When Korinna Sergent’s friends heard that she was doing a Sylvia Plath-themed solo show, the first thing they asked was, “Kori, are you okay?”
It was a legitimate concern to voice, given that her emotional connection to the poet grew from one of the darkest seasons of her life. But there was no need for her friends to fear. Looking at her mixed-media pieces in the gallery at Urban Grinders in Greensboro, each illustrating a different poem by Plath, it’s clear in Sergent’s work that she’s letting some light in now.
When she first encountered Plath’s novel The Bell Jar in 2013, Sergent was experiencing her biggest psychological break after personal trauma and simultaneously undertaking a 8-foot-tall mixed-media piece that consumed her to the point of needing a break from the pursuit of art.
“When things started to slip for me — it feels as if you’re next to a swamp, or something,” she said in an interview. “There’s zero tread underneath your feet, you’re sinking, you try to grasp earth, but it just doesn’t exist anymore. Right when I began slipping, I picked up The Bell Jar.”
A bus ride from Tennessee to Chicago with only the novel for company gave her the space to finish the book “really intensely,” she said.
“Ever since then, I held onto Sylvia Plath very dearly,” Sergent said. “Not as a light at end of tunnel, because I know how her tunnel ended, but as a moment with myself to know that other people experienced the things I’ve experienced, and in that moment, there was clarity.”
In her show at Urban Grinders, which opened July 1 and runs until the end of the month, that clarity informs her small collection of disturbingly provocative and literal translations of poems from Plath’s collected works. As gallery hoppers and friends filtered up the stairs during the opening, visitors all seemed pulled magnetically to the central piece, “Lady Lazarus,” featuring a veiled woman with flaming red hair, bleeding body bound in medical tape. The poem is taped up next to the piece, and reads, “Dying/ Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.”
The rest of the show is equally haunting, especially in pieces like “Childless Woman,” featuring a beaked feminine monster with a swollen belly, splotches of strange earth tones mottling its skin, or the chaos found in “Tulips,” a hodgepodge portrait comprised of steel wool, painted plastic and other textures on canvas, with a terrifying purple eye peering out at the viewer. “Ariel” is a nightmarish, powerful mermaid creature with yonic symbolism, vivid greens and reds, with clumps of hot glue giving the monster even more potent presence on its large canvas.
Sergent’s relocation to the Gate City from Wilmington was an intentional move toward the burgeoning art scene she saw growing in town.
A year and a half in, Sergent said the connected enclave of artists in the city has provided a nurturing space for her to explore multiple mediums and projects. A lucky last-minute open spot in an Ultimate Painting event at the Center for Visual Artists in the spring of 2015 served as her initiation into the local scene.
“I was really warmly welcomed,” Sergent said. “I’m trying to appreciate all the opportunity I’ve had basically laid at my feet in Greensboro.”
Those opportunities have included live painting at events hosted by Jeff Beck of No Blank Walls, painting a community mural with students from Irving Park Elementary School through the Greensboro Mural Project and collaborating with illustrator Beka Butts on another mural in progress in High Point’s historic Washington Street district across from the 512 Collective.
Sergent thoroughly involved herself in her undergrad arts community in Johnson City, Tenn. while attending East Tennessee State University, running pop-up live painting shows and being mentored by painter Mira Gerard, with whom she shares an approach to art as a form of psychological insight and communication. Under Gerard’s mentorship, Sergent was not only classically trained in oils, but spent six months on a large mixed-media piece that so exhausted her reserves of strength Gerard had to talk her out of symbolically burning it after she was done.
In using mixed media and painting as a means of giving shape to trauma, depression and suicidal ideation, Sergent and wordsmith Plath are like-minded artists.
“I think just as a person who deals with any type of mental disorder, depression, that slipping — I think you always feel that, that ideation never goes away, especially if you’re a creative person,” Sergent said, recalling the sensation of intentionally teetering over the edge of a bridge in college.
“I just wanted to feel how it feels to touch death — not to end things,” she said. “Because if you feel this darkness looming over you all the time, and you’re not sure if it’s going to completely swallow you one day, you at least want to f*** with it back.”
In Sergent’s eerie feminine monsters, she joins Plath in treating darkness “as its own being,” which is why she respects and identifies with the writer’s work, she said.
“I don’t pick up the baggage, I don’t decide to take it with me,” she said. “It’s just there all the time. Sometimes it’s across the ocean and sometimes it’s right there, looming.
And that’s how Sylvia Plath was. She talked about it, spoke to it. At times, people need to see that.”
Disclosure: Sergent previously worked as a TCB sales representative.