“Art is more than an end product or by product. Art does not live in our portfolios. There is no separation between process and art. I commit to being in love with the process not the product, as this is how I find the stamina to continue. I commit to remembering that this love, like all love, is a choice.”
In my last semester at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was tasked with writing a manifesto. This quote is the second to last statement I wrote in what I titled ‘The Sustainable Manifesto’. Over my career as an art student, I have experimented with many different mediums. I have produced a fair amount of work. I have fallen in and out of love with art, and then fallen in love again despite my best efforts. Whenever I think creativity has left me, I find it seeps in through whatever cracks I have not sealed up: my cooking, my writing, my needlework, my spiritual practice.
I find that my art is always inspired by one of two things: something I know very well or something I do not know at all. I think of art as a dialogue I am having, sometimes with a specific audience, sometimes with myself, often with anyone who cares to respond. For a lot of my undergrad, I focused on painting, illustration, and fashion design. My painting and drawing tend to be deeply personal while my design and illustrative work tend to be more research heavy and playful.
I struggled a lot with my mental health since starting college and I used my painting and drawing as a way to explore that. I have a body-focused repetitive disorder called dermatillomania where I feel compelled to pick at my skin when I am anxious. It becomes a vicious cycle as the more damaged my skin was, the more uncomfortable and anxious I felt. I began cutting, sewing, peeling, and scratching canvases to mimic my own self-destructive tendencies. I began experimenting with different oil-based mediums and wax to create the kind of textures I experienced on my body. I also kept a photo diary of my daily life and made a series of self-portraits based on my photos.
At the same time, I was surrounded by a campus culture where mental illness seemed somewhat normalized as students often talked openly about depression and trauma and people often went on leave for mental health reasons. Still there was definitely a stigma about appearance and I began investigating what makes us both demonize and romanticize mental illness, especially in women, artists, and women artists.
I thought of course about Vincent Van Gogh and Jean-Michel Basquiat whose struggles with depression and addiction are often framed as a burden contrasted with their enormous talent, which implies on some level that their dying young was their fate as geniuses. I also thought about the symbolist artist Leonora Carrington who survived her demons and had a long and prolific career. Upon being abandoned by her lover Max Ernst during WWII, she had a breakdown and was interned in a psych ward in Spain. She wrote of her breakdown: “I was living in Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche. I wept for several hours, down in the village; then I went up again to my house where, for twenty-four hours, I indulged in voluntary vomitings induced by drinking orange blossom water and interrupted by a short nap. I hoped that my sorrow would be diminished by these spasms, which tore at my stomach like earthquakes. I know now that this was but one of the aspects of those vomitings: I had realised the injustice of society, I wanted first of all to cleanse myself, then go beyond its brutal ineptitude. My stomach was the seat of that society, but also the place in which I was united with all the elements of the earth.”
I resonated with this extremely before I began my recovery journey. All my angst and fears about the world, the future, politics, violence, myself, my flaws and failures seemed to be distilled into the urge to pick. I felt monstrous and grotesque. I thought about myself through the lens of the Mad Woman, the Bertha Mason, the witch, the hag, the thing to be destroyed. I also thought about women with mental illness who were instead portrayed as tragic and beautiful like Shakespeare’s Ophelia or Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan. I wanted to thrust my illness into the spotlight as if to say “It’s all as ugly as this. It’s all the same pain whether you have to see it or not.”
At the end of an exhausting semester, I lost four large paintings to a building locked for the Chicago winter. I had reached point where I was making paintings that made sense to me, which I felt were complete and rich in meaning. However, I realized I could continue on making paintings in this vein, about dermatillomania, or I could recover from it and not let it become my story.
All the while, I was also creating fashion illustrations, lithography prints, and experimenting with natural dyes. Something about painting always feels serious. Maybe the preciousness of the materials or the time it takes to build and prime a canvas, but I always felt like a painting needed to be somewhat of an undertaking. With illustrating, printing, embroidery, and even weaving, I have more room to play. I started weaving and crocheting when I went abroad to Mexico. It was a revelation. I found the repetitive nature of fiber arts to be very therapeutic and I enjoyed that it was something I could do with and for others.
I consider myself to be a queer feminist and I make a lot of art through that lens. I like making art about gender and about queer history. I think textile arts have a unique history among marginalized people as a way to document history, transmit and create culture, and communicate ideas of self. I enjoy creating art about historical or mythic figures, like Julie d’Aubigny or Lilith, who informed or expanded our understanding of ourselves today.
I am interested in nature as a subject and the mystical side of nature. I think of weaving as a kind of magic, as a way of manifesting a future through symbolic image. In the future, I hope to continue creating illustrations, weavings, paintings and embroideries that can be both a mirror and a gateway, that speak to my experience and to more universal ideas about gender, myth, spirit, and diaspora. I also see the potential of art and performance as a community care practice and have had the wonderful opportunity to facilitate art in that context before. Most of all, I want to make art that invites and celebrates connection.