Photos by Aaron Mason.
“With my own work, and with my own life, I’ve experienced a lot of battles with mental health – mainly with depression and anxiety, and I was looking for a way to characterize these feelings into a physical space for people to relate to,” says Aaron Mason, a senior completing his Bachelor’s of Fine Arts (BFA) degree this May with an emphasis in Photography.
Mason’s show, “Mania”, features 13 photographic works that display two distinct versions of himself, the proverbial “dark” and “light”. Mason was inspired by the rap artist NF, whose work explores themes of mental health and internal struggle. “A lot of [his songs] go into the nuances of how it feels to be struggling with such a thing, but also wanting to be better, wanting to be past it. I was very drawn to it,” says Mason.
In the song “Intro III”, NF personifies the darker side of himself. “It’s a back and forth that occurs within the song, talking about how [the darker self] is the reason he even got there to begin with. That mental health can’t be separated from him,” Mason adds. The song explores whether it’s possible to move beyond destructive patterns, or if the patterns are here to stay, portending a lifelong struggle.
In his music, NF examines the beneficial side of the darker being, how it kept him alive and contributed to his creativity, but now threatens him in a way that is reminiscent of an abusive relationship. Inspired by the rapper, Mason set off to construct a series where he was tormented by his own darker version of himself.
With the exhibition’s overarching theme formulated, Mason decided to construct a post that would serve as a central object for the exhibition, exemplifying the notion of capture and the loss of control that often define battles with mental health. He pulled inspiration for the post’s design from scenes in the movie “The Passion of the Christ” where Jesus is mercilessly whipped during his crucifixion.
Shortly after he conceived of the post, Mason hopped in his car and drove down to Blue Thunder Circle Artifactory at South Main Gunnison to consult with Joe Bob Merritt, a renowned local sculptor. “He’s the person who helped me pull this off… he was very gracious to help me entertain my thoughts,” says Mason.
“Joe Bob was very willing to help, but also made it very clear to me that this was something I needed to do by myself…there was this realization that I wouldn’t know what I was talking about unless I did it myself.”
So, Mason built the post from scratch: selecting the wood, gathering metal from the scrapyard, and assembling the components over the course of several weeks. “I learned a lot of things during this time, but probably the biggest thing that I learned is how to take these feelings and sensations that I was experiencing and bring them into a physical world. The material that I was using, it mattered. The grain on the wood mattered, the rust on the metal mattered.”
The post became its own character in a sense, tying together the pieces in a visceral manner. Once the post was readied, Mason ventured into the studio for three days of intensive, self portraiture shooting, lit by a solitary light that established consistency across the pieces. “It was important to me that I took the photos myself,” says Mason.
“It literally pulled out of me every single technique that I think I’ve gathered over the last couple of years,” says Mason, who drew on performance skills from his acting, in addition to filmmaking techniques like cloning and superimposing that made the series possible in editing.
Mason needed the photos to be as real as possible to convey emotion. “The photograph– that’s where I find most of its strength – it’s realism, it’s ability to capture life in a simple frame.” That reality was intended to lure the casual viewer in with gut-wrenching emotion, inviting them to experience Mason’s inner world.
Mason uses styling to contrast his light and dark sides in the pieces, creating a visual disconnect so viewers could readily discern the difference between Mason’s dueling personas. He took pains to create a lack of specificity in the piece’s physical space, giving the impression that the scene could take place anywhere.
For the shots with physical contact, Mason employed his friend Riley Gilson, acting as a stunt double, working the angles and utilizing special effects and color grading over three months of editing to create the rawest, most authentic image possible.
“People need to think I was getting hit,” says Mason, who drew inspiration from comic books, which often depict violence in static shots, but manage to display the forceful transfer of energy within the panels.
While some photos in the series utilize blur to convey force, others showcase tension in Mason’s strained arms, contributing to the narrative of a drawn-out and visceral struggle that sees his darker side torment and abuse his other self. Mason immerses the viewer in the large-scale photos, displaying splinters in the wood and Mason’s veins, muscles, and wounds in elegant, minute detail.
He ties ideas from comics, including “All Star Superman”, and from religious ideas explored in the Renaissance movement, to progress towards a final, parting message. “We have to move forward, we have to learn how to be tougher, because the world will continue to swing on us,” he says, adding, “Being the hero means encountering whatever our suffering is…and being the one who puts it into order.”
Despite the weight of the exhibition’s themes, Mason says he had a lot of fun on set, although he battled the anxiety of bringing his vision to life. “It’s fun to talk about, but I really mean it when I say I feel a separation from this,” says Mason, who sees photography as exploratory in nature, and is ready to move on to the next project. “It’s covered territory,” he adds.
Outside of “Mania,” much of Mason’s other photographic work is editorial in nature, and he hopes to transition into a role as a photographer for the music industry. Mason first got his start in photography crafting photos for Instagram, focusing on the technical aspects of lighting and composition, and taking self-portraits.
When Mason first got to college at Regent University, he focused on acting and filmmaking. In 2018, Hurricane Florence struck, pushing him inland to Washington D.C. for several days, where he found himself exploring the city and roaming its galleries, an experience that inspired an educational switch up to the Kansas City Institute for the Arts, where his artistic journey continued.
“I credit art school with breaking me open, because it really changed my conceptions of what I thought beauty was, what I thought a good photograph was,” says Mason, who experimented with different photographic elements designed to elicit emotion.
Then the pandemic hit, and Mason made the move to join his parents in Colorado and attend Western. With years of photography experience under his belt, and a background in theater and film, Mason felt unleashed to explore various artistic concepts, using photographic realism to explore narrative ideas.
After graduation, Mason hopes to delve into the realm of freelance photography, working with clients to construct and execute an artistic vision. On the side, he hopes to continue pursuing gallery work, where he envisions that his freelance work will grant him the freedom to make what he wants, push boundaries, and not stress about recouping costs. “It would be nice to be able to say whatever the fuck I want knowing that [I’m] already supported from something else.”
At the Western Arts Showcase on April 8, Mason was awarded first place for his piece “Dance of Order and Chaos” amongst the gallery entries.