The Show Goes On: Photographer Brings Astronaut Series To Manchester
Karen Jerzyk is a fine art photographer from Manchester. Her photos have a surreal, sci-fi feel. She often photographs people in abandoned places, or she builds her own sets at her studio using lots of props.
For NHPR's series, The Show Goes On, we're talking with artists across the state about what's inspired them during the COVID-19 pandemic and how they're making it through. NHPR's Morning Edition host Rick Ganley talked with Jerzyk about how her art has changed throughout the past year.
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Karen Jerzyk: Since 2017, I've been doing this series with an astronaut. And the back story is I just kind of had this vision of what it would be like if humans had to evacuate Earth for some reason, whether it's due to environmental issues or, you know, we couldn't breathe the air or something like that. I just was like, I really want to do a series like that where it's like this astronaut comes back to Earth, and they're the only ones on Earth and they're kind of walking around, exploring and seeing how people used to live on this planet.
Rick Ganley: Is that dystopian aesthetic -- is that related to the pandemic at all? Did you come up with that before the pandemic or is that something you've been doing for the last year?
Karen Jerzyk: I've been doing that for quite some time now. I've always been kind of fascinated with places that are just left as they are. And I've explored anywhere from abandoned houses to hospitals to just all sorts of strange places. And it's almost like going into another world because they're usually just frozen in time. The astronaut is almost like an extension of what I'm already doing, exploring these places and kind of seeing how people lived, and what they liked and what they bought.
Rick Ganley: You use that astronaut character in a lot of your published photographs in the last year in Manchester. I'm wondering what kind of response you got from that.
Karen Jerzyk: I grew up in Manchester. I actually still live in the same house I grew up in. And I was traveling a lot up until March of 2020 when everything got shut down. And so I was like, you know what, I'm just going to start walking around downtown Manchester. And it seemed strange, but it was just something I don't really do. I usually I go to my studio, I go home, but when I take my photos I go to other states. And walking around, I was seeing all this stuff that I hadn't seen before, like shops that I didn't know existed. And I mean, it's literally it had been years since I kind of walked around there.
Rick Ganley: Isn't that often true about the place you live in, though? You sometimes don't notice what's right in front of you until you really stop and spend some time dwelling on it?
Karen Jerzyk: I mean, yeah, it seems cliché, but that's exactly what happened. And yeah, I got a new appreciation for everything around me and where I live. I mean, it's easy to just find a friend to wear the astronaut suit. And so it's like, hey come to the studio, you'll get in the astronaut suit and then we can just walk around Elm Street.
I went and uploaded [the photos] to like Facebook forums. And I was like, you know how the Internet can be. People can be like, really kind of mean or really judgey. It depends. I was like, I don't know if people are going to really get what I'm doing, but I posted them regardless and I got a lot of good responses. I was actually pleasantly surprised. And I realized that by me looking at my surroundings differently, that I was also bringing other people with me in terms of looking at everything differently. And people would actually comment like, oh Manchester looks cool this way and things like that. So it was really neat.
Rick Ganley: How did the photography change over the year? Or did it change over the pandemic?
Karen Jerzyk: So when the pandemic started, I was like, what am I going to do? You know, I panicked, much like probably everyone else, despite what kind of field you're working in or whatnot. So what I did is I ordered a bunch of mannequins. I was like, you know what? I'm going to make the best of this. So I ordered a bunch of mannequins. I have a ton of wardrobe at my studio. So I just treated the mannequins like people I would photograph. I dressed them in the same wardrobe I would dress people in. Because of that, I actually started to sculpt like masks and make characters with this like sculpting clay that I had found. I don't think the whole sculpting is something I would have done had COVID not come around. I just started doing like different, I guess, forms of art to bring into my photography and doing things much differently.
Rick Ganley: So you got a little more experimental, you think, where you probably wouldn't have done so?
Karen Jerzyk: Oh, yeah, definitely.
Rick Ganley: Did you learn anything about yourself in the process?
Karen Jerzyk: I make a lot of my income vending at events. So I'll go to trade shows and I'll sell my prints. And once everything started getting canceled, I was like, okay, I need to do something. I need to figure this out. I really had to rely on virtual like Internet and just doing everything through my website, and really reaching out to more people through the Internet and changing the way I was advertising. I guess I feel very fortunate to continue to be able to do what I do during all this. I know there's a lot of people that are struggling. So, I guess I just found how resilient I can be.