Library is getting a lot of attention for the disarming images it presents, as well as surprisingly commonplace subject viewers encounter as a theme of the exhibit.

The library’s January 2019 artist of the month is Southbridge resident Justin Lawson and the exhibit, located in the main lobby, explores themes of depression, anxiety and negative body image. A great number of people experience these problems throughout the year; you or someone you know probably has experience with these issues. In January, when the holiday season has ended and as the weather gets colder, some will experience these issues in a more pronounced way. Despite the fact that depression, anxiety and other mental health issues are fairly common, those that experience these problems tend to feel isolated.

To express the distortions and discomfort of mental illness struggles, figures in the photos are mostly nude but they wear masks of creatures with distorted faces. Many of them crawl toward the viewer in a way that is both intimate and strange at the same time.

At first glance, the images may be alarming. However, as people view the exhibit with knowledge of the artist’s intent, a sense of recognition and understanding may replace discomfort. The Citizen Chronicle previously published an article about the exhibit’s opening night, including pictures of the exhibit taken by our photographer, Helen Boyle, and the artist’s statement about the project. That article can be seen here.

We interviewed Lawson to get some more insight into who he is and what motivates his artistic endeavors. At the end of this article, you can also find a link to an interview our friends at Southbridge Community Cable Television did with Lawson on opening night for the exhibit.

Five of the photos in the exhibit were taken in Southbridge and others were taken in abandoned industrial settings in Massachusetts and Connecticut, including vacant former psychiatric hospitals.

Lawson says that the models for the project felt comfortable and empowered to explore their own anxieties by use of the masks. Previous projects on mental health, body image and self-acceptance were a forerunner to the current series.

“Years ago, I did an overweight series where people wanted to feel free and better about themselves but were highly insecure and uncomfortable. However, with a mask on they were able to pose nude and it gave them self-esteem. Right then I learned the power of a mask,” Lawson says.

“Since then, I’ve worked with dozens of people that were just not comfortable in their body or minds and together we were able to create some pretty powerful images,” he continues.

Although this is Lawson’s first photography exhibit, he has previously created a network of people who know of this and other similar work. In the fall, Lawson typically works with a makeup artist and they book time with clients who would like to have zombie makeup and photography done, typically around Halloween. That photo shoot differs from the photos in the current exhibit. In 2018, Lawson created a zombie photoshoot opportunity in and around downtown Southbridge. Lawson informed the community of the project on social media before it happened, to avoid alarming anyone.

“Because of networking and the style and uniqueness of my work I have always had people reaching out to me wanting to work together. I am very thankful to everyone I have worked with and I am proud of what we have created,” Lawson says.

Despite the two stark themes of isolation and zombies in those projects, Lawson says that his passion is photography of birds. He and his wife have traveled across the country, visiting 45 states in three years, capturing images of birds and other wildlife.

Lawson’s name may sound familiar to some who follow local news. Lawson grew up in Charlton and lives now in Southbridge with his wife. In addition to his photography work, Lawson has been active with the Funding For Public Transit Committee, a group in Massachusetts that advocates for keeping routes of the Worcester Regional Transit Authority open and accessible. The group was especially active in early 2018 when proposed cuts to WRTA routes could have cost Southbridge and surrounding communities access to public transportation.

Although Lawson can’t comment personally on some of the particulars of that issue, he says that community involvement and citizen input is still important for the preservation of public transportation.

“We need the community to still call their legislators and demand that Regional Transit Authorities are not forgotten and need to be funded and expanded,” Lawson comments.

Lawson’s photography can be viewed at Jacob Edwards Library in Southbridge, 236 Main Street during library hours. More of Lawson’s work can be seen on Instagram by searching @CreakyFloorStudios.

Lawson’s interview with Southbridge Community Cable can be seen on the group’s Facebook page, linked here. 

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