Last week, Alex Macon sat cross-stitching in a rocking chair, face anonymized with a blaze orange ski mask, casually conversing with friends and visitors of his first DAAP gallery show, “happyface.” He was comfortably tucked away in a tiny, closet-sized room separated by a curtain.
“I am an enigmatic artist, which means that I draw division in between the art I showcase and myself,” he said. “If people had questions, they could ask me, but they don’t know who I am.”
Macon sat on the idea for a while, he said, but he ultimately became inspired after he began spiraling into depression. It’s uncommon for society to project and accept men of color showing their true emotions — especially sad ones.
Macon’s personal struggles with depression were formative in his creation of the gallery concept. One step into the room, and your line of sight is bombarded with orange — it’s the theme of the show. It seemed the obvious choice to contrast and rebuke the stereotyped “blue mood” that everyone feels. One of the recurring themes throughout the show reiterates that it’s OK to be sad.
Themes of loneliness and suicide prevail in Macon’s photo series, featuring a handful of men of color, shackled and looking at their phones as a distraction from the emotions. The far wall was filled with cross-stitched hoops that display distraught messages, like “I can’t just be happy. It sucks.” Another one reads “bless your soul” next to a noose.
Macon chose three main mediums to communicate his message: photography, sculpture and cross-stitching. He has a knack for photography and felt comfortable depicting male emotion and a spectrum of energies through a photographic medium. Part of his gallery included repurposed aluminum can sculptures painted orange with happy faces overlaying sad ones. He’s been inspired in recent years by ready-made sculptures and the idea of giving new life and meaning to old, cast-out objects, he said.
After researching mental health statistics and finding that 1 in 5 people suffer from mental illness, it became clear to Macon that everyone’s mind and emotional spectrum is different.
“Each [can] became unique in their own way,” Macon said. “Each time I dented one, it dented in a different way … That inspired me to think of them as people, as if they had their own personality.”
He integrated cross stitching into his show as a second form of sculpture. The activity has been found to be a helpful escape from depression, but it is mainly adopted by women — especially postpartum women — because it’s socially recognized as a domestic pastime. That means many men can’t blow off steam with a session of cross-stitching without being looked at sideways.
It’s common for mental health practices to be geared more toward women, as women are historically seen as more emotional. But this attitude toward mental health only contributes to a staggering number of young men of color whose lives are affected by their unchecked, unrecognized, invalidated struggles with their own mental health, thus perpetuating a cycle of toxic masculinity and adding to the suicide statistic.
Macon’s gallery show captured those stigmas, hung them on white walls and doused the room in obnoxious, anti-sad orange. For months, he worked tirelessly on the gallery — developing the concept, refining the literature and nitpicking his artwork.
Though he never crafted a self-portrait and purposefully removed himself from the show, Macon’s presence was heavy in the gallery. It’s obvious that Macon has a great deal of personal experience with society stifling his ability to comfortably express his emotions as a black man.