Supporting Mental Health Awareness: 5 Artists Share Their Struggles and Triumphs
Spring is usually associated with house cleaning, but it’s also a good chance to tidy our thoughts. According to recent data from Mental Health America, nearly 20 percent of the US adult population suffers from a mental illness, while over 2.5 million youth experience severe depression. May is Mental Health Awareness Month here in the States, and after a two-year pandemic, we all deserve to shake off the gloom and thrive.
Observed in the US since 1949, Mental Health Awareness Month aims to raise awareness of and destigmatize those living with mental issues. Sharing resources and building pillars of support is crucial to our well-being, as essential as a yearly physical or trip to the gym.
As ever, art remains a good tool for catharsis (though it’s not a replacement for professional help—please see below for our list of resources). In awareness of mental health issues, NOT REAL ART is featuring five artists who share their struggles and triumphs through art-making. Look through our list of resources below, then scroll down to see work from these brave artists.
Mental Health Resources
Mental Health America is a fantastic resource for more information and support, as well as the CDC. To learn more about mental illness, the American Psychiatric Association is a helpful resource. For 10 books to read during Mental Health Awareness Month, head over to Book Riot. Well + Good is also offering 31 expert-backed mental health practices to try out for the month of May (or really whenever). And finally, download Mental Health America’s free toolkit (available in English and Spanish) for access to foundational knowledge and additional mental health practices.
Mental Health 24/7 Helplines
SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline: 1-877-726-4727
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or chat online
Under a skintight sheet of plastic, Ally Zlatar lets out a silent scream. While the Canadian-born artist isn’t shy about sharing personal anguish in her figure paintings, works like “No One Can Hear the Pain” (pictured above) underscore how difficult it can be to reach the right ears.
Now living in Australia, Zlatar explores her identity through the lens of a longstanding eating disorder. “I held the belief of equating achieving thinness with happiness and fulfillment […] and I have developed a distorted relationship with food, weight, and body image,” she writes in her artist statement. Zlatar goes on to describe the existential crisis that results from prolonged physical and mental isolation: “It is incredibly difficult to express how having an eating disorder can impact the identity of someone who is ill,” she notes.
Using crude brushstrokes to block in flesh tones and bathroom tile, Zlatar makes her pain excruciatingly physical. Slapdash layers of paint reveal the artist’s emotional urgency, but the frosty colors leave viewers with a sense of visceral cold: We’re meant to feel every late-night tiptoe across the bathroom tile, every metal clink of the sliding-weight scale. In Zlatar’s work, mental anguish manifests itself through physical details—pale flesh, cool porcelain, hushed screams—that might otherwise be hidden. “I became confined to my body,” she writes of her disorder, reflecting on the relationship between material and mental pain: “The problem was not only the external physical ramifications of the illness, but the internalized struggles,” she continues.
Learn more about the artist: Artist Ally Zlatar Endures the Isolating Pain of an Invisible Illness
Brenda Maria Fernandez
The mind can be a terrible thing to taste. Photographer Brenda Maria Fernandez’s nightmarish body of work, This is the Feeling You Thought You Had Repressed, steps into the strange recesses of a drug-addled psyche with powerful if frightening results. The work is “a delicate but dark and unapologetic look at my past…under the influence of a really powerful ADHD medication,” Fernandez writes in her artist statement.
Working with pitch black shadows and saturated jewel tones, Fernandez creates an isolated environment where vulnerable bodies stumble through dimly lit hellscapes. One imagines there’s little chance of escape. Those unlucky enough to find themselves in the artist’s self-contained world become trapped, like insects desperately seeking a way out from under the glass.
Much of Fernandez’s work revolves around the feeling of being trapped, mentally or physically. Born and raised in the conservative city of Moneterry, Mexico, the young Fernandez discovered she “could escape the feeling of being trapped through art.” Later in life, the photographer’s difficult experience with ADHD meds reinforced her fear of creative repression. Fernandez notes how the drug altered aspects of her personality, trapping her in a mental state she couldn’t control—even after she stopped using it. “I had become addicted,” she admits. The artist’s dependency, ironically, was only visible once she emerged from her drug-induced haze.
Learn more about the artist: Photographer Brenda Maria Fernandez Steps Into the Mind’s Strange Recesses
Alexis Rivierre was busy developing work for her latest project, Take Care, when the coronavirus took hold of St. Louis. The interdisciplinary artist was scheduled to put on impromptu performances throughout her home town when social distancing abruptly halted her plans. In lieu of a physical space to perform, Rivierre took to the internet, sharing her work on Instagram throughout the pandemic. Never one to shy away from digital media, Rivierre adapted to her new circumstances by incorporating the pandemic’s influence into her evolving body of work.
Now based in Brooklyn, NY, the interdisciplinary artist works with a wide range of media, including textiles, photography, video, and performance, to create the pieces for Take Care. The work, initially meant to address communal healing in the wake of gun violence, took on added meaning with the pandemic’s onset. “I realized that the pandemic will influence this work, requiring it to grow into an expanded wellness conversation; one that investigates the state of this moment, one of overwhelm, media over-stimulus, and a desire for interpersonal connection,” writes Rivierre in her artist statement.
The main thrust of Take Care, pandemic or not, revolves around recontextualizing the relationship between Black women, community, and any overlapping anxiety or trauma. “Through an interdisciplinary, fractured, process I create visual narratives that investigate the ways in which the representation of race through language and visual media plays a role in how we are socialized in the United States,” Rivierre notes. “My work casts a critical lens on the performative nature of Black womanhood as it relates to our historical placement specifically within the American tale.”
Learn more about the artist: Digital Performance Artist Alexis Rivierre Aims to Break Black Mental Health Barriers
“I knew who I was this morning, but I've changed a few times since then,” writes Lewis Carroll in his classic Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Seoul-based visual artist Jaeyoun Shin explores her subconscious universe just as Alice does with her series Through the Looking Glass, a bold exploration of pain and personal identity through therapeutic means.
Each piece in Shin’s mixed-media series is visually tied by a pitch-black background, which represents the stillness of her mindscape. “This dark background is my thoughts, calm or silent emotion, and self-consciousness,” she tells NOT REAL ART. Decorating her “mindscapes” with obsessive line work, florals, and Asian-style paper collage, Shin describes “the boundary of safe and unsafe social environments,” rendering her own vulnerabilities in shimmering Gelly Roll inks. Just as our memories, emotions, and thoughts shape our personal identities, Shin’s work acts as a record of her evolving identity, each piece representing the artist’s individual memories and experiences.
The dark backdrops in Through the Looking Glass also allude to Shin’s search for personal refuge in a strange land. “I felt like a stranger between Korea and the United States,” she writes of her time at Savannah College of Art and Design, where she received an MFA in 2016. As a form of therapy, Shin began processing her anxieties and traumatic experiences through her artwork. “The dark background has dual meanings,” she explains. “One of them is a refuge where my unstable self can rest; the other is my hidden trauma.”
Learn more about the artist: Korean artist Jaeyoun Shin Steps Through the Looking Glass
The three stages of life, according to enigmatic artist Tommy Devoid, are as follows: birth; “what the fuck is this?”; and finally, death. Those in the middle stage—presumably everyone reading this sentence—can probably relate.
A self-taught digital artist specializing in sardonic prints, Devoid offers a welcome antidote to the poison positivity of “live, laugh, love” sloganeering. “I enjoy making people laugh and creating jokes that can be dark, gritty, and even gastly at times,” he says. Dunked in a vat of acid, Devoid’s tart-tongued works melt like sugar before burning a hole on the roof of your mouth.
Part of Devoid’s appeal lies in his consciously cultivated anonymity—you won’t find any headshots online, but the artist’s prankster persona shines through in works like “But Seriously Though” and “Keep Your Head Up”: “If I could be a bird,” Devoid’s signature skeleton muses, “I know exactly who I’d shit on.”
Learn more about the artist: Live, Laugh, Fuck This: Digital Artist Tommy Devoid Offers a Welcome Antitidote to Poison Positivity
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