On being an artist: identity, confidence & mental health

I frequently lose sight of myself as an artist. As someone with low self-esteem and a fragile sense of self, being an artist in 21st century Brexit Britain is hard work. It’s not a job that’s seen as particularly important in late-stage capitalist society, especially if you’re not an artist who makes objects that you can sell to beautify people’s walls or shelves. While I definitely feel like an artist, sometimes it’s hard to pin down exactly what that means, especially if I’m in a fallow period of not producing or creating much work.

A recent article by Alistair Gentry in a-n reminded me how important it is to talk about the impact of mental health challenges on our identities and productivity as artists. Mental health has always had a huge impact on my productivity. About four years ago I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which made sense of my periods of manic activity followed by suicidal depression when my ideas became too big for me to handle. Medication made my symptoms worse, so for almost three years I’ve been managing the disorder through intensive psychoanalytical psychotherapy. This has helped me understand the triggers for my manic behaviour – usually an escape from an uncomfortable thought or feeling, as well as depression – a fairly logical form of escape from life itself when it becomes altogether overwhelming.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the impact of motherhood on my identity as a woman and as an artist. A month ago, I started the Artist Residency in Motherhood, founded by Lenka Clayton; have become a member of Spilt Milk, an artist-led social enterprise based in Scotland whose mission is to promote the work of artists who are mothers and last year attended Oxytocin, Procreate’s symposium about motherhood, art and mental health. These projects are wonderful to see in their artistic celebration of the invisible things we do as mothers – the hours spent on something with nothing really to show for it at the end. However, I often find that projects about motherhood frequently focus on new mothers with babes-in-arms, but once that babe has grown to a certain size, you’re supposed to know what you’re doing and your role as mother becomes even more invisible. I certainly have had periods of feeling utterly invisible, both before becoming a mother, but more acutely afterwards. Your child takes centre stage and questions are directed to or about them, but seldom about you. It is easy to retreat into a dark place when you feel like you don’t exist. Or to escape into manic activity which (in your mind) will solve your or even the world’s problems in one fell swoop.

Having had a year of relative stability, I recently had another episode of suicidal depression. This was brought on by the relentless heat wave coupled with headlines about world-wide wildfires and climate catastrophes, (during which my brain told me this was the End of Days), the summer holidays (relentless mothering and little time for creative output) and the cessation of therapy while my therapist took a well-earned break. Written down, these elements don’t sound like enough to make me want to take the pills I have stashed in my cupboard (just in case), or to do any of the other violently destructive things my brain was screaming at me to do, but with my condition, they were enough and it took all my energy to block out the intrusive thoughts and not act upon them.

My question during times like this is: what’s the point? What’s the point of suffering when I know so many others who are struggling? What’s the point of soldiering on when life only decides to kick you back to the bottom of the snake after you’ve spent months climbing the ladder? But in more lucid times, I think that if my experience of coming through these struggles could help just one person, then it would all be worth it.

So I have started work on The Motherlode Project.

Mother lode: a principal vein or zone of gold or silver ore, or colloquially the real/imaginary origin of something valuable or in great abundance [Wikipedia].

The aim of this project is to extract the gold from challenging experiences of motherhood by giving opportunities for artists who are mothers to work with mothers who may be experiencing mental health difficulties as a result of motherhood. This will involve a series of art/writing workshops led by artist-mothers for a group of mothers referred by mental health organisations resulting in an exhibition/publication of their work. I am in the process of submitting a bid to the Arts Council as well as investigating other sources of funding and have had positive responses from artist-mother friends who are interested in getting involved.

So for me, extracting the artistic gold from the excruciatingly painful elements of motherhood are what makes it all worth it. If I can help others, who may be struggling to see the point of it all, through my role as an artist with lived experience of mental health challenges, then so much the better.

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