by Len Lear
Yinka Orafidiya, 33, has lived in West Mount Airy, a few blocks from the Weavers Way Co-op, for seven years, and before that she lived in Germantown. On the surface she would appear to have everything going for her. She is charming with a quick smile, personable and highly intelligent, having earned two degrees from the University of Pennsylvania in 2002 — a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and a B.A. in Mathematics.
And although people with a scientific background generally are not thought to be artistically creative, Yinka is also a very talented craftsperson. The lifelong Philadelphian (her African last name comes from her father, who was born in Nigeria) was awarded a Leeway Foundation Art and Change Grant in 2010, which provided funding for her first solo exhibition at The Clay Studio, 139 N. 2nd St. in Old City, in January of 2012.
That was followed by four other exhibits of her highly distinctive work last year at galleries in Philadelphia, New York State (twice) and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Yinka enjoys throwing pots, using pots and pursuing non-traditional studies of the ceramic process. She spends the remainder of her time writing, daydreaming, feasting on dark chocolate and watching reruns of “Murder She Wrote” online.
But despite Yinka’s many talents and lofty likeability factor, she has been plagued for many years by the demon of chronic depression, something that affects millions but which very few want to discuss in print. In fact, for her exhibit at The Clay Studio Yinka made 600 tumblers, bundled them in a net and suspended them over a lone figure, eventually giving almost all of them away. This was done to convey the burden of depression.
Many online postings from viewers who attended the exhibit praised Yinka’s courage and artistry. A typical one from a Carina Giamerese stated: “I started my rounds at The Clay Studio, where Yinka Orafidiya’s ‘All or Nothing’ exhibition was the main event. I was in awe of her courage in transcribing her journals on the walls of the space and exploring her struggle with chronic depression through her pottery.”
“The gesture of giving the tumblers away,” Yinka explained, “both symbolically and literally, lightened the burden by disseminating it among many, as opposed to one person bearing the weight alone. In sharing the burden, my intentions were to build solidarity and connect further with the audience. Depression thrives in isolation, so I really just wanted to demonstrate how vital it was for me to have the support of others.”
Yinka, who says she is “single and ready to mingle,” has always suffered from depression. “As a very young child I remember constantly feeling extremely sad and disconnected,” she recalled, “but I think adults often interpreted this as intense shyness. I was officially diagnosed with depression when I was 17 yrs old during my freshman year of college. It has been a lifelong battle, some days definitely better than others, but regardless of any particular life situation, I find that the underlying depression is always there.”
Although Yinka likes to think that depression doesn’t define who she is as a person, she cannot dispute the impact it has had on her life. “I feel depression has always hindered me from meeting my full potential,” she explained. “It robs me of productivity, motivation, lust for life and the ability to function with any regularity. My issues with social anxiety, self-esteem, self-loathing and body image are all fueled by the depression.
“I often fantasize about where I would be now if I weren’t constantly at war with my thoughts, trying to manage this disease. That being said, I have zero desire to instigate a pity party. It was my depression that led me to The Clay Studio in search of the artistic therapy that has ultimately changed the course of my life. Depression is most definitely a debilitating burden, but in struggling to endure, I also feel I have become a stronger, more compassionate, intuitive and self-aware individual.”
Regarding the fact that Yinka is remarkably candid about her chronic depression — something that most people hide — she has a typically honest, self-aware explanation: “I suffered in solitude for a very, very long time, disguising the pain behind big smiles and a false front. At some point, though, things got so bad that I realized that I really had nothing left to lose by being vocal about what I was going through. It was the only thing I hadn’t tried.”
One of the issues that has plagued Yinka for years has been her highly unusual 6-foot-4 height. While extreme height is usually seen as a major plus for men, it is often quite a different story for women. “It’s actually one of the core issues that feeds the depression,” explained Yinka. “Body image has always been a problem for me…It’s very hard to feel feminine at this height. You can only imagine what the schoolyard teasing was like…relentless! I even own a t-shirt with ‘No, I don’t play basketball’ printed across the chest. People find it really funny when I wear it, but that tends to just open up the door for more questions!”
The hundreds of tumblers that Yinka has given away have words on them that some people who would use them to drink from, hold pencils, etc., might find troubling. Words such as “No one loves me,” “Suffering,” “So ashamed,” “I’m all alone,” “Failure,” “Lonely despair,” “Ugly,” “I am nothing,” etc. But for Yinka, it’s all about fostering solidarity, compassion and support. “It’s exciting, though, when people post updates about how they’re using their cup or who they’ve passed it on to. It makes me feel less isolated and more connected somehow.”
Like almost all contemporary Americans who suffer with clinical depression, Yinka has tried many combinations and dosages of prescription medications over the past 16 years. According to her, some were good, some were great, and others were just plain awful.
“And yes,” she said, “when I fall into a deep downwards spiral, medication is definitely helpful in re-stabilizing my mood and bringing me back to baseline. But in my experience, the effects are temporary because ultimately the underlying issues are still there. I’m trying to get to a place of self-awareness about the core issues at the root of my depression, which I think will help me to manage the illness and still lead a productive and functional life.
“At this point in my life, my chosen plan of treatment mostly involves lots of therapy, journaling, strong support systems and artistic expression. I still struggle with depressive thoughts and emotions every day. And although I know that meds might make this chronic battle a less painful experience, right now my personal decision is to reserve antidepressants for my most critical ‘life or death’ moments. I am not anti-medication.”
In September of this year, Yinka plans to participate in a month-long residency at the International Ceramics Studio in Kecskemet, Hungary. She will learn about the Hungarian ceramics tradition by visiting local village potteries, industrial ceramics factories, architectural sites and museums.
She will be working in collaboration with ceramic artist Jennifer D. Martin, who has been her artistic mentor at The Clay Studio (“Everything I know about ceramics I learned from Jennifer”), and their primary goal will be to merge the Hungarian and American aesthetic to create a new body of functional pottery. This new work will represent a cross-cultural blend of ceramic tradition, production and design.
Total project-related expenses for the Hungary trip amount to approximately $15,000, and Yinka is currently attempting to raise funds that will help ease the financial pain.