One person’s story of the propelling power of visual art through the twists and turns of a mental health journey
Imagine walking in a labyrinth made of walls built from see-through stones with surprising colourful experiences happening at each corner and on every detour. The sun is shining in and sometimes clouds cover the sky. I am not alone in the labyrinth, of course. I often come across people. Sometimes we barely notice each other, at other times we walk awhile together. I even happen to meet some of them again and reconnect with them. Often, I do not join them because I am too curious about my own path.
There are places to rest and there are places at which I spend a lot of time. The walls of the labyrinth are not exceedingly high, and if I lift my head, I can see other people, neighbours, friends, family, and strangers. We are all on our journey through life.
One day, I was resting in one of the corners. I had a dream where I saw paintings with a lot of turquoise and gold. The same dream came again and finally I began to pick up paints, a brush, and a canvas. I have since been drawing with markers and painting and experimenting with collage and mixed media and textured backgrounds. That was several years ago and up to this day even just gluing differently textured pieces of paper and fibre to canvas and painting over it later is always fun even if I do not feel in a creative mood. You do not wait for creative moods in general. You just start and see where it leads you.
I discovered how much I enjoy seeing patterns in nature and taking photos of them. I got into paint pouring, a process where you must master the technique of mixing paints with different ingredients first. They will then be poured onto a canvas where they create beautiful abstract swirls and bubbles that are called ‘cells’. It can be quite tricky until you figure out how to get the best results. I like those pourings best that resemble nebulae or ice cream. I love bright colours, gold, and black. Some paintings with a lot of black and some neon remind me of a black night sky with stars.
Bright colours like pink and orange have this uplifting effect on my mood. It feels like I literally get energy from the colours. Many years back I painted my whole kitchen in a bright pink colour including the ceiling. It looked funny but it brightened my day and I never regretted doing it. We just need things to lift us out of the gray of everyday life, away from the bleak views of winter or brighten our day in the depth of depression. There are things that can make us feel better even by looking at them for a few moments. Especially those of us who suffer mental health issues like anxiety, depression and worse, need good things in our lives, positive vibes.
Creating art, in whatever form and for whichever reason, is simply liberating. There are no rules, there is no judge. Nobody tells you what to do. It comes from inside you. My art sometimes reflects something that is stored in my brain, an image I saw somewhere or a video I watched that stirred up intense emotions. It is called impulsive art when you just do what you want to do with paints. Currently, most of what I create has a lot of black in it. It is like a blob of darkness needs to come out of me and I put it on canvas without any expectations. These are the moments where I encounter myself and my experiences. How this happens is a mystery to me. It is like understanding a foreign language that I never learned.
I always carry pens and markers in my backpack on my journey through the labyrinth. I would feel lost without them. I know art is there for me and I have painted and drawn in doctors’ waiting rooms, in the dark of a rideshare car to Montreal (I called it a blind drawing experiment), on the bus (only when I do not happen to knit on the bus) and in coffee shops. Coffee shops are my preferred spots. I have painted in drop-ins and in shelters. I simply do not feel self-conscious. I feel good.
Many artists have no formal training, but we learn along the way. It is more than trial and error. We gain experience, we learn about colours and material, patterns, shapes, and faces, you name it. That is how artists can communicate across their specialties. They share the experience of freely creating from the inside out. In the days of video tutorials, we can easily access a lot of ideas, documentaries about art and artists as well as techniques. This forms our tastes and shows us new things to try.
Some organizations offer free art classes. This way I found a lovely art teacher who works with people with different abilities. Encouragement from art teachers, therapists and peer support workers has made a big difference in my life, as has a group of local Indigenous artists who created the No Borders Art Festival. In its third year, this small group has organized exhibitions and given artists—experienced, mid-career and beginners from the BIPOC, Indigenous and all other equity seeking communities—a chance. Artists are a community of vastly different individuals. I am excited that I became part of this community. People who do not have a career in the job market also miss out on a lot of social interaction.
My personal journey, as described in the metaphor of the labyrinth, taught me to appreciate the support I have received both as an artist and as a person encountering mental health problems. My goals are not as important as living in the moment, although I do have plans. I would like to make huge paint pourings, which are harder to do than smaller ones due to the weight of the paint, the tricky drying process, and the importance of factors like humidity and temperature. I will try it anyway. I do not bother with the possibility of failure. If it does not work out, I will paint over it, use it as a background or happily cut the canvas into pieces and incorporate it into a mixed media project. I barely throw anything away. I recycle cardboard boxes from food or appliances into canvases. The bigger the corrugated cardboard, the better. It will turn into something. Until then I call it an ‘experiment’.
Lisa S. is an Ottawa-based artist and writer. She was born in Austria.
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