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The Blue Stories

“Hold on to the things that give you hope.” - Natalie, The Blue Stories Project

How one wahine is opening up the conversation around perinatal depression


Karolina Gorton understands the power of storytelling. A Whakatū (Nelson)-based artist, Karolina is the creator of The Blue Stories Project. Her platform shares personal journeys of perinatal depression, encouraging rerekē mō te pai (change for the better) and te kotahitanga i roto i te kanorautanga (unity in diversity). “Space to be heard heals; telling our stories is empowering,” she says.


Five years ago, while pregnant with her second child, Karolina Gorton experienced perinatal depression. “I had fantastic counselling support in Nelson, and when I was ready to talk about it, I discovered perinatal depression was far more common than I’d thought. My friends all knew someone who had gone through it, or they had even experienced PND themselves. Knowing that was healing in itself.”


She discovered through personal research that one in four women experience perinatal depression. “Women are going through huge changes, transitioning from being an independent woman to a mother, and that transformation is huge. Being an artist, I wanted to create something where other wāhine could come together and share their experiences of navigating PND.”


Karolina chatted with Loren Pasquier, a fellow Whakatū artist who is behind the exhibition The Woven Women: Wāhine. “I thought the combination of portraiture and audio recordings was so beautiful. Back home in Poland I had also studied Cultural Studies, so I knew the importance of oral history,” Karolina says. 


The concept for The Blue Stories Project emerged on a drive to Otautahi (Christchurch) with a friend. “I didn’t just want to talk about depression alone, it’s heavy, I wanted a different perspective. I was much better by that stage, and I thought about talking to women similar to me, on the other side of depression, who could talk about navigating it and how we found our way out.”


Karolina knew she wanted to paint the wāhine and families she interviewed with their stories. “I wanted them to be bright and beautiful, to add hope and colour to what is a hard conversation, but one that needs to be normalised and out there. They needed to be vibrant images that caught people's attention, so I could introduce them to a deeper conversation within their communities.”


Collecting nine stories from her local Whakatū community, with the help of Creative Communities funding she launched her first display on Mother's Day at Elma Turner Library in Whakatū Nelson in 2021. “It was really special to have that in my community, I could talk openly with others, and I felt touched at the support.”


‘Spend time in nature. Set yourself small goals,’ is the title of Kim’s portrait, who shared her story with Karolina in Nelson. “My amazing counsellor, Helen, at Perinatal Support Nelson visited me every week. With her I was able to let out everything I was holding in while I tried to keep going. All of those negative thoughts that keep getting stuck in my head. She realised quickly I was very goal oriented. She helped me set small personal goals, one per day (often something as easy as ‘have a nap’), a bigger one for each week (‘go for a nature walk’) and a bigger one for each month (enter a bike race),” Kim’s story reads. 


“I stuck them on the fridge and my husband helped me follow them. A lot of my goals related to either allowing myself to rest, which I struggle with, or spending time in nature. These things really helped with the loss of identity I was feeling and the fear that I had surrounding my recovery from a birth injury.”


Karolina says visiting an exhibition can be confronting for women whose stories are on display, and she will always reach out beforehand to offer support. “Most often though when they do visit the exhibition they are part of, they tell me they feel heard, and it’s soothing to be a part of.”


She says women have cried on her shoulder at openings of The Blue Stories Project, which now travels across Aotearoa. “One woman told me that for the first time in her life she actually felt heard. It’s things like that which make me want to keep going.” Libraries are the perfect venue for the exhibition, as they are communal and open spaces, she says. Most artworks have been donated to regional perinatal wellbeing organisations, who Karolina has been collaborating with. The artworks will be displayed and shared across various locations in each region.


Karolina is conscious of opening the conversation around perinatal depression to all who are affected by it in Aotearoa. “This is a project that creates a culture of supporting all women and their families. We are trying to keep diversity at the forefront.”


On her site, 19 audio recordings accompany some of her portraits. She has documented conversations with people like Joanne Teina, the Kaumātua and Kaiārahi Māori at Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Aotearoa (PADA); Liz MacDonald, a Consultant Psychiatrist at the Mother and Baby Service in Ōtautahi Christchurch; and Aaron Agnew, a Clinician with RISE and the Dad’s Program Facilitator.


“As women, we are at our most vulnerable state when we become mothers, because there are so many changes happening physically and mentally. You’re getting a baby, this beautiful little human, but it’s a huge transition, and we need to be open about perinatal depression. The risk of suffering a psychiatric illness is higher after childbirth than at any other stage of a woman's life.”


Karolina prints each art piece for the women she interviews. “Presenting them with their illustrations is a way for me to say thank you – thank you for sharing your story, your message.”


The project has had a nationwide reach, with exhibitions last year in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Waitaha Canterbury and Ōtākou Otago. In 2022, during Aotearoa’s Mental Health Awareness Week, the Blue Stories Project launched a nationwide poster campaign to promote awareness of perinatal depression. The streets of Aotearoa were brightened with vibrant ‘pop-art-with-a-purpose’. “The purpose was to shine a light on perinatal depression, an illness that all too often goes undiagnosed and often carries with it a stigma that is unhelpful and unjustified.”


To Karolina’s delight, funding has been secured to continue her mahi in 2023. She has been collaborating with perinatal wellbeing groups from Te Moana-a-Toi Bay of Plenty, Te Whanga-nui-a-Tara Wellington and Te Tauihu-o-te-waka Marlborough, and she is bringing the Blue Stories Project to their communities in 2023.


Find the project and connect with Karolina at:

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