Nestled in her two-bedroom walk-up located just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, Leah Miriam Cooper is prone to staying awake through crisp New England nights. Alone in her living room, Leah uses her personal experiences to forge connections with the outside world through her art. “I know this sounds hokey,” she says, “but my art is my home.”
Leah is a freelance designer, an imager, and a photographer. “I’ve always been creative,” the 27-year-old native of North Kingstown, Rhode Island explains. “When I was five or six, I filled out one of those books that asked what you wanted to be when you grow up. I wrote ‘artist’ and it’s been that way ever since.”
Leah navigates life’s changes with her camera in hand. “Since I work in photography, I am always shooting,” the artist explains. “I love the accessibility of digital photography.” Digital also makes sense on a practical level. “The work I do often needs to be in color, but I don’t always have access to color dark rooms.”
Unlike other artists who seek studio space, Leah creates art in her home, especially when depressive episodes strike. For her latest project, Leah secured a point and shoot camera to the ceiling of her living room with a handful of barrettes and hair-ties. Over the course of four months, the camera documented Leah’s life within the scope of her living room. From there, Leah is compiling the images into a flip-book.
Leah creates art in her home, especially when depressive episodes strike.
On her recent project, Leah notes that it is very much still an experiment. “I realized that time lapse work tends to be a time-based form of media and felt that this was the answer for this project,” she explains. “It allows my project to exist as time-based as well as in print, combining the best of two worlds. It’s still an experiment- but it’s important to experiment.”
Thematically, the combination of still images and a flip-book speaks to what is depicted in the photographs. The still images remind viewers of how often we feel stuck in time and unable to escape our space, while viewing them in a flip-book module reinforces the rapid passage of time, and the subsequent blur effect we so often feel when looking back at transitional periods of our lives.
“In my newest series, I felt stuck and isolated and really wanted to show that,” Leah explains. “I felt that staying in the apartment on my computer was somewhat universal, that post grad life often leads to a career limbo where you’re stuck. Of course, what I was going through was heightened by my illness, but I’m hoping others relate to the work.”
“I’m bipolar,” Leah says. “I am generally open about my illness with the world. I believe that part of kicking the stigma is not treating it like it should be shameful.”
I believe that part of kicking the stigma is not treating [depression] like it should be shameful.
Leah, like roughly five million other Americans, lives with bipolar disorder, a chronic mental illness that is often stigmatized and stereotyped in the media. For most people, bipolar disorder is categorized by experiencing periods of mania and depression that can range in time from days to months. Bipolar disorder is often characterized by severe shifts in mood, activity level, and energy, though for many patients with bipolar, symptoms vary in relation to factors outside of chemical imbalance, such as stress, relationships, and even the seasons.
Leah is open about her mental illness in both her professional and personal life, but being transparent about an often misunderstood illness isn’t always easy. “I feel like people think that if I’m medicated, go to therapy, and am mildly successful, then the illness is magically cured,” she says.
Unfortunately, treating chronic mental health issues is not so simple. Leah resists societal pressure to stay silent about life with a mental illness, and asks for help when she needs it.“Lately I talk it out with people and remind them that I will have bad days and still need support,” she says.
Though Leah is a solo artist, she is happy to have support from those who know her best. “My roommate is one of my main supports,” she explains. “We met in grad school and since he’s an artist he’s been able to give me emotional friend support and art support. I’d say that I turn to him whenever I need help making artistic choices.”
For Leah, the depressive episodes and phases of mania that come with bipolar do not stall her art. Instead, Leah copes with the highs and lows of her illness —and the tumultuous nature of life in general— by generating art in ways that reflect her life.
“I’ve always been very interested in incorporating my own domestic space within my work,” she explains. “I started with my bedroom at my parents house in undergrad. Then my grad school apartment in Baltimore was the center of any work I was creating.”
Now, Leah’s living room is the hub of her work. “I originally thought of doing this project in my bedroom,” she says, “but realized it would be more interesting to take photos in a shared space, especially since I spent more of my time in the living room.”
Leah’s recent work engages notions of the uncanny into everyday life. A small living room, a coffee table, and the people who come in and out of her home. “I’m sort of fascinated by the complications of daily life that we often overlook,” she says. “I turned to this project when I was experiencing a depressive episode after finishing grad school.”
“I’m sort of fascinated by the complications of daily life that we often overlook…”
“I turned to more of a documentary style of photography after focusing on constructed images for the majority of my career. I felt that making images in a new way as well as creating a portrait of an extremely hard time for me would help.”
Living with bipolar disorder has an impact on the themes Leah explores in her art, as well as the practical side of working. “When I’m depressed, I’m much more likely to make work at night, whether that’s editing, coming up with ideas, anything. I tend to mess up my sleeping when I’m depressed and sleep all day,” Leah admits. “I stay up all night and become hypomanic.”
Leah’s moods and energy levels eventually shift, as does her approach to her current project. “When I’m feeling ok, work takes place during the day and is a lot less manic. My actions need to be more thought out and the series itself becomes more concept based.”
As an artist, Leah creates her own boundaries about where her work ends and she begins. “I try my best to create work no matter my emotional state, but I do give myself art vacations,” she explains. “I tend to need to reload, especially after a large project.” Self-care is important for any artist when it comes to preventing burn-out, but treating one’s self with forgiveness and recognizing limits is especially prudent when living with a chronic illness.
“My creativity is always around, but a little harder to harness when I’m depressed,” Leah explains. “If I’m feeling a block when I’m depressed I spend a ton of time at museums and galleries til I’m inspired again. I try to stay motivated no matter what.”
Leah’s work largely involves self-portraiture and strong investigations of the self in relation to the world around her. After a traumatic event in the Spring of 2011, Leah became both photographer and subject to document her process of healing and recovery.
“When I was still unpacking what happened to me, I did a lot of skin pulling images—self portraits where I pulled the flesh on my face or my body,” Leah explains. “At the time I didn’t notice how violent they were, but looking back they’re very aggressive.” For Leah, this trauma manifested in her work, and she transitioned from creating art for aesthetic purposes to creating art that is rich in emotion and raw imagery.
Now, Leah describes herself as creative, empathetic, and driven. Though she works through her depressive episodes, Leah also recognizes when she needs to step back from her work. “Working on art always helps me feel productive, which makes me feel better overall. Though, I have taken time off from art to work on myself from time to time. I try to be very self-forgiving when in a rough spot.”
Leah’s work has caught the attention of international reviewers and chic showrooms in New York City alike. Her master’s thesis, titled Projections, too involved domestic settings, as Leah scanned family photos into 35-millimeter slides before projecting them onto her apartment walls. These manipulated images give the sense that her grandparents, long deceased at the time, were in her bedroom or at the dinner table, for instance. As a whole, Leah’s work is at once tender and unsettling, urging viewers to voyeur into her life before taking a step back and investigating their own.
In spite of much success with her art, Leah admits that she struggles with imposter’s syndrome. “I’ve always been geared towards creativity,” Leah explains. “But I didn’t feel like I earned the right to call myself an artist until I had my work accepted into a show.” But for Leah, art is not about acclaim and attention from critics; it’s about expression, identity, and forging connections.
For Leah, life doesn’t imitate art — life is art. “I’m not my art,” Leah says. “But my art is me.”