In October 2013, at the end of the school day, Anchorage science teacher Sarah Davies felt a familiar darkness closing in on her.
For most of her life, she had experienced what she described as "a spectrum of mental illness," a web of disorders including overwhelming depression, fatigue, weakness, cognitive delay and complex childhood trauma caused by "prolonged and repeated abuse at the hands of my father," she said. She attempted to commit suicide at 13, then again at 19 and 25.
Now the smothering gloom was back, as strong as ever. Davies likened the panic attack to "having a bull on your shoulders."
She was too terrified to leave her classroom. "I closed the doors, locked the windows and called for help."
This summer Davies, 40, is creating an enormous project that aims to capture personal stories of struggles of people like her in sculptural form. She described the art as a "unique approach to suicide alertness."
If all goes as planned, on Dec. 5 of this year, 100 human statues will be arranged in the mudflats off the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, positioned as if they are walking into Cook Inlet. Each one is a cast of an Alaskan who has experienced what Davies called "emotionally difficult conditions, trauma, persistent grief, chronic illness, mental illness."
Their frozen procession into the water is meant to symbolize "the marathon that is wellness management," she said.
The installation is titled "100Stone." That's not the plural "stones," Davies stressed, but "stone," a traditional British unit of weight equal to about 14 pounds. One hundred stone is roughly the weight of a full-grown bull.
Rebirth in plaster
With a crew of helpers and a trailer loaded with a ton of material, Davies drove around Alaska's road system last summer making casts of people for her project. She began at Covenant House in Anchorage and traveled to Talkeetna, Fairbanks, Delta, Tok, Glennallen, McCarthy, Valdez, Wasilla, Palmer, Seward, Homer and Girdwood.
In each session, the model would stand in a burlap poncho while the garment was fitted to their specific body shape. Then it was removed, dunked in a large bucket of plaster and repositioned over the model who had to hold his or her position for a little less than an hour. A built-in slit on the side let them break out of the cast when it was dry.
"A couple of people got anxious," Davies said. "I had to assure them that they could get out. I told them, 'You are more important than the body cast. You can push out anytime you want.' "
People with emotional and mental difficulties tend to try to cloak their problems, she said. "Those of us with these issues are highly practiced in making sure it doesn't touch people who are around us. The hiding is soul-crushing."
She was able to connect with them in part because she was willing to talk about her own experiences. "I've come out of my closet," she said.
Though the casting events weren't intended to be therapy, they had a beneficial effect, Davies said. Models, family and friends tended to find the awkward procedure entertaining and amusing, a respite from routine and chance to experience something unusual. They chatted, teased, laughed "and had a good time."
"The sessions were an incredible source of light and life," Davies said. "And every time, when we took the cast off, they talked about this feeling of rebirth, a shedding of the burden. Every single time. It was as if the cast was imbued with their story."
As of late June, 76 casts were arranged in rows in the basement of a vacant church on Spenard Road where Davies and volunteers are turning them into completed statues.
Arms were neatly stored separately, to be attached as the project advances. So were masks of the faces, which won't necessarily be placed on their original bodies. "In some cases it's actually better if the parts come from two different people," the artist said.
In the next few weeks, Davies plans to visit towns off the road system to make the casts that will complete the 100 forms she needs.
The finished statues will consist of plaster, burlap, perlite, straw and cement. Davies hopes to have coastal plants, moss and flowers growing from them, "to make it look like the people have been there forever."
The casts will be fixed in place with iron stakes driven 5 feet into the mud at the end of November, assuming the necessary permits are granted.
"At that time of year, the mudflats takes on a unique, plastic quality," she said. "You can walk on it, but you can still drive a stick into it."
The flats at her chosen site, near the Fish Creek estuary, are relatively stable, she said. There's ice, but the tidal zone is too shallow for massive floes to aggressively scrape the mud. Storms and waves aren't a major factor along the wide and shallow shoreline. Nonetheless, she expects the statues to decay over time.
"That process will be interesting as well," she said.
Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Davies came to Alaska five years ago. Although she had no serious art training, she quickly found herself part of the local creative community. She's had work in group shows and won first place in the 2014 Object Runway fashion art showcase.
She calls herself a "self-discovered" artist. "I've been creative all my life. I had art therapy as part of my therapy when I was 10," she said. "My father was an artist and, as awful as it was, I think I hit the jackpot with that particular gene."
Her lifelong struggle with mental health changed after she made the call for help to her therapist from her classroom. Interviewed on "The Camille Conte Show" -- a national online radio program hosted by the former Anchorage DJ whose KBFX airname was C.C. Ryder -- she said a new doctor, "an angel," diagnosed a previously overlooked deficiency of the enzyme MTHFR.
The unwieldy acronym stands for an even longer formal chemical name: "methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (NAD(P)H)." It helps process amino acids, essential for producing proteins. Mutations in the enzyme are associated with an assortment of neurological problems.
After receiving treatment for the deficiency, her mental issues were "completely eliminated," she said. "It's the most rewarding medical emotional discovery I have ever experienced in my life."
"100Stone" has received funding from a variety of sources, including the Anchorage Parks Foundation and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, the Mat-Su Health Foundation and the Rasmuson and Atwood foundations.
Sketches show that, when finished, it will resemble "Another Place" by Antony Gormley. Gormley is the British artist who created "Habitat," the metal squatting man statue at the Anchorage Museum. One of his most famous installations, "Another Place," has 100 statues made from iron using Gormley as the model, stalking through the sand and surf near Liverpool, England. Controversial when it was installed in 1997, the statues have since become a tourist attraction.
Davies is still in the process of getting all of the approvals she needs to set the statues on the mudflats. But perhaps the biggest challenge at the moment is the clock.
"I need to go to Bethel and Nome to get more casts," she said. "But production has to continue while I'm away. I want to be done before the school year starts," when she returns to her job at Dimond High School.
"We've been relying on social networks to make contacts, and a lot of people share us on Facebook. But what I could really use are a few hours of help. We're in dire need of volunteers and, especially, sculptors."
Davies said two key goals have driven her to undertake the project. The first is to bring out in the open "the isolation that this condition imposes," a way to let people with emotional problems know they are not alone, "a space to dismantle the shame."
The other goal is to reach out to society at large. "Hopefully it will lead to an examination of attitudes and approaches toward people who are affected," she said. "An examination of the way we communicate with people who suffer."
LISTEN: Camille Conte's interview with Sarah Davies can be heard at soundcloud.com/camilleconte/the-camille-conte-show-sarah-davies-interview. More information about the online radio show can be found at camilleconte.com.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.