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Nicolas Bruno brings to life sleep paralysis episodes in show at Northport's Haven Gallery

As a young boy, the photographer believed his night visions meant he was possessed or that there was a demonic presence in the house.

Northport artist Nicolas Bruno, seen at his home

Northport artist Nicolas Bruno, seen at his home in Northport in February, uses the imagery from his sleep-paralysis induced visions to create art photographs. Behind Bruno is his piece "Vuoto." Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Where does inspiration come from?

In the case of artist Nicolas Bruno: the answer is sleep. Or, more precisely, disrupted sleep. A Northport resident and native, Bruno, 25, has sleep paralysis, a sleep disorder that causes him to waken when his breathing is cut off. At those moments, he experiences disturbing nightmarish imagery and is unable to move.

Out of the characters, situations and feelings that haunt his semiconscious mind, Bruno creates intense, dark and evocative works of art.

After dabbling with disposable cameras as a child, Bruno got seriously interested in the art form during a digital photography class he took as a sophomore at Northport High School.

“I was looking for that expression, either through drawing or just Photoshop itself,” Bruno says. “I never really found anything that really clicked. But once I took that class, I knew I was hooked.”

As a high school sophomore, Bruno got his first digital camera by winning best in show at Huntington Camera Club’s annual student competition. He went on to attend Purchase College, graduating in 2015 with a bachelor of fine arts with a concentration in photography.

As a young boy, Bruno believed his night visions meant he was possessed or that there was a demonic presence in the house.

“I grew up in a very superstitious household,” he explains, noting that his great-grandmother passed along to his grandmother and mother omens to watch out for, such as a bird crashing into a window foretelling that someone would get sick or die.

At 16, he told his mother how real the dreams seemed to him, so she called in a priest, who doused his room with holy water to scare the spirits away.

"She did it out of care, not out of fear or to make me feel bad," Bruno remarks. "She was just trying to help."

Combining extensive research with self-observation, Bruno concluded that sleeping on his back or on his left side restricted his breathing, startling him into a semiconscious state while his body was still asleep. This, he explains, activated brain chemicals resulting in visual manifestations that paralleled his physical experience of impaired breathing, such as a character choking him or a demon sitting on his chest.

“It’s your body’s way of saying, ‘Wake up, wake up: You can’t breathe.’ It’s a really, really weird passage to the world between being awake and being asleep,” he says.

From chaos, comes art

These days, Bruno uses his art as a platform to bring greater awareness about sleep paralysis and the use of art therapy as a productive way to combat the condition.

“I want people to learn more and understand, because I had no idea where I was — I was in the complete dark and depressed, and I didn’t know where to turn. It really impacted my life to the point where I didn’t want to live,” Bruno says. “I really don’t want anyone else to go through that ever again.”

Dr. Mohammad Amin, associate professor at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University and a specialist at Stony Brook Sleep Disorder Center, says sleep paralysis can be a terrifying experience, one that can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. While there are currently no statistics on how many people experience sleep paralysis, Amin notes that one in 10,000 people have narcolepsy and sleep paralysis is very prevalent within that group.

“They’re kind of fully awake, but they are unable to move their limbs, unable to speak,” Amin says, explaining how people experience sleep paralysis. “They feel paralyzed. Some patients experience that they are unable to breathe.”

The paralysis ends spontaneously, but people are left with the mark of experiencing vivid dreams or hallucinations, adds Amin.

Sleep deprivation, which is common with college students and other young adults, can cause episodes of sleep paralysis, which can be ameliorated simply by getting sufficient sleep.

Other causes could be narcolepsy, which causes people to fall asleep uncontrollably at various points during the day, or sleep breathing disorders, such as sleep apnea.

To rule out sleep-disordered breathing, Amin recommends an overnight sleep study at a sleep center where patients’ breathing, heart rate and other vital functions are monitored.

Though there are treatments for narcolepsy and sleep disordered breathing, there is no federally approved medication for sleep paralysis, Amin says.

“It is very difficult to treat an isolated sleep paralysis patient,” he says.

Over time, Bruno learned to prevent the paralysis by taking some precautions: sleeping on his right side, having white noise in the background and wearing sleep masks to block visual stimulation. Still, he experiences sleep paralysis at times, in particular when he turns over in his sleep and ends up in a triggering position.

Turning dreams into reality

When he awakens from a night vision, Bruno memorializes the feelings and experiences in a dream journal.

Working from the sketches, Bruno looks for symbols to express his nocturnal imagery, creating masks, costumes and other objects that he incorporates into his artwork.

A self-described an environmental conservationist, Bruno carries this philosophy into his creative process. He picks up discarded furniture, scrap wood and other items from the side of the road that he uses in his pieces.

“If it’s something I can’t find, I’ll have to build it,” Bruno says. “I find a new way to do that through woodworking, metalworking, sometimes leather craft, sometimes sewing. It really brings me down a whole path.”

Bruno then scouts locations for his photo shoots — often outdoors in bodies of water, marshes and fields. The photographs themselves are taken quickly, he says, to avoid shifting light and changing tides.

“What I’m doing is taking multiple images at once, while my camera is on a tripod,” he explains. Working alone, he takes self-portraits for the camera and later enhances and reworks the images using Photoshop.

"I layer the most important elements from the photo shoot on top of each other to create the final image," he explains.

Much of his effort goes into making multiple sketches in notebooks and on a chalkboard and then figuring out how to build the props for his photography. 

“With the new ideas and symbols that I’m using, it really challenges me to explore different mediums, try new things,” he says.

More than photographs

In addition to photography, “In Limbo,” Bruno’s show at Haven Gallery in Northport, includes drawings and fabric-covered resin busts.

“My work is kind of a passage into my subconscious,” he says, explaining that it explores the theme of being stuck in limbo between wakefulness and sleep.

One photo, “Immersi,” shows a couple standing in an intricate 6 ½-foot-tall well that Bruno crafted from scrap wood.

“I built the base out of insulation foam that I carved and painted,” he said.

Clueless as to how one builds a well, Bruno spent a couple of days experimenting with different shapes, sizes and ratios to get the right representation.

“Once I found the materials I needed, by the time I finished it, it probably took me a week to make it,” he. said.

In “Immersi,” water spills over the edge of the well, suggesting that the couple is emerging from the bottom of it.

“They’re kind of holding onto each other for that comfort, even though they’re in a very chaotic situation,” Bruno says.

Noting that her gallery doesn’t typically exhibit photography, Haven owner Erica Berkowitz says she invited Bruno back two years after his first sold-out solo show because his work is evocative and connects to so many people.

“Aesthetically, his work is also quite beautiful, despite the fact that it might be a bit on the darker side,” Berkowitz says.

Whether they experience sleep paralysis or not, people viewing Bruno’s art, “connect very strongly to the images and to the emotions and the fears that his work does seem to portray,” she adds.

A supporter of local artists who owns nine Bruno photographs, Nancy Mansour, 55, of Northport, says she was mesmerized by the works at his last Haven exhibit.

“I was so drawn to his imagination. It’s so cinematic! I love the historic references," Mansour says about Bruno's use of antique candlesticks and candelabras, and vintage-looking costumes.

Getting attention

Bruno has garnered attention at home and abroad. In 2014, he was in the “25 Under 25” photography exhibit at Cleveland State University; he’s also been featured in segments on CNN Style, the Huffington Post and a smattering of European media. More recently, Bruno was the subject of a video about his creative process for a program about sleep slated for Britain’s BBC network.

Bruno has also sold his work to collectors in Germany, Italy and Australia, leading him to conclude that his dreams resonate beyond cultural boundaries.

“It’s just been kind of a cool dialogue to see the network of how humans experience dreams that are very, very similar even though they’re halfway across the world,” he muses.

As for the artist himself, creativity is a continually evolving phenomenon.

“I still haven’t encompassed the depths of what I go through: the hidden meanings and the symbols. Everything is starting to develop and kind of unfold before my eyes while I begin to create them,” he muses.

For his next project, Bruno plans to devise an immersive virtual reality experience that allows participants to step into the dream experience.

“I think it can be an important tool, not only through art but to maybe give therapists or doctors, or just the general populace, a way to experience what some people suffer through each time,” he says. “It may be a way to get a dialogue going.”

Nicolas Bruno’s 'In Limbo'

WHEN I WHERE Through March 31 at Haven Gallery, 155 Main St., Northport

INFO 631-757-0500, havenartgallery.com

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