Expressing yourself through language has never been easier in today’s world. Our words flow from both our lips and fingertips, transferring our thoughts to anyone who can be bothered to listen.
So we hang on every response, every examination. We depend on each exchange to relay clarity on who we are and where we are in our lives. We hope that these conversations are enough to give us the insight we seek.
But what about when it’s just not enough? What do we do when there’s something deeper, darker, lurking under the surface that can’t be extracted through words?
Understanding these circumstances all too well, Lynnette Mager Wynn has long explored another route to uncovering these truths.
Growing up in Bucks County, Mager Wynn was raised on an orchard. A beautiful environment, she found herself always involved in the arts, but began to pursue it seriously when her art teacher started to push her. A smart but often bored girl, her teacher recognized both the potential and danger in that.
“She worried that I would be getting into trouble and encouraged me to look at getting early admittance to school,” Lynnette recalled. “I applied and was accepted to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia at the age of 16.”
Still, trouble is a hard thing to avoid.
“In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the city was entirely different,” she said. “I remember my mother was terrified because Philadelphia was much more treacherous for a young woman than it is today.”
Between sculpting, painting, and learning photography, Mager Wynn was able to shut out these distractions. But she learned that, especially in the city, not everyone is raised with the tools to be able to figure themselves out and simply progress.
“Art is predictive,” explained Mager Wynn. “When you’re creating art a lot of times things will come to the surface that haven’t become aware of consciously yet.”
“While I was in art school, creating work and being internally driven to create certain images, I wasn’t able to articulate what they were about until years later. And then it was like, oh my god, that’s what I was dealing with then and this is what it represents.”
So after she graduated, Lynnette packed her bags and moved to New Mexico, pursuing a career in art therapy. Through examining her patients’ works, she would be able to dig deeper into what might really be going on in someone’s life, beyond what they can communicate simply through discussion.
“Early on, I worked in a medical health center with geriatrics who had severe psychiatric disorders, schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar,” she shared.
At first rub, this seems like a difficult day to day. Examining the inner workings of the mentally ill is a task that most of us would shy away from the seeming unpredictability of the job. But Lynnette didn’t see it that way.
“It was a really wonderful experience,” said Mager Wynn. “Sure, they were greatly disabled from their illnesses but there was a lot of creativity and a lot of life. Some of them had really interesting lives and art was just another means of communicating that.”
But while it was interesting working with those who had full lives and were capable of sharing their experiences in spite of their limitations, art therapy isn’t simply for those who are looking for another outlet. For others, it’s an absolute necessity to get to the bottom of something much harder to accept.
Lynnette would go on to begin working with children and helping those who were hospitalized in a psychiatric setting. Different subjects, different challenges and, unfortunately, different results.
“Art therapy is so great for children. You can get information from children by doing artwork with them that they may not be able to articulate,” she explained. “So if things were going on in the house or there were dynamics that were going on in the family, those were the things that you could tease out in the artwork.”
But, as much as you can look into someone’s work and try to figure out what it all means, the realizations don’t always come immediately for the viewer or the even the artist themselves. And sometimes, what ends up coming out of all of it is something that you couldn’t have predicted, something that is completely out of your control.
“I was called in for a deposition,” she said, her tone shifting. “It was a murder investigation and I had to be deposed because one of our former patients had killed her mother.”
After five years of working in art therapy, Mager Wynn decided she had seen enough.
“That was the end point and I was leaning away from it anyway. It was a stable career choice but I had burned out. You can get a real dark worldview when you’re working with little children and adolescents who are just in and out of the system.”
It was time to flip gears.
“It was a toss-up between being a painter and a photographer. But I had made up my mind to be a photographer after my foundation year at college.”
So, feeling the need to be on one coast or the other to pursue commercial photography as a viable career choice, she returned to Philadelphia.
“I started out assisting commercial photographers and, things are really different now, but when I got in the industry, a lot of people had studios and that’s how they made their living. It was all film and, while photoshop was definitely there, it was still all film.”
Working for these sole proprietors, Lynnette learned about the business through her year and a half in these roles. Eventually, after working as a studio manager as well as a producer, she found Rago Auctions where she now serves as their Director of Photography.
“I started in 2005 and it’s actually really cool,” she said. “It’s fast paced and it’s like working in a museum or a gallery because you see fantastic artwork and decorative arts and you get to handle them, touch them, really explore them.”
But while she loves her work and considers herself lucky to be able to work in her field, it has taken her away from her art. While she has received awards ranging from The Leeway to the Seedling Award for her work, she has been on a hiatus from doing too much personal work.
“I think it’s one of the first things to go when you’re not supporting yourself as an artist. I’m supporting myself as a photographer and I’ve gotten some recognition and encouragement, but when push comes to shove and you’ve got limited time and resources, it can be the first thing to say, well, I’m going to put that off for a little bit.”
Lynnette is now showcasing her Tank Series at The KIND Institute for the Urban Beauty Photography show on Friday, November 11th.
“It’s really great to have the external pressure to produce. I’ve done some individual things but I haven’t done a series for about 10 years.”
But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t had any ideas percolating. Lynnette cites her inspiration for the series from a dinner party she was at years ago. At the party, someone had created an isolation tank, a lightless, soundproof tank filled with salt water so that the user can float while being deprived of all senses. A form of alternative therapy, it was used by many notable individuals such as John Lennon for rehabilitation as well as Carl Lewis to prepare for long jumping at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Fascinated by the experience that people have in these tanks, Lynnette’s mind wandered to beautiful small polaroids she had seen in the past of people floating in the Dead Sea.
“They’re very ephemeral, you can tell that they’re just figures but the blurriness, the graininess, it’s all about color and atmosphere,” said Mager Wynn. “They were just stunning and they stayed with me.”
“So this series sprang forth fully formed, which is unusual. It didn’t change overtime. I created about 24 images over a month’s period. Shot in milk, mouthwash, food dye over a light panel with little tiny tanks and little tiny people.”
Shot in 35mm and cropped to look like a 2 ¼” piece of film, Lynnette harkens back to the days of film when she started, creating an illusion.
“They’re not real people, this isn’t a real place, it wasn’t shot on 2 ¼” film.”
But why the illusion? The pieces are beautiful, instilling a sense of seclusion and absence, but for what reason?
“I haven’t really figured out what that means,” she said flatly. “I’ve made this body of work, and I can certainly tell you what the influences are. I could get really philosophical and say that’s certainly the cultural milieu that everybody exists in these days, being solitary, a little bit isolated, yet immersed in a lot of stuff.”
“My work has always been figurative and has always had an aspect of humanity or people in it. What has tied everything together is that these individuals are usually alone, solo travelers, so that might be the theme.”
But ultimately, Lynnette doesn’t really know. No different than her patients who don’t really know why they’re creating when they’re creating, the artist is leaving her work open to interpretation. And perhaps, years down the line, when she looks back at the Tank Series, she’ll come to realize what it all meant to her.
For now though, she’s content. With her husband and her daughter, Lynnette has plenty in her life that she doesn’t need to spend time analyzing and focuses on the simpler things.
“This show was an excuse to execute an idea that’s been floating around for a while. To support a wonderful concept and everybody involved in making KIND a wonderful community art center. To show work with longtime friends and amazing artists who I respect. Who could ask for anything more?”