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

I am a sculptor from Carbondale, Il. I attended Southern Illinois University, receiving a degree in art and art history. I am currently pursuing an MFA from University of Wisconsin – Madison. I most commonly work with fibers, making wearable soft sculptures out of knit and crocheted textiles.

Tell us about your project that is in the exhibition.

My piece, The flesh is willing and the spirit is okay I guess, is about the impact physical health has on one’s mental health. The piece is a dusty pink sweater, with dark purple forms attached near the neck, underarms, and waist. The sweater hangs suspended, arms outstretched as if animated. The purple forms are intended to evoke swollen lymph nodes or other concerning lumps one might find on their body. For much of my life, a chronic medical condition has resulted in a warped perception of my own body. Feelings of disgust and shame have led to persistent depression and anxiety. The sweater is my body as an object, removed from myself. The idea of escaping my own body, to pull it off like an article of clothing, has been a very attractive metaphor to me throughout my life. I suppose I am now interested in the implications of choosing to put this sweater on; to accept one’s own body and to willingly wear it.

What is your process like when your making work?

My process is very cathartic. I like working with fibers, particularly crochet and knitting, because of the repetitive nature of the construction work and the softness of the materials. The rhythm involved in working in these media is physically and psychically soothing. Much has been written on the topic of fiber arts as a healing technique, such as the recent book Craft in Art Therapy: Diverse Approaches to the Transformative Power of Craft Materials and Methods by Lauren Leone. When I am working, I will put on music and work in a state of tranquility induced by the creative process. I use this approach both as a centering/grounding technique and as a useful distraction from unwanted thoughts.

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

My work is generally a tool to process what is going on in my life, clarifying what is important and not important to me. That includes my mental state and my physical state. My artmaking is akin to talk therapy in some ways, except that I am in conversation with an object and then the conversation eventually passes to an audience who have their own responses. I put what I’m thinking into the piece, and the piece returns to me something (typically) different yet insightful that I hadn't recognized before.

How did you begin this project?

The project began as an impulse to crochet a version of my own torso as a soft sculpture. Over time, I began thinking about the relation of the body to clothes, and particularly what clothing may hide. The idea of a clothing article that reveals intimate details what it hides is interesting to me. Of course, nudity would be the most universally understood version of this, but chronic illnesses and injuries also lie hidden beneath clothes. This was the thought process that led me to working on this piece.

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

I think it was. It has been very strange to show this piece to other people and get a variety of reactions. Some people find it repulsive while others think it is aesthetically beautiful. This piece was about creating a solely aesthetic version of my illness. While working on this piece I have been thinking a lot about body neutrality, not evaluating the body based on appearance but on function and repair, accepting it as part of oneself.

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

The pandemic encouraged me to pursue working with crochet and knitting because it was easy to continue at home, as opposed to other sculptural practices that require facilities I didn’t have access to during lockdown.

Has the stigma around mental health affected your art practice?

I notice that, in certain art circles, recovery from mental illness is stigmatized along with the illnesses themselves. There is a strong sentiment among some artists and those who talk about art that pain is a necessary ingredient to compelling artworks. I won’t argue either way about that topic. Some take this further and believe, whether overtly or unconsciously, that mental anguish is desirable if it produces good art. Sort of a romanticized Vincent Van Gogh archetype. It can appear that the art of mentally ill artists is prioritized over their own well-being. Romantic notions about these experiences are thrust onto these artists, regardless of how un-romantic the lived experiences may be. Mental illness is not treated seriously, and suffering is minimized in the discourse around this art. I keep this potential in mind when I produce my art, thinking about how a piece may be romanticized once it leaves my studio, and remembering to keep myself safe even when I am pushed to expose myself for a voyeuristic audience.

How has stigma affected your life in general?

People tend to have pretty rigid notions of what mental health and mental illness look like, and they will sometimes dismiss or look down on a person who is displaying behaviors associated with mental illness. I am someone who has had bad and good periods that were not announced or reflected by my public presentation. I have learned that people can have a hard time believing that you are suffering and need help when you outwardly appear to be "well." However, when you are showing more conventional signs of distress it can cause people to lose respect for you. It's a double-edged sword -- you may maintain your dignity if you seem to be well, but if you seem more functional than you really are it may end up getting you inadequate help served up with a heavy side of disappointment.

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

I think art that approaches mental illness and mental health honestly can be a powerful tool in combating stigma. The more people can encounter such art and feel that moment of “Oh, I get that,” the more people realize that these experiences are common and shared. Isolation and shame feed the stigma. Overcoming those is the first step to having conversations that reflect the realities of mental illness and mental health.

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

Everything is really a lot more normal than you think it is.

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