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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

Bringing Together Art, Brain Health, and the Great Lakes: a Conversation with Stephanie Prechter

A life, like the Great Lakes, is made up of many sources that feed it. In a sense, where each of us finds ourselves right now is a collection of the watershed of experiences that have flowed into our lives. For Stephanie Prechter, her life’s watershed has brought struggles, triumphs, family, creativity, and science together in work that promotes the confluence of the Great Lakes, art, and brain health.

“I grew up down river on an island in the Detroit River. And so for 35 years, I felt like I had a relationship with the river because it was right outside my window. We would go boating, and my brother would be a big ice fisher, and jumping into the river and swimming,” Stephanie remembered. “But not until I picked up a camera and started photographing the river, did I really establish a strong connection to this water. And it was an awakening.”

Stephanie is a Michigan-based professional photographer, and you can see some of her photos in this post. Her work has also included suicide prevention, promoting brain health, and serving as a research associate with the Prechter Bipolar Research Program at the University of Michigan. Each of these roles has reflected a step in her own journey and development, starting with her family.

"Joy" Stephanie Prechter (All rights reserved)

Her father died from suicide when Stephanie was 21, and she herself was given a diagnosis of bipolar after struggling with depression in college. “Not three months into my first semester, I got to the point where I wasn't functioning at all,” she said, adding, “I'm not big into labels, but that was the diagnosis.”

After her dad passed away, she was hospitalized a number of times, going through therapy that was “pretty grueling,” she recounted. Eventually, she connected with the concept of “brain health” through the work of Jeremy Richman, a neuroscientist and father of one of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

According to Stephanie, Richman saw the brain as “something tangible. You can see the brain. We can explore the brain. There are 100 billion neurons in the brain. There are all these things that happen. And each one of us is really unique. But it's almost like outer space that we need to start exploring,” Stephanie said. “It’s making the intangible, tangible, and for me, it was revolutionary, because I felt as if it gave me back my power, when learning about the intricacies of this organ.”

Art proved to be pivotal to Stephanie’s journey as well. She said she was artistic growing up but never considered it for a professional career. In college, though, she had a studio arts minor. When her dad passed away, “I withdrew from all of my other classes, and the university that I was at allowed for me to stay in my art class because they knew that it would help me work through this grieving.”

"Hope" - Stephanie Prechter (All rights reserved)

Still, it wasn’t until years later that Stephanie returned to art. A photography class she took at Washtenaw Community College set her on her path for both healing and a career. “There's a gamut of color in every photograph. This is called a histogram, where you have the highlights and the shadows. And for someone who's been diagnosed with bipolar – which, again, I'm not big into labels, but that was the diagnosis – it's an interesting medium to pick up,” she said. “You have highlight and shadow. And essentially, every picture has to have both. You have to have the gamut. And so in studying photography, in essence, I was really studying my own psyche. I was reframing my world on a daily basis.”

All these different streams of brain health, art, photography, and the Great Lakes started to come together during her final project for her photography degree at Washtenaw. “I was on a boat with a friend and a freighter had passed by. I did have my camera with me, and when the freighter passed by, I started making pictures,” Stephanie said. The thought occurred to her that, “I could photograph the Great Lakes. That could be my project. That's how it started.”

The Great Lakes photography project led to trips around the state, talking with lighthouse keepers, photographing the Milwaukee Clipper out of Muskegon, and “it felt like it was this new thing that I just discovered, like a planet. I had all of it, and I just needed to open up the cover of it,” she said.

Now, Stephanie is starting a new project with a small group of people that seeks to bring these different streams together – Great Lakes Inspired. “We’re looking for opportunities to share more of this information and to encourage people to become stewards of the environment and to start looking at things in a different light and to start combining these themes of brain health and art and environment.” The group’s first event combining art and information is tentatively planned for early 2021.

This journey that has brought so many parts of her life together is a spiritual one, according to Stephanie. “We're all on a spiritual journey. And I'm really open minded with my faith in general. I think it's a very personal thing.” She said faith was important to her parents, and “I can remember a lot of different moments in our lives when they were faithful, and so I owe it to them that I have that grounding.”

"Peace" - Stephanie Prechter (All rights reserved)

Rather than fighting her moments of depression, Stephanie said, she instead tries to see them as a moment of “spiritual inventory and kind of coming back to your core self.”

“The Great Lakes project, the river and all the lakes, I use it as an analogy for my own wellness,” she added. “I feel like if I make a connection to this resource, and I value this resource, and I see the interconnectedness of the lakes in a relationship to the rest of the planet, to that ecosystem, it's just a really good visual.”

People use the expression, “watershed moment,” but for Stephanie, it seems she’s had a watershed life, where these different streams of brain health and suicide prevention, the arts and photography, science and the Great Lakes have come together to create something beautiful. “I feel like I'm still in process, sort of mixing it all up. But I think it's coming together.”


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