As a Disability and Mental Health Advocate, with a Master’s Degree in Special Education, and qualifications in Australian Sign Language interpreting, I was named ‘2013 NSW Carer of the Year’. I am a Teacher of the Deaf, a published author, and an award-winning artist with works on public display in the CADE Clinic at Royal North Shore Hospital. I am married and have four adult children, one of whom has Down syndrome and Autism. I live with Bipolar Disorder.
In our society, being different because you have a mental illness is not desirable. However, artistic difference is something to aspire to, and something that wins awards and accolades for artists. We should all learn to celebrate our differences in every area of life. The true journey for any artist – in fact for everyone – is to find their own unique voice that will reveal their individuality, and the special skills and talents they have to offer the world.
For me, painting goes far beyond the image: it is a way of expressing myself, and uniquely connecting with others by telling my stories with pictures rather than words. As author Brenda Euland wrote: the creative power gives us purpose, and mine is to discover truth and beauty by expressing and sharing art.
I am an artist who happens to have Bipolar Disorder, I am not a Bipolar Artist. The distinction is important. I am not defined by having Bipolar Disorder any more than I am defined by being the mother of a child with Down syndrome or a teacher or a mother or a wife. Part of me is all of those things, but part of me is an artist too.
I’d like to imagine that people who see my work might think, ‘Wow, that painting really ‘speaks’ to me – I’d pay good money for that!’ What I’d hate is for them to think, ‘Not bad for a person with a mental illness.’
Having said that, I believe that artistic endeavours can be a little bit like bipolar disorder. They have their seasons and there are times when things flow freely and easily and times when nothing happens. There can be a very fine line between a masterpiece and a big flop. Disasters happen, of course, but as long as you don’t give up, you can often (but not always) recover or at least paint over it and turn the mistake into something else entirely.
Some people in society are ignorant, complacent or condescending about the realities of those living with mental health problems. Bipolar Disorder and other mental illnesses are difficult to live with, and can be even more difficult to understand. This is why I wrote my memoir, ‘Art From Adversity: A Life With Bipolar’, (Interactive Publications, Qld) I wrote it for people who have a mental illness, for their families, for professionals and for people who think it has nothing to do with them (because it might). There is factual information, my story, and my paintings. It is a very easy read and gives hope.
Life’s not perfect but in art (and in life) sometimes that’s a good thing. As the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” say:
‘Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’
Story told to Loretta Picone.