Ten participants in the project were given the freedom to express their story and their relationship with their experience on paper and then given the opportunity to rip up those words, in what was intended to be a cathartic release. I collaged these fragments of their personal stories and build their portrait on top of their own words. The series traces the function of art as a therapeutic process as each subject begins with reflection and expressive writing about themselves their experience, only to destroy what they created before practicing principles of both sharing and trust in relinquishing these pieces for them to be reassembled and transformed. Each subject interpreted the instructions differently, giving the paintings individuality while also yielding commonalities across the works; while specific stories were unique and the experience of ‘mental illness’ took numerous forms, common themes of stigma, perfection, failure and optimism arise throughout.
A series of portraits, painted on top of fragments of personal writings addressing issues of mental health, Resilience is both a therapeutic collaboration and a celebration of a niche subset of people with experience of lived mental illness – those who have managed to channel their experience into becoming leaders in the mental health community.
The collective conscious of suicide is largely formulated by stories of successful attempts within the media; yet unsuccessful suicide attempts have an unknown prevalence. The stigma toward attempting suicide attempts in society extends to a lack of communication even among those who have failed their attempt; despite the gravity of the choice and actions taken to end one's life, those that are unsuccessful form an invisible population, both to the general public and among themselves; they are unspoken of, unrepresented and connected by a significant moment in which they chose to end their lives. To give a voice to this unheard population, I conducted interviews with suicide survivors to get a sense of their story and pattern, relationship and perception toward suicide and their individual perceptions of their visibility and stigma and to what they attribute their attempts. Each painting addresses the unique story of one individual and their specific perceptions with all components structured to visually conceptualize of their story while also articulating their characteristics they share in their experiences.
-- Excerpt from Artist Statement, Katherine Brown, 2013
As part of a research assignment on Gerhardt Richter (October 18, 1977 series), I wanted to address my own thematic concerns while ‘modernizing’ Richter’s gesture by appropriating an iconic image of a figure shortly before her death while referencing the medium through which her image was disseminated. Drawn from a single moment in the widely known Youtube video made by Amanda Todd, a Vancouver teenager who committed suicide in October 2012, I pixelated rather than blurred the portrait, as images are primary taken and circulated through digital means now. In Richter’s vein, I intended to convey an immediately recognizable but controversial figure and evoke notions of timelessness and the decay of collective memory.
Drawing upon Lisa Steele's contemporary video piece, "Birthday Suit" (1974) which explores the associations attached to the artist's scars incurred throughout her life, "Every Time" extends the discourse over the relationship of one's scars to personal identity by challenging the perceived permanence of such associations. The series traces the fluctuating signification attached to templated pattern of scars in the course of coming to terms with their presence and integrating them into the individual’s self-conception. The transformation of this design across elements, though not necessarily linear and mutually exclusive, reflects a shift in my relationship to my scars: from opaque permanence to temporal transparency, the transition from cracked concrete, to wood grain, to fluid reflection is intended to evoke notions of change beyond physical appearance, exploring themes of imperfection, awareness and natural occurrence.
The connotation the template takes on with each form reflects an evolving conception of permanence and visibility: from glaring evidence of irreparable damage, to an inherent marker of chronological growth, inseparable from the whole, and finally to an indistinct play of light on water, no longer absorptive and static but flickering in and out of consciousness. Although drawn from a personalized conceptual source, the notion of changing permanence and accumulation of associated signification is intended to generalize to other marks which are socially perceived as unchanging imperfection, whether paralleling the course of coming to terms with one's emerging wrinkles through age or the evolution of signification one gives to a tattoo.
-- Abbreviated Artist Statement, Katherine Brown, 2013
Stay tuned for more examples of Katharsis artwork to be uploaded.
Popular reception of publicized suicide is very often characterized by a fleeting moment of community indignation and self-validation. Like the prisoners’ blurred images, captured as both temporal and timeless with archival documentation by Richter, Amanda Todd’s video remains a digital trace of her existence on the web, caught in a moment in time, while the memory of the tragedy and controversy of her death dissipates with time.
-- Summary of Research Statement (Gerhard Richter, "October 18, 1977" series, 1988), Katherine Brown, 2013
As leaders, these individuals have a strong belief in the power of sharing experiences to combat stigma, and have contributed to mental health in the community as volunteers, founders of support groups, and speakers at awareness events. Their stories with mental health remain beneath the surface yet it is this experience that shapes their passion and goals. They exist in the space between the dichotomy of mental illness / health often overlooked in the psychiatric discourse, a space of resilience that is oriented to the future but dependent on the past. On one hand, this prompts consideration of people with lived experience of mental illness as an invisible population of survivors, whose voices go unheard in the face of social stigma toward mental illness. Yet, the experience or ‘story’, is submerged, pushed to the background and barely visible in the portraits; in the process, the fragments become obscured and convey how we are shaped by our underlying experiences, but not defined by them in their entirety. With a single quote chosen by each subject and included as a title card, along with the logos of dozens of mental health organizations, the series of 12x16" portraits yields a feeling of hope in the face of adversity. Together with the cathartic physical act of writing one’s story and tearing it into pieces, the series works to de-emphasize the specifics of the experiences, focusing instead on the person, moving beyond the past to highlight the resilience of the present. By focusing on leaders with lived experience, Resilience asks what it is about these people that has allowed them channel their experiences into contributing and advocating for the mental health community.
"In an attempt to deal with the notion of the death of painting in contemporary art and the boundary between the viewer and artist, these self-portraits use fragments of mirrors to shatter these boundaries by dynamically allowing the viewer to become part of the art piece, and in effect, become the artist by filling in the gaps of the self portrait. The self-portraits were intended to be raw reflections of myself - unedited, unglossed, uninhibited, as though I was myself looking into a mirror. Inevitably, however, this meant painting my own characteristic imperfections - my scars, a remnant from a suicide attempt years before. By not glossing over these aspects of the self portrait and allowing the artist and audience to meld, the paintings present a private disease and opening it up to public discourse, taking the internal and externalizing it. Everyone has scars, some are simply more visible than others. People who are depressed tend to individualize it, believing what they feel is specific only to them. Hindsight allows us to see that everyone feels this way, everyone experiences emotional turmoil – I am taking an individualized sentiment and globalizing it to whomever is “filling in the gaps” of the visibly trapped trapped figures, in reference to the consuming, confining and cyclical nature of depression."
-- Artist Statement (Description for MHN Art Gala, April 2015), Katherine Brown, 2013
Special thanks to major contributing mental health groups supporting this project: UBC Mental Health Network, The Kaleidoscope: Empowering Change, Redefining Bipolar, SpeakBOX, S.H.A.R.E. Self Harm Anonymous Recovery & Education.
I chose the word Katharsis to encapsulate the direction of my artistic practice for more than its nominal reference. Psychologically speaking, it describes a condition of release of that which is socially unacceptable to alleviate tension, a concept which very much parallels both my process and my foray into stigmatized subjects. My institutionally grounded education very much emphasizes a theoretical, objective approach and amid the distanced, almost biological, generation of conceptual artists, we are told that figuration and the "personal" no longer have a place in artistic discourse. But where does that leave the artist as a realist and a person? How can we relate to the public who is neither represented nor engaged with this objective elitist art? Yet in any other art form, such as fiction, we are told to write what we know, to use personal experience as a grounding point on which to build a narrative that generalizes to others' experiences. This is what my art attempts to accomplish.
My relationship to psychological art first began as a personal interest in its capacity as a therapeutic tool, the process of a quite literally 'cathartic' release. Coupled with my inclusion into the masses who pursue a psychology degree, my practice became more than a stylistic and subjective release from the norm and became oriented to breaking down the barriers surrounding issues of mental health. My central concerns are perpetually in flux, but the practice of confronting that which is stigmatized and submerged beneath collective conscious by using the personal to relate to the global is resonating theme in the pieces below. Time, change, transparency and the condition of visibility thematically emerge, all working toward a kind of cathartic release of the tension surrounding mental health issues. But it would be idealistically simplistic to attribute to my practice the alleviation of mental health stigma by confronting these issues - perceptions that are engrained in normative understanding are characterized by an inertia that impedes any one person's ability to intervene into the dominant social stance. My intention is neither to cleanse or purify, but to give a voice to the voiceless. I tackle issues of perception and awareness not only for my own personal and artistic self-reconciliation but also as one step toward relieving the stigma and invisibility of encircling the mental health community.
Realistic Painting & Custom Portraits