When TIME Magazine recognized SCAD alumna Melissa Spitz as Instagram’s photographer of 2017, a social spotlight made the private life of Spitz’s mother, Deborah, and her struggle with mental illness and substance abuse go viral.
Spitz, who graduated from SCAD with her M.F.A. in photography in 2014, started her series eight-years-in-the-making, “You Have Nothing to Worry About,” during her undergraduate career at the University of Missouri and then continued it through her master’s studies at SCAD.
“I never thought it would get to this,” Spitz said, standing in the center of her work’s display in the SCAD Museum of Art. “Literally how it started was I started doing assignments as an undergraduate, fulfilling the weekly critique, and if you do that for four or five years in a row, you get ten thousand images.”
“You Have Nothing to Worry About” opened to the public Tuesday, January 30, and will be on display through April 29. The show marks the second time Spitz has had her work hung in a gallery space – the first being her M.F.A. thesis showcase.
“It feels really nice to be back in Savannah,” Spitz said. “There’s so much good energy floating around Savannah and the students. It’s nice to be back in this world of academia. The work’s kind of gone off on this social media tangent, and so to bring home to this place of educational enterprise is great.”
Since the series went viral via Spitz’s Instagram account of the same name, Spitz said she has felt simultaneously overwhelmed, validated and freed.
“I feel liberated all of sudden,” Spitz said. “No more is it something I have to be ashamed about or embarrassed by it. It’s becoming something I can feel proud of. To see it like this . . . it really feels full circle from it being my life and then removing myself from that and looking at it through this lens and isolating it on the walls.”
Spitz said she always tries to look at a space before hanging her work, and for this particular show, she thought about the photos’ arrangement and correspondence with one another as “order” and “chaos.” On one side of the gallery, Spitz exhibits select photos in a straight line which is meant to represent the cycle of mental health.
“There are these bookends of ‘hole in the wall,’ like you’re constantly trying to fix the wall,” Spitz said, pointing out how the two photos framing this side of the gallery show holes in walls. She also commented on the intentional color scheme of the images. “I think the millennial pink, Xanax-peach motif is very fitting just for our lives. It’s always been browns and yellows and florals and red lipstick, so it only seems natural the pictures take on this pink, colorful palette.”
The opposite side of the gallery captures Deborah’s disorganization, with three specific photos capturing what Spitz describes as a “sinking, drowning” moment. The large central photo shows Deborah looking straight at the camera with a BB-gun pointed at the viewer. Beneath it is a note from Spitz’s brother, Adam, who used to leave notes with motivational messages for Deborah around the house.
“My brother thinks the f-word looks better without a ‘k,'” Spitz said.
Bridging the two sections is an archival image depicting the last time Spitz’s father remembers Deborah as “normal.” In it, Spitz is seven-years-old. The photo defines the split between the sections of “order” and “chaos” portrayed on the gallery’s main walls. In the center of the space are two display cases. One holds family photos of Deborah from her youth to Spitz’s college years. The other displays notes from or to Deborah, all handwritten, varying from messages of explanation to thoughts of suicide.
“Mental health in America is the number one thing I want to support because I basically grew up going to Al-Anon [with my mom], but there were all these other things,” Spitz said. “When my mom had breast cancer, everyone came, but when she totaled her car and was drunk, no one wanted anything to do with us.”
Spitz said she sees the end goal of this series as one involving advocacy for families who have loved ones dealing with mental illness and/or addiction. She has spoken with TIME about starting a non-profit for such a cause because she has been contacted by followers on Instagram asking for help.
“I think there are so many alliances right now and this is a hot button issue . . . finally,” Spitz said.
“A student earlier asked me, ‘I make emotional work, and where do I draw the line,’ and I think you should just throw the line away,” Spitz said. “There should be no holding back. I would think that this project is an example of if you just become comfortable with that anxious feeling of vulnerability, that it can really lead to things, open doors for you and turn your life around in a crazy way.”
By Emilie Kefalas.