"I think adults who paint are brave. They need support to shine." Sue Graham, artist.
Art was one of my favourite activities as a child. I have memories from kindergarten slapping on thick layers of brightly coloured paint at a stand up easel. I won a poster competition when I was around 10 years old. It was judged by a well-known landscape artist whom I met. She told me my poster stood out because of the colours and composition.
When I was a teenager, my art teacher at school said, 'you always paint differently according to what mood you're in.' I felt criticised but thought, 'isn't that the point?' The same teacher said, 'you're going to have a nervous breakdown one day.' She said it was because I was busy doing so many activities with no down time to rest.
I didn't continue with art at school. I had a breakdown when I was twenty. And more throughout my life so far. Nervous breakdown isn't a medical term, but the decomposition state I experienced was I believe a combination of extreme stress from my bipolar disorder, PTSD and anxiety. I'd be seen by doctors at the 'bottom of the cliff', so I was diagnosed with depression and put on antidepressants, which can and did trigger mania episodes. I was finally diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder in my forties.
Yet I was still drawn to art and now and again I would have the desire to draw or paint, so I took some adult classes here and there. Some of the teachers were very critical and it made me not want to paint. Other teachers were encouraging. Still, I threw away my paintings, because I had a critical voice from within, saying that I wasn't 'good enough.' A family member kept one of my paintings from years ago. I did sell a few (I can't remember how many but it was all of them) at a garage sale when I moved to Australia. I didn't think they were worth very much, so I think I sold them for maybe $10 or less. But people asked who painted them. Only recently I have started signing my paintings. At first I signed them in 'abstract' - 'xyz' for X.Wyse.
After many years of not touching a paintbrush, I felt an urge to paint again. My way, breaking rules and doing my own thing - so I went for abstracts rather than realism. The extreme urge was when I went back on medication for a manic episode and I was rapid cycling from mania and crashing into depression, only to go 'high' again. It took several months to get some sort of stability in my mood on medications.
Painting helped calm a racing mind. It was very meditative for me. It also helped me process trauma from PTSD. I have seen a therapist intermittently (a very frustrating exercise trying to be seen by a clinical psychologist as a trauma therapist) but my therapist agrees that art has been helping me process trauma and reconnect my emotions. Writing also helps me, but when my mind is too disorganised to write, I can express my emotions with visual art.
Some of my art looked like a child painted them. I did feel like I was going back to letting my inner child communicate what she needed to communicate. The book I've been writing, Pet Purpose is about how a character diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD has been affected by a childhood trauma of sexual abuse. The story is semi-autobiographical because I've woven aspects of my story into it, yet I've made up other parts of it. So it's not memoir.
More recently I have been painting landscapes. Semi-realism for me, as I paint brighter and clearer colours than are in 'real life.' I had an opportunity to have some small group lessons with a local artist. She observed that I paint in 'jewel' colours rather than murky, muted, earthy or pastel colours. At some stage I would like to paint birds. I like to take photographs of birds in the wild because I like to see them free to do their own thing, like I would like to be to.
The painting above is Healing Tears and while I still consider it to be abstract, it was the first semi-realistic painting I had done in many years. But I think with more depth to it than previous art - a reflection of the painful journey I've been through. I painted it during my first solo art exhibition of my art as therapy paintings. Because some of the emotions I felt including feeling sad and tearful during the exhibition process. And because I was taking my focus back to writing Pet Purpose. The eye from the main character, Heni who has eyes like polished paua shells. Paua shells that can be made into beautiful jewellery, but were also used in their natural state as free ashtrays.
What one person treasures, another throws away. And that goes with people too. And art. Art is subjective. I didn't want to put a painting up on the wall at the exhibition called 'Screwed' because it had pain in it for me and I judged it as 'ugly'. It was made of screws and bits of wool and ribbon. But a few people said they loved it and to my astonishment someone bought it. I was going to destroy it and throw it away after the exhibition. Which reminded me that art is subjective and that sometimes we are our harshest critics.
Living with bipolar and PTSD, I have to fight the internal voice that says I'm not good enough. Because other people told me that I wasn't and criticised and rejected me. It's still a work in progress for me to reject that harmful narrative - that I am stupid, ugly and instead believe that I am intelligent and beautiful. And believe it when people tell me that my art is beautiful too.
In the painting below, I painted the toad in colours I don't like and avoid using. I wrote a little story to go with it about telling the critical inner voice to shut up. But that critical inner voice often comes from a place of pain. The toad represents the critical voice and feelings of disgust. The sunflower isn't listening to the voice and the glider is determined to fly anyway. The worm is working hard turning the compost into rich soil for the sunflower to grow.
Xanthe finds writing and painting to be therapeutic. She has lived with mental illness for over 25 years. She has been diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social anxiety disorder after originally being diagnosed with 'treatment resistant' depression with general anxiety.