Essay: Mental Health and the Artist

Art Journal, Self Reflection, Thoughts

I asked a non-artist friend about their trip to the Met in New York, about their favorite artworks they saw; Van Gogh because of both his art and his mental health.

Of course.

It’s such a trope to correlate artists with poor mental health (not that my friend was doing this). I’ve read so many articles online of people in the art world trying to re-educate with the idea (the truth) that artists are not only not crazy, but also don’t have to starve (which is a different topic). Hot tip: artists are people. People accumalate damage. A good way to deal with that is by self expression: the arts. I strongly encourage anyone struggling with their head to try it.

I, like a great many people (both artists and non-artist), have struggled with my mental health. I still do. I clawed my way out of the worst of it by listening to other people describe what they were experiencing. From this I strongly believe that sharing my own story may help someone else through the dark (What does that have to do with being an artist? I’ll get there).

Overshare Warning: I’m going to tell you about me, a lot about me.

I once said something to the effect of our family being abnormal to my Father and he quickly corrected me. Our family was perfectly normal to him. I realize normality is subjective, but in this case normal is living with parents who are mentally stable, sober and supportive. I barely knew anyone on my Father’s side of the family and there was reason for that. A year before I was born my Grandmother was murdered and the residual anger settled in my Father for most of my early life.

I grew up the child of an angry withdrawn alcoholic. Papers came home from school telling my mother I was having trouble with math and showing signs of Dyslexia. I was a hyper child, prone to being impulsive. I had a horrible time learning to read. Analog clocks baffled me.

My mother doing her best (Mom I love you) did not seek help for anything I was having trouble with. Instead, fearing my father, I found work-arounds for all the things I couldn’t understand. I withdrew. To pay attention I learned to doodle on everything. The times failing that and I fell behind I’d sit down with the material and teach myself the text for tests. I couldn’t read the board they said my eyes were fine. I couldn’t handle distractions in the classroom. I got frustrated in a math class with a special needs student because I couldn’t focus past their tutor to get the lesson.

I was the target of bullying which by the time I got to junior high/high school I refused to put up with it. I couldn’t stand being in front of the class. Walking in front of people. People looking at me. I avoided having to do anything that required being in front of the class. Sometimes I just put my head down and cried. I felt like I was always the joke, sometimes I was (children and teens smell blood). On the weekends I slept. I’d sleep in for as long as it took to avoid my father. And I turned to art, which long fascinated me, but I could disappear in it. It’s going to be hard to say, hard to read. I had suicidal thoughts then. I felt worthless. I wanted to not be.

My home life deteriorated completely after I turned sixteen. My parents bought a bar. They fought. My mother became a different person. I was angry. A lot happened to me between sixteen to twenty-some years old. I tried to go to college and dropped out. The years were fuzzy. I made poor life decisions. Things happened that cannot un-happen. I accumulated more trauma, some from my own decisions.

It was my return to college I want to get to. I was sitting in my 3-D animation class and the professor wanted us to present our project to the class. IN. FRONT. OF. THE. CLASS. I wasn’t happy with my project, but I didn’t know how to ask for help. I never asked for help with any of the complex Adobe programs I was learning. I was just happy it animated. I don’t even know how I made it happen (remember finding work arounds for what I don’t understand). One by one each student was presenting their animation and they were all so good. I couldn’t breath. The walls were caving in on me. My vision was going tunnel like and the dark room was getting darker. My heart was pounding. THE WALLS WERE COMING FOR ME. I ran. I took my stuff and booked it out of there in a pure panic. That was how I was living. Going to class, going to work, speaking to someone I didn’t know, and even shopping brought on symptoms. But I didn’t know what was going on. On this day that I left class I did try to get help for the first time. I went to the student health something or another. I’m sure I was a mass of sloppy wet emotions. I always am when I try to ask for help. They said bipolar and wanted me to see a doctor.

I slept through that appointment. Because that was something else I did well. Sleep. Sleep through classes. Sleep through jury duty (got a nasty phone call informing me about those repercussions). Wake up to my boss asking me when I was going to come in to work (a pattern).

I didn’t get help then. It’ll be a few more years.

It’ll be when a friend of mine tells me about anxiety. And another friend makes me an appointment and I sit outside for an hour crying and shaking only to have the worst doctor ever. Then another friend recommends a doctor who is kind and gets me on some meds after an hour conversation in which I am a weepy mass of emotions triggered by talking about myself. I get treated for anxiety, more specifically social anxiety.

…and very slowly the clouds over my life lift. I notice the panic fight or flight feelings I feel just leaving the house lift. I can hold conversations with strangers and shop in new stores. I could make decisions. I was depressed most of my life and that also lifted.

Coming back around to tie this into a tidy bow, I realized when my friend said she liked the Van Gogh, that I may have freed myself to pursue art by getting help with my mental health. While pursuing my degree I was paralyzed to show my work despite the many opportunities, and now that the fog is lifted I am not afraid to pursue my goals. I’ve only been actively setting up my life as an artist for the last four years.

Mental Health is not an end goal it is a lifelong work in progress. Understanding and treating my brain for social anxiety is a game changer for me, I also have some other “stuff” going on in there that I’d like to eventually try to understand more about; from trauma, to being the adult child of an alcoholic, to possible attention issues (see the end results of my cars, funny and not funny: I could die). Mostly I want to keep this mental health freedom I have going, I don’t want to go back. I prefer not being trapped by my brain in a panic state.

Feel free to share your thoughts or stories in the comments. Everyone has pain, and everyone can be a light in the dark for someone else.

Thoughts from The Road: Part 4

Art Journal, The Road, Thoughts

New Mexico

New Mexico merges with Texas’s plains on the east. As you enter from the Texas Panhandle the grasses grow sparser and so do the people. Whatever road we were on, once we left the border town there were miles of ranch fences, but no houses and no other signs of habitation other than a few steer munching on the scant vegetation. In the distance some mesas popped up and disappeared.

We were greeted by an abandoned church in Taiban, New Mexico. A local landmark well documented on instagram by photographers and travelers. Inside people left prayers and messages on the walls alongside graffiti.

Bottomless Lakes State Park & Bitter Lake Wildlife Refuge

Outside of the alien mecca of Roswell, New Mexico the landscape rolls into wetlands. Wetlands? New Mexico is full of wonderful surprises hidden in the crevasses of the treeless vistas. We drove into the park along lake littered roads on one side and grassy cliffs on the other. During our stay we walked the wetland boardwalk at sunset. We admired the hundreds of birds on the scenic of drive at the Bitter Lake Wildlife Refuge.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Unknown to us we would have to kennel our dogs at the park and provide proof of rabbies. As consolation prize we drove the scenic one-way gravel road (and had it all to ourselves). Maybe not the main event, but still breathtakingly beautiful.

Cloudcroft, New Mexico

One of New Mexico’s great surprises for us. We drove to Artesia and cut across New Mexico west on 82 (pro tip: fuel up first). First the land was desert and then it rose into swelling hills with spare vegetation. As we climbed in elevation the hills grew sharper and the vegetation turned to scrubby bushes and then spare trees. Then suddenly we were in full on pine forested mountains in the middle of southern New Mexico with snow. Complete with snowplow warnings, elk warnings, a ski hill, and an old west style town named Cloudcroft with stunning mountain vistas as you left town on the west end.

In Cloudcroft we found a small gallery just off of the main street. In the gallery Off the Beaten Path I met Rafferty, a silver classic long haired tabby they rescued from the streets (not for petting only greetings). At the time they were working on finding homes for fifteen other street cats. Because of course, I found the artists in town with a passion for not just saving cats, but breaking the cycle by spaying and neutering the cats. Check out the gallery web site.

White Sands National Monument

From Cloudcroft you can see White Sands in the distance, and to the unbeknownst traveler you think you are seeing clouds. White Sands is a people catcher like the Bean of Chicago is. Everywhere people lined up on the dunes to watch the sunset against the mountain backdrop. Sets of photographers with tripods. Couples on dune tops. Lone figures sitting atop crests. The great beauty of White sands defies words and will haunt my memory for all time as the Painted Desert does. As we left the sun set slowly in a notably colorful display. Setting off against the grey purple mountains in reds, oranges, yellows, plums and peaches. Just when I thought the show was over we crested a mountain and found the colors even more overwhelming. They lingered in deep hues of crimson and plum before succumbing to the horizon while the moon rose gold and moody among the wisps of clouds to the east.

Truth or Consequences

December Decorations, T or C, New Mexico

With little expectations or plans we headed into the town of Truth or Consequences for supplies. Shortly after hitting downtown I could tell that this town had a different vibe to it. Everywhere adobe buildings in southwestern colors. Murals (60+). Vibrant details. And a thriving art scene. We were able to stop into a few galleries, sadly not all that T or C had to offer! And we were lucky enough to show up on their Second Saturday Art Hop. The galleries we saw had quality art works at a broad range of price points, friendly to all art admirers. One artist (Sun Gallery) was hand painting stickers for just a few dollars each and said she “wanted art to be accessible to everyone.”

Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Gila National Forest

Outside of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico we headed west across highway 152 into the Gila National Forest. The land crested from gentle desert hills to magnificent up-swelled rock formations. Sometime in the not too distant past a wildfire swept through this area. Distant enough for the mountaintop forest to be well into stages of healing. I was enchanted by the scrappy trees. Tenacious species of oak, juniper, and ponderosa pines hugging the steep rocky mountain roadsides.

Local species of tree adapted to survive forest fires

Poncho Villa State Park, Columbus, New Mexico & and The Border

Within three miles of the border the Poncho Villa State Park sits alongside the highway. Historical ruins from the 1916 raid by Poncho Villa reside within the park and throughout the small town of Columbus.

Ruins from Poncho Villa raid. Columbus, New Mexico

The other story is of a town divided by politics. During George W. Bush’s presidency the border went up there and divided a community. That’s not from newspaper reports, that’s from casual conversations with local people. People who visit their American friends that live across the border for economic reasons. People who shop across the border in Mexico for their medical needs and groceries because it is all more affordable. Mexican children and children with American citizenship cross the border every school day for their education.

My husband and I crossed the Border by foot. The wait by car was much longer and we were told its just easier. First we were diverted into a building by a man pointing, across the way I could see a Mexican official with a nasty gun set against the backdrop of the border fence and reals of extra razor wire. The officials just asked if we were visiting the Pink Store. The local tourist trap “with everything.” Then we walked out the other side into Mexico. There were people walking about everywhere. A man selling hats out of his van. And the giant complex Pink Store with a mature Indian woman opening the door for us, later she’ll hold her hand out for a tip when we leave.

Columbus, New Mexico
Pink Store, Pueto Palomas, Chihuahua, Mexico
Pink Store, Pueto Palomas, Chihuahua, Mexico
Pueto Palomas, Chihuahua, Mexico

City of Rocks

Enormous. Vertical. Sculptural. Texture. Why would people create Stonehenge? This is why. The stones may be inanimate objects of nature brought to by time, volcanic action and erosion, but they still converse with the human spirit.

While there we climbed the neighboring Table Mountain. And this human felt mighty small under the open sky of New Mexico on top of a little mountain looking down at her little home on wheels dwarfed by rocks. It isn’t like the hikes back home where the trees obscure the journey and you just keep going until you get to the top. On this one you can see just what sort of madness your in for and all you can do is put one foot in front of the other while fighting for breath at the extra elevation you’re not accustomed to.

Cultural Appropriation: Mixed Thoughts from a Visual Artist

Art Journal, Thoughts

On good days I think I get the arguments around cultural appropriation. On others I throw in the towel and decide I am irrelevant to cultural debates at my ripe age of thirty-seven. I’ve had it explained to me by those in the “know” aka as a college age girl deeply into social issues. I’ve read articles and been subjected to the hostility of news reports. Just when my brain says yes that very much makes sense… it gets pushed too far and says “wait… what?!?”

The Beyonce Argument

I will admit that I was pulled into a Facebook battle about cultural appropriation with wits far exceeding mine. I was being schooled on cultural appropriation. Just as I was losing I asked if it was ok for Beyonce to do it.

Is it ok for Beyonce to do it?

That is how art gets created. Ideas and imagery are exchanged and woven together to create a new narrative. Artists look for new languages of symbolism to inform their work. We travel, frequent museums and galleries, and read obscure literature. We look for inspiration in every aspect of our world and beyond. If you have an interest, there is an artist out there making work about it.

In one answer it was ok for Beyonce to do it because she was a woman of color and it was somehow different. “It just was.”

In another answer it was not. Beyonce held the power as a western woman, the various groups she wore the costumes of did not.

I do cringe now when I see a pop star step out in the dress of another culture. The results are often beautiful and interesting see Iggy Izaelia, Beyonce, Nikki Minaj, and Gwen Stefani (note: probably all of them at one time or another).

And…

I’ll tell you.

While sitting through an informative video at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs Mississippi these thoughts crossed my mind. This white Ocean Springs’ male artist like many artists before was influenced by primitive cultures and their symbolism.

More well known was the influence of Japanese art on Western art starting with Impressionism. We are talking influence on artists from Klimt to Monet.

Should the way art history is taught in light of cultural appropriation change? I would say yes. (At least from how I was taught)

Should artists stop being influenced by other people and cultures. I don’t know what the right answer is. I am absolutely sure that there will be a richness among the arts lost if that give and take between diverse people is quashed.

Voodoo dolls in a gift shop. Many people pick up this mass produced keepsake in Louisiana. Voodoo is mixed up with Hoodoo in the common imagination. It is far richer and more interesting than a tourist shop doll.
Alligator Heads at a small town restaurant, Louisiana. They may be the most authentic thing I’ve ever seen for sale ever anywhere.

Here is my understanding as of November 30, 2019. (Warning I can and will change my mind as new arguments are presented to me).

  • If you visit another culture and (for example) take photographs of a ceremony. Then later exhibit them with an explanation and sensitive understanding, this would be of cultural value.
  • If you bring back an object of spiritual value from that same culture and use it in a photoshoot with a model and no context, this would be construed as offensive, even if the results were aesthetically pleasing.
  • Authenticity can be difficult to come by. We should try to support it. What do I mean? When you are out there in the world buy local. That could mean local artists and/or indigenous goods from indigenous people. (not an original thought, a mix of my beliefs and newly acquired learning from the inter-webs). Spend a little more for something handmade by the real deal. In some cases less, but whatever you do, please run as fast as you can from mass produced tourist junk shops imported from China. If you visit China find a local artist to buy from.
  • When minority groups ask for local school mascot to have a name change from say “Redmen” or “Redskins.” Instead of digging in our heels and saying its always been that way, may be listen to why. We’ll get used to a new name.
  • Halloween… sometimes we could let somethings be politically incorrect.
  • If art history surveys are still taught the same as they were approximately ten years ago when I went to a liberal arts college, some adjustments could be considered. Even at that time they were struggling even with how to talk about women in the world of art history, unless it was the great Frida. Seeing the history of Western art through the lens of cultural appropriation would be beneficial. Anyone taking a good course? Shout it out in the comments.

Writing about this topic has helped immensely in solidifying my understanding, but the term cultural appropriation is being tossed around the media like a hot potato. I just like to remind myself that I can be a kind person and a supreme jerk. People are people wherever you go, even when google maps takes you through the rougher sides of city.

Let’s have a dialog. Thoughts? Opinions? Corrections? Leave a message.

Thoughts from the Road: Part 2

Art Journal, The Road, Thoughts

Alabama

Alabama Cotton

Cotton fields. Cotton Fields. Cotton Fields. And the pines. We Stayed the night in northern Alabama at a woodsy state park with a history of iron mining before the Civil War. The drive up through the pines had me nostalgic for my childhood in Georgia, and looking at a map that was geographically only a few hours away.

The surprise was the South had industrial capabilities, that is not what was taught to me in public schools. What I was taught is the North held all of the industrial might and the South depended on outside sources. Of course the site at the current Tannehill Ironworks State Park was strategically targeted by the Union.

Mississippi

Mississippi Alligator and Friends or Lunch

Unfortunately we only drove along the Gulf coast. White sand beaches lined with shore birds on one side, coastal houses up on stilts on the other. Blocks free of development filled with mature Live Oaks. Later we learned that these areas were once filled with antebellum homes lost to storms.

Live Oaks Overlooking the Ghosts of Antebellum Homes
All the Shore Birds on the Mississippi Gulf Coast

Lousiana

New Orleans

Call it bucket list. Call it dream vacation. Call it whatever you want. Between reading novels, watching movies, the history, the food… I’ve been enamored with the place. It was as dark and damp as I imagined. The old buildings tended to. Narrow streets with Spanish architecture smashed together. Narrow glimpses of courtyards behind locked wrought iron gates.

Spanish Influence Architecture, French Quarter, New Orleans

But then you get to Bourbon Street.  I did not know about Bourbon Street before I went there (or maybe I didn’t pay attention?). Among the crowds of tourists there were street performers, they appeared to be families. The atmosphere was so loud, so cacophonous, I couldn’t think straight. Then I saw white middle age business suite guys standing on the balconies lurking with their beads clutched tight. Not looking like they were having one bit of fun. Their beady eyes tracking the flows of people. It was Wednesday at 6:00pm.

Windowsill Moment from New Orleans Business
Gallery in the French Quarter, New Orleans
Rainy Day in New Orleans

New History and Old

If you go to New Orleans the cemeteries are as amazing as they say. I’m not one for tours, but tour is the only way to see St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and it is worth it. I only regret that I could not wander with my camera as I wished.

Scene from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 New Orleans
Detail from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 New Orleans
Detail from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 New Orleans

Within view of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the most recent tragedy in New Orleans. While we were traveling and galavanting, workers were still trying to retrieve the the two bodies from the hotel collapse. Which was visible from almost everywhere in the French Quarter, looming over the revelry.

View of the hotel collapse from the French Quarter, New Orleans, November 2019 (At the time of this photo there were two bodies trapped in the rubble)

Antebellum

Vignette in the Slave Quarters of the Laura Plantation

All along the rivers the plantations of old divided up the land. Some still working plantations, some gone, and some tourist attractions.

Antebellum is such a pretty word…

Bananas in the Kitchen Garden of the Laura Plantation

And they are such pretty structures, with the mature live oaks lining the drives up to a symmetrically built house. The one that caught my eye was colorful. Turns out that was typical of the creole plantations before British/American colonial influence came to the area. Because the creole were influenced by the French, Spanish and island culture.

But I had to tune it out and walk away. Slaves. Slave quarters. The tour included innuendo to all the things that happened to women slaves. Including documentation of births.

Here we were touring a plantation for fun. In an area where the descendants of the slaves and the descendants of plantation owners could still be living side by side. And my insides feel ugly. Because I think about my friends and my family being treated as 3/5ths of a person. It is too real. And there is rage. I think about the people I care about and then in my mind take away all their autonomy and tell them they aren’t human. I don’t know if antebellum is such a pretty word anymore.

Gulf Coast

Shrimp Trawler Heading out on the Louisiana Delta

We took US 90 through the delta swamps of Southern Louisiana. To my Michigan eyes the raised roads through the cypress swamps were magical. All egrets and Spanish moss dotting the waterscape with cypress rising unbelievably from the murky standing water. When our first attempt at staying on the Gulf failed we drove even further south on the delta to Grand Isle State Park. The cypress trees gave way to golden grass islands and deep waterways crawling with fishing boats, shrimp trawlers and more types I have no name for.

Shorebird picking at the Jellyfish
Beached Jellyfish
Sunrise at Grand Isle State Park, Louisiana

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