Mental health advocate Ashley Lagrange is crafting a new approach to restoration.
– KEYS SOULCARE
Photograph by Laila A. Stevens.
You’ll find native New Yorker Ashley Lagrange tucked in the heart of Corona Queens, seeking solace between radical vulnerability workshops and therapy sessions. One of their favorite forms of respite? Collage art. Derived from the French word papiers collés, a collage is the visual assemblage of various cuts of materials, like photographs and fabrics, to form a new image. For Ashley, the process of collaging is so much more than what meets the page.
Here’s what the Collage Therapist had to say about the art form and how we can all reclaim our stories, one clip at a time.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOURSELF?
I am a work in progress. I am a guide. I am a healer. I see myself as a stepping stone in people’s journeys. I never want to be the last stop. Through my own personal self-evolution, I try to understand the world and how it impacts us, our feelings, and our behaviors. Then, [I] use that awareness, knowledge, and lived experience to guide folks through their own experiences — with the goal of hopefully healing.
YOU’RE THE COLLAGE THERAPIST— HOW DID YOU COME TO COMBINE THERAPY WITH COLLAGE ART?
Therapy work came from a deficit in quality care. Growing up in my Dominican household, support looked monetary — putting a roof over your head and a plate of food in front of you — but everyone needs more than that. Prior to college, I had been struggling with disordered eating and self-harm — both of those activities involved my hands. I started collaging because that was what helped me heal from self-harming behavior. I acknowledged that there was a catharsis in ripping up the paper, gluing it, and cutting it up. [Collaging] allowed me to have an alternative for what I wanted to do with my hands; to transform energy and utilize it in a way that wasn’t harmful to me physically.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THERAPEUTIC ASPECTS OF PUTTING TOGETHER COLLAGES?
Collaging was also a way for me to repurpose and reuse things. I’ve always been really into vintage and thrifting, [especially] the aesthetics of picture books in thrift shops. I want to reflect, reclaim, redefine, and repurpose because — even if we’re looking at this in the most basic recycling way — I can create something out of whatever people didn’t see purpose, beauty, or necessity in. Oftentimes, that’s what therapy is. People bring up these memories and they’re like, oh, well this has no purpose. And then we break it down and [realize] it’s connected to this deep, underlying theme of rejection, feeling misunderstood, or feeling uncomfortable in your body. In therapy, we are redefining and giving a new purpose to memories. We are just recreating things from the past that people have “put away” like these books, magazines, and materials that I like to use.
YOU SPEAK TO BUILDING A “PERSONAL ARCHIVAL” THROUGH WRITING AND PHOTOGRAPHY — WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO DO THAT?
The desire to self-archive is from a deficit — a lack of photos and stories. I would ask about my parents’ upbringing and it would be so limited. My mother was born in the U.S., but she was raised back and forth between New York City and the Dominican Republic. A lot of her photos got lost in transit, so a part of my mother’s history has been gone from my own view. My father immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic and a lot of his things were left at his parents’ house [in the Dominican Republic].
There were a lot of unanswered questions about what my parents looked like and that impacted my ability [to fully see them]. My grandmother on my mom’s side was an illiterate, Black dark-skinned Dominican woman who married a white, wealthier man. Because of that racial dichotomy, he had photographs of his life and she did not. That deficit of not being able to see what she looked like was why I wasn’t able to acknowledge my Blackness. A lot of stories got lost because [my family] just wanted to forget the pain. But for me, those stories were important because that pain is also a part of my progress.
WHAT ELSE HAS BEEN A PART OF YOUR SELF-ARCHIVAL PROCESS?
Being an only child, my mother took a lot of photos of me to reclaim the experience of losing her photos. In middle school, when a lot of my self-image issues came up and I was no longer comfortable being in photos, I became the photographer. Because I had this weird relationship with my body, I turned to the written word, which is when journaling came to me. I did not want to see myself [physically] at that moment, but I could write and see myself through words and language.
WHAT IS YOUR HIGHEST VISION FOR YOUR WORK?
I would love to find a way to incorporate my ability to guide and heal into more social justice-oriented spaces. Political education and organizing happen to lead to a lot of pain and viewing of trauma, so I would love to see an intersection of my work show up to assess the balance of emotional wellness in an organization or create a healing retreat for people to process what they’ve experienced. Organizing and political education are necessary to dismantle systems of oppression that are present. At the same time, we are all humans so people need to tend to their feelings, even when they feel inaccessible. Also, I want to find a way to stop the gatekeeping that happens in therapy spaces, due to insurance, representation in identities, and money on a larger scale,
WHAT IS YOUR HIGHEST VISION FOR YOURSELF?
My highest vision for myself is to create a life where I can hold all of these feelings [for others] while simultaneously prioritizing mine. We are in a world where we have to choose one or the other, but it’s both. I’m continuing to work towards that balance as a reclamation of control over my life. I did choose a really difficult and vulnerable industry, but vulnerability is such a gift to me and I never want to live without it.
WHAT WISDOM CAN YOU OFFER TO OUR SOULCARE COMMUNITY?
I always like to remind people that there is light in the dark and there is good in the bad. Not in [a] toxic positivity mindset, but in a self-empowered way. People feel so disempowered in the world — we can feel so hopeless and helpless — so I like to reframe and rethink our purpose. What does it mean to define things for ourselves when this whole world is filled with definitions made by other people? I’m hesitant about using the word “safe” because the world is not safe for many of us, but think about what is calm, grounded, and neutral — and know that you can make certain decisions to bring that into your life.
Let’s practice — how can you reframe an experience? What good have you uncovered in a difficult situation? Share your story in the comments.