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'The Secret Ocean' chronicles conflicts of domestic abuse

| Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011

In many cultures around the world, domestic abuse is rarely spoken of, let alone written about. But, for Norwegian artist Reinhardt Sobye, it has become the subject of his art recently. And, thus, the subject of his latest solo show at Box Heart Gallery in Bloomfield.

The exhibit comprises a series of 15 large-scale photographs manipulated with charcoal and pastel that visually describe one woman's emotional journey through domestic abuse, sexual violence, marital manipulation, divorce and, finally, independence.

That woman's name is Ida, and she is a close friend of the artist. They met in 2009, when, as the artist writes via e-mail, "I found myself in a tight spot."

"I was teaching art and digital photography at a Christian boarding school in the rural east of Norway," Sobye says. "I suffered from a serious eye condition which threatened my future as an artist, and I got into a conflict with the manager of the school because the old house I rented from them was uninhabitable."

Desperately searching for another place to live, a friend of Sobye's told him his cousin Ida, who lived abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland, had inherited a cottage nearby and asked if he would consider renting it.

"A month or so later, Ida was visiting her relatives in Norway for celebrate 17th May (the Norwegian Day of Independence)," Sobye says. "We met and we fell in love immediately."

A fair and beautiful woman 17 years younger than Sobye, Ida had just been accepted to study art and film at Napier University. Aside from a mutual interest in art, Sobye says the main attraction between them was, "an ability and need to see and understand each other's predicaments."

"I didn't know anything about her life in Edinburgh, but I guess we both had the ability to understand the bitter core of life which is reserved for us all when our lives are shattered and uncertain," he says. "In short, we were able to 'see' each other and we simultaneously understood that we were each other's salvation."

That's when he learned about Ida's past, living with a physically abusive husband while trying to raise their three sons.

There is a special history behind these photos. "I have 70 gigabytes with photos and video clips of these children and their mother," Sobye says. "When, in the evenings, I sifted through the daily hundreds of photos on my computer I saw the outline, again and again, of innocence.

"I recognized it in the kind of contact between the boys and their mother, or more precise in Ida's attitude towards them, a limitless self-sacrifice for their happiness," Sobye says. "I had never seen anything like it, and it was not fake, a show put on for the benefit of others. No, it was like a voice of eternity. Of what should be. It was a glimpse of paradise -- a purpose from God in all this abundance of (still) untainted vast woods with the wild animals, the clean lakes, the roaring streams under the sun. It was everything I knew mankind was destroying, everything I knew mankind could not survive without. It was all there, manifested in this one woman, this one mother."

This purity is exemplified in "The Prayer," which is from the very first days after Sobye met Ida. In it, Ida is partially submerged in a river, arched over, praying. "We are at the banks of Norway's largest river, Glomma," Sobye says. "We are more like fashion photographers here, but when I looked through all the pictures, I found this image having 'soul.' I did not at this stage know anything about Ida's problems in Edinburgh, but maybe my eyes selected this image based on some kind of 'unconscious prophecy.' "

Later images, such as "The Night" and "He Was a Rapist, Not a Lover" go on to convey, in subtle but profound ways, the abuse Ida suffered throughout her marriage.

Perhaps the most graphic is "He Punished Me for Being Alive," in which a bruise on Ida's cheek is highlighted in a glowing orange. Here, in this "digital painting" Sobye has taken a bruise from Ida's arm (allegedly given to her by her husband) and added it to her face. "I have Photoshopped this mark to her cheek to make it visible," he says.

"The Distant Fire" is a portrait of Ida that Sobye created using an "underwater" technique. The fire in the background represents "the threat that she, as a victim, knows will engulf her at some point," Sobye says. "It is in the distance. Many victims of domestic abuse hope to keep it from coming near by complying with all the various requests from the abuser, the 'master' of her life. But in doing this, the victims, in reality, ensure their circle of abuse."

It's worth nothing that Box Heart Gallery is one of three galleries across the globe that are simultaneously exhibiting Sobye's recent body of work, "The Secret Ocean." The others are Gallery Ramfjord in Oslo, Norway, and Toho Gallery in Tokyo.

Sobye says he sees this effort as something beyond himself -- an effort to create awareness of a problem that won't go away.

That's why he says it is important "to make it a moral imperative to fight this menace. To drain 'The Secret Ocean.' "

Additional Information:

'The Secret Ocean: A Story of Domestic Abuse'

What: Works on paper by Reinhardt Sobye

When: Through Nov. 26. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 1-5 p.m. Sundays

Admission: Free

Where: Box Heart Gallery, 4523 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield

Details: 412-687-8858 or www.boxheart.org

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