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Photographer Brings Work To IPFW

011looking back 2003

Photo credit: Elizabeth Opalenik

011looking back 2003
Written by: Colby ShoupFebruary 15, 2017

It was the year 2000 in Western Pennsylvania and Elizabeth Opalenik was about to lose her memories again.

Her mother’s stories had been the only way she could relive her childhood after a car crash in 1986 gave her amnesia. Now, her mother had six weeks to live.

Between hospital visits, Opalenik escaped to the Amish countryside near her childhood home. She tried to reconnect with the life she lost by photographing the people and scenery around her. It started as a way to cope. It became a decade long project.

“The Amish are not a community that wants to be photographed particularly,” Opalenik said in a phone interview. “But we had an agreement that the photos were more mirrors of myself than they were pictures of them. They were about how I was raised, and the things I saw that took me back.”

Opalenik calls this series “A Journey Home.” It’s one of her two portfolios that will be on display Feb. 27 – March 26 in the Visual Arts Gallery. She will be giving a lecture about her work through Skype 5-7 p.m. March 2.

She has been traveling around the world to make photographic art, lecture and teach workshops on photography for 35 years. This wasn’t always her plan, but she said she thinks it was always her destiny. She said she’s always believed in destiny.

At 21 years old, Opalenik put a map of the United States on a Lazy Susan and spun it. It landed on Connecticut. She decided to leave her family farm in Pennsylvania and move there.

In 1979, she took a photography workshop in Maine. She said she fell in love with the artform immediately. She sold most of her possessions and stayed in Maine for a year to take more workshops. She was 32 at the time, and already had a career running a construction company. That didn’t matter. She had found her destiny.

“When I found photography, I ran with no regrets,” she said. “I was just out of a relationship, so I was looking for who I was. I found the best way to express that was photographically. I discovered that all portraits are self portraits because they’re all an expression of who the photographer is.”

Four years later, Opalenik took her work to France and became inspired by the “brilliant visual sensibilities” of the art community there, she said. She had started to pursue her art full-time and worked on various commercial projects.

Her career was moving fast. Then it came to a screeching halt.

The car accident did more than just take her memories. It made it difficult for her to do her job. It made it hard to function in everyday life. She couldn’t do the high-pressure commercial work she used to do anymore.

That was when Opalenik started traveling the world teaching workshops, which she continues to do today. She said she never planned on that being such a large part of her career, but it must have been destined to happen.

“Helping people tell their stories is really important me because I lost mine,” Opalenik said. “Stories are essential. They show how a person became who they are.”

The Visual Arts Gallery is open 8 a.m.-9 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends. More of Opalenik’s work can be found at elizabethopalenik.com.