The primary objective of my senior artist’s series at University of North Carolina Asheville is to raise awareness of the indiscriminately inclusive and devastating consequences of mental illness. Through this series, it has been my hope to better comprehend the emotional and mental limitations of mental illness and communicate these struggles as accurately as possible. The importance of this topic is personal to me as I suffer from two of the mental illnesses that I have chosen to depict in this series; the recurring anonymity throughout this series is meant to emphasize that these diseases have the potential to affect anyone you may know. As a person who suffers from mental illness, I argue that the most important ingredient to recovery is environmental empathy and support from those around you. That begins with an unprejudiced understanding that I hope to inspire with this series.
My artistic process began with selecting and researching a variety of different mental illnesses. My completed series includes Depression, Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder, and Schizophrenia, Addiction, and Anorexia Nervosa. My paintings were completed in that order, beginning with two mental illnesses that I’ve clinically suffered from since childhood. Having the ability to refer to personal emotions and feelings, I would visualize and sketch every image before painting. My biggest conceptual challenge occurred when I began to consider mental illnesses from which I had no personal experience or relation to. While I did conduct a decent amount of internet research on both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, my artistic research relied mostly on personal testimony of friends, family, and student peers that have affected by these specific illnesses. Incorporating this testimony has allowed me to more personally perceive these illnesses as they are perceived by the those who experience them as a reality. This method minimizes medical misconceptions and bias.
As a conceptual artist, I prefer to have a solidified, constructive idea before I begin my painting process. My painting process starts from the outside in, beginning with the background. The backgrounds of this series are meant to be ambiguous so to focalize each figure, color and texture being the most important tools used to communicate moods of tranquil void or stressful static. I have attempted to challenge my own conceptual and technical conventions as an artist, specifically with my representation of schizophrenia. For this painting, I chose to use multiple boards separately, but together, to interrupt the centralized structure of my series. This also demonstrates the separation of the monsters depicted, representative of the irrational and often tormenting voices heard by those who suffer from this disease, and the reality that is the human figure. The evolution of my technical precision is also evident in the progress of my series, specifically within the layered application of shadows and highlights in my figures.
Many artists have influenced this series, however, some have been stronger influences than others. Francis Bacon was a direct inspiration to the deranged undertone of the series. His 1953 portrait, Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, strongly galvanized my representation of bipolar disorder. Bacon’s disturbing figure clearly communicates distress and causes discomfort amongst all audiences. Many of Bacon’s figures are painted in a similarly stressful style, almost desperate for breath. It is disputed that this repeatedly suffocated representation of the human figure derives from the sufferance of severe asthma that affected Bacon since childhood. Since this piece is a distorted version of Diego Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, painted in 1650, it is argued amongst the artistic community that Bacon’s objective in this painting is to create a commentary on religious political histories. Bacon’s perspective has affirmed a new stylistic direction that I have discovered within my senior series, persuading me to perhaps purposefully make my audience uncomfortable.
Another artist who has influenced my senior series, particularly within the painting process is a different kind of artist: a musician. As part of my painting process, I would purposefully listen to songs that would evoke an emotion that I was trying to feel or portray. The musician that I found myself listening to the most is an artist called NF. For literary example, I would listen to a song called "How Could You Leave Us", released in 2016, on loop while I was painting my representation of anxiety. The song is addressed to the artist’s deceased mother after she lost her battle with prescription pills; the song explores the devastating affects the mother’s addiction had on the artist’s childhood and family structure as well as the aftermath of her death. This song creates feelings of anxiety within me for many reasons. Inducing those feelings of anxiety within myself while I was creating this painting allowed me to better demonstrate the frustration, the fear, and the isolation amongst the noise that I experience during an anxiety attack. I find it fascinating how transient art can be, travelling from artist to artist in every conceivable medium possible.
This semester, creating this series, and combatting my own mental health issues for the first time in a decade has been the most emotionally and mentally challenging semester of my college career. This series has helped me learn to better cope with my own mental illnesses and communicate them to others. It has also helped me visualize the different realities experienced by dozens of people that pass me in the street every day. I have learned that life does not have to be so restricted by these diseases. This series has helped me elevate my personal understanding of a wide topic that is becoming increasingly important to me. It has also allowed me to grow conceptually and technically as a painter. For the first time in years, I am content with my work; for the first time in years, I pushed myself to explore my artistry in a therapeutic and emotionally constructive way. The feeling of fulfilment that has been achieved in this series has caused me to reconsider my artistic direction after graduation. I aspire to refocus my time, talent, and tediously acquired artistic education in a more rehabilitating direction.—Andria Paige Barlow, April 2018.