Short bio, where are you from, what is your background?

I am an interdisciplinary artist using narrative and invented characters to explore trauma and the mythical nature of childhood. Originally from central Wisconsin, I moved south in 2011 to study at the University of Wisconsin - Madison where I received degrees in studio art and creative writing. In 2021 I graduated with an MFA from that same institution. Currently, I’m teaching drawing at the university while continuing to use my practice to explore the fallibility of memory and mythologizing childhood.

Tell us about your project that is in the exhibition.

The artworks in this exhibition are sculptures made in reaction to my traumatic experiences in childhood. They are a form of processing the ways I was forced to survive then, and how those learned behaviors continue to impact me now. By dissecting my own trauma, I hope to begin a larger discussion about abuse and mental health.

What is your process like when you're making work?

While I’m going about my day the back of my mind is constantly chewing, and when it hits on something particularly tasty I write it down. A finished sculpture usually begins its life as a tiny idea scribbled on a scrap of paper which is then fleshed out over time as I create more developed drawings. There’s a sense of excitement or satisfaction that arises that lets me know when an idea is ready to leave the page, and I begin sculpting. Despite my best attempts to plan, even during the sculpting process ideas can completely change. For example in Corner Child, the addition of the nail was something that was added over halfway through the sculpt, and the mirror was added only in installation. While this intuitive way of sculpting can make things difficult, it lets each piece become a type of puzzle. How can I make this more interesting? How can I get this feeling to come across more intensely? What if this sculpture interacted with our space in this way? To me, these are very pleasing puzzles to solve.

How does mental health or wellness factor into the creation of your work?

The tortured artist trope is something I take issue with. The widespread belief that mental illness breeds creativity is ultimately a harmful one. At my most mentally ill, I had trouble drawing a single line. For years I wanted to make art, but couldn’t. It was impossible. Instead I spent those years reading about different art forms and techniques, squirreling away knowledge in hopes that one day I would feel like I was able to make art again. Even now almost eight years into my recovery, I still struggle. While creating has become an integral part of my wellbeing, that doesn’t mean I can sit down and do it every day. I’m still repairing my relationship with Making.

How did you begin this project?

I think it might be impossible to mark a “beginning” because making this work wasn’t something I just decided to do one day. As I started to routinely go to therapy, I slowly began to connect my art making with my mental health recovery. In turn, making art helped improve my mental health.

Was the process of creating this project helpful for dealing with the emotion or issue you're describing in your images?

These sculptures are a kind of byproduct of my recovery. While my childhood was dotted with frequent periods of depression, there was a time in my early twenties when I was so consumed by depression and anxiety that I could barely function as a human being. When things were at their very worst the idea of my continuing existence became so unbearable that I admitted myself to a hospital. If I couldn’t even get out of bed most days, I definitely wasn’t going to be making art. As I’ve worked towards my recovery and regained the ability to create again, I’ve come to realize just how crucial it can be to healing. At a time when I felt like I couldn't tell anyone about my experiences, art became a conduit to process things I knew people in my life didn’t want me to talk about. Through art I could say the things I was too afraid to say in words.

Has the pandemic shifted the way you approach your work at all?

In some ways the pandemic has made art making more difficult. In my lowest moments I read the news and think, “What’s the point of these stupid, useless little sculptures?” On days like that I often feel like being an artist is a selfish decision. There’s guilt. Maybe we’ve all felt strains of that during the pandemic though, as individuals who can do very little to offset the vast suffering we’re witness to everyday. I feel incredibly lucky I’m able to say that there are ways the pandemic has been healthy for my artistic practice. Quarantine gave me more time to think and make. I formed some very deep connections with people during those months of isolation that have, in turn, allowed me to improve my relationship with myself. I’m grateful to be able to say that I left quarantine a self contented person in some ways, though there’s always more work to be done when it comes to mental health.

Has the stigma around mental health affected your art practice?

I’ve slowly been peeling away the layers of hesitance surrounding my art practice. It’s scary to admit that you’ve spent so much time struggling, that you’re still struggling. Though, in the last few years I’ve realized that confronting my fears tends to have an unambiguously positive impact on my life. So, I will continue to question those fears. How has stigma affected your life in general? My therapist and I often talk about how it’s not worth thinking about how things could have been. Who would I be if my childhood had been more idyllic? If I hadn’t spent large swaths of my life delirious with anxiety and depression? “Despite everything you’ve gone through and even if you can’t see it yet,” he reminds me, “you are a kind, amazing, empathetic person!” And some days I do see myself how my therapist sees me. I’m working hard everyday to love and accept myself. But, if I’m being truly honest, deep down I’m also so angry. With clenched fists and gritted teeth I mourn the me who could have been if I hadn’t spent most of my childhood being verbally, physically and emotionally abused. I’m angry that I had to learn to live in constant fear because I was made to feel like it was more shameful to speak out than to continue to let myself be hurt. That silence ruined me mentally. I began to try to justify the things being done to me, coming to the conclusion that my mere existence must be an affliction on the people around me, and so I must be punished. As a child it was the only way I could think to rationalize everything I was enduring. After years of this treatment I didn’t even feel like a human being anymore. I was something else, something lesser. I was unmade. The thought that there are people in my life, people I love very much, who I tried to tell or who saw these things being done to me, and did nothing still crushes me even after all this time. I’ll never know what kind of person I would have been if I was never abused, but I do know that I was made to suffer for years in silence to preserve the comfort of others. The aftermath of this abetted violence is something I’ll be contending with for the rest of my life, and I’m left to wonder how things might have been different if anyone had been willing to hear me.

How do you think Art could help end stigma around mental illness and mental health?

Creating art allows us to share who we are and our experiences, but also gives us the ability to know ourselves better through the act of creation. A mixture of art making, therapy and years of self investment have begun to allow me to confront and overcome the shame I’ve been taught to feel about the ways my childhood trauma has manifested into mental illness. The inner stigma has to be killed again and again before I can even begin to engage with the wider world's perceptions of mental illness. I like to think that the artwork produced during this process of self evaluation and acceptance could help bring comfort to those who share similar experiences and perhaps present an enlightening new perspective to those who haven't. I don’t know if I’ve been successful in creating work that conjures these ideas yet, but as I continue to improve as an artist that outcome is something I’m always striving for.

Is there anything else you would like folks viewing your work to know about it or in general? What are your closing thoughts?

Life is painful, but also incredibly beautiful. Even in our most unbearable moments, let us be obstinate in our search for that beauty. When the world wants us to be a miserable, throbbing knot of pain and despair, our greatest act of defiance can be to try to choose joy.

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