By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Art is where many of us go for solace, particularly when we do not feel well, either physically or emotionally. We look to paintings, film, television, and more to cheer us up or to distract us from what we are feeling.
This is an idea that installation artist Derek Peel hopes to turn on its head with her upcoming solo exhibition, “Get Well Soon,” which will open October 18 at 707 Gallery downtown. This will be Peel’s ninth exhibition since beginning her artistic career in 2017.
The concept for “Get Well Soon” was inspired by the ways American society deals with illness, and how those methods are often impersonal or merely serve to cover up the larger issue.
“The idea of this show is something I’ve had for a long time, like Hallmark cards that say these kind of insincere messages, like ‘Get Well Soon,’” says Peel. “It developed into a thing that is about living with feeling broken, and giving up. People live their whole lives this way, like being in quicksand.”
Peel’s installations are distinctive for incorporating a wide range of unconventional and found materials. “Get Well Soon” is no exception, with items like party balloons and road signs making appearances.
Her choice to work with these materials is partly out of necessity, to create the image she wants with limited resources. But the use of everyday items also heightens the impact of each piece because of how familiar they feel to the audience.
“Using familiar images definitely resonates with people more, and that’s important,” says Peel. “Things resonate with you and you hope people see that too, because then you’ve done a good job.”
The familiar appears in a number of ways throughout “Get Well Soon.” For instance, one of the installations, titled “Big Day,” takes the form of an oversized pill organizer. Each day of the week filled to the brim with prescription bottles, meant to critique how society over relies on drugs to solve health problems, often to the detriment of the individual.
“You see a lot of elderly people or people suffering mental illness, they might not even remember what they’re taking anymore, it’s so serious,” says Peel.
While “Big Day” certainly grapples with a dark subject, it also keeps a humor to it, as each day on the organizer is labeled “Monday.” To Peel, humor is a way to cope with the distressing and difficult, an attitude which comes through in her work.
“When I come up with an idea or image and it makes me laugh, I know that that’s what I need, because it must be painful, and therefore true or genuine,” Peel says.
Coping with distress was what initially drew Peel to the art world in the first place. Nearing the end of her college career, Peel says she struggled with not feeling a sense of purpose, not knowing what she was meant to do. Creating art, she felt, gave her that direction she was craving, and it expanded into a whirlwind that has carried her through nine exhibitions in just three years.
“I just started making things, and it developed, and here I am. It’s kind of weird,” she says with a laugh.
And while Peel certainly knows what she gets out of the art she creates, she does not want to decide what her audience takes away from “Get Well Soon.” Instead, she hopes that her work will help those who view it process their own emotions, and maybe identify emotions they didn’t even know they were feeling.
“I hope that I’m saying something that resonates with people, maybe explaining feelings that people have that they don’t know how to express,” says Peel.