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

I was born and raised on the near-east side of Madison, and am a proud product of the public schools, festivals, parks, and community gatherings that make the isthmus what it is. I was heavily shaped by a familial legacy of passion for books, and have found much of my artistic inclinations to be linked to the literary foundation from which I grew. I was raised in a bilingual household in keeping with my maternal Mexican heritage, and in two languages words were felt to be of high value in my life from an early age. From the sixth grade through high school I studied drawing under local artist Phillip Salamone at the Atwood Atelier, and from there grew a passion for portraiture and general creative expression. When I was sixteen, I stopped attending Madison East High School and enrolled in a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts called Simon’s Rock, where I am currently pursuing a dual degree in Studio Arts and Literary Studies.

Tell us about your project that is in the exhibition.

The two pieces in the exhibition deal with my struggles with myself as they relate to the internal and external world. The first piece, “ashamed, the soothing” depicts an internal view of isolation, grounded in my perceptions of myself with the exterior world as an afterthought. The second piece, “no sorry to be sorry for” depicts an external view of isolation, wielding the sublime expansive feeling that comes with that solitude. I didn’t make either work with the other one in mind, and didn’t think of them as particularly related, but I like that they happened to end up as peculiar inversions of each other as I approached similar feelings from different angles. Put together, the two pieces explore the meeting points between interiority and exteriority as they relate to the body. I was particularly interested in relationships around architectural spaces and natural spaces, and was intrigued by how the figure alters these borders. This was a way for me to decode my relationship with my body and how that relationship often projects itself onto the scenery it inhabits.

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

My process, in all honesty, involves a lot of sitting and staring. I struggle with self-restriction and fear when I paint, which makes the process frustrating, but in small moments I find loopholes in my own rules and from these, I work the most. Self-imposed rules, and control of that kind, is something I am learning to deal with in my art rather than exercise in my creative process. That transition is not without difficulty, though, so in the meantime I have one of my favorite loopholes: using the work of other artists in other media to build a foundation for my own work. For me, this is mostly music and books. I trace a feeling that I want to tackle in my paintings, and seek out a place where I recognize the feeling. I have found that when I work with these other, non-visual pieces of art, the bindings of expectation and self-doubt give way to my appreciation and admiration of that art. Given its medium is foreign enough from painting, when I consume these works I have no choice but to give in to my enjoyment of them. It’s a sort of weaponization of my fan nature. Even in the face of some of my darkest feelings, my enthusiasm about the things that I really like holds sturdy. Art that I enjoy has saved me many times.

“No sorry to be sorry for” is a perfect example of this loophole approach. Its title is pulled from the song “Communist Daughter”. I recognized in it feelings of shame and isolation that I had a hard time claiming in myself, and it became a powerful point of access that I am grateful for.

When I get into the actual painting process of my work, I tend to work in sporadic bouts of passion with lulls in between. This is in part due to a busy college schedule, but also because my artistic motivation, like most work, is at the mercy of my mood. I tend to spend a lot of time on the figures in my paintings, which are often my favorite, but when art-making is difficult, the nature portions are sometimes easier to approach. I looked at a lot of early-mid 19th century landscape paintings as reference when I painted the scenery in “no sorry”, particularly Gustave Courbet’s stormy ocean paintings. I also really admired Freidrich’s “Monk by the Sea”, which I came across by typing “landscape painting” and various combinations of gloomy adjectives in to the google images search bar until I found what I liked. As it stands, this kind of internet-scavenging is a common practice for me when I am stuck on a piece.

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

My work is a place where I have learned I can interact with my mental health in a direct and safe way. However, I think that this relationship between my art and mental health is something that only came into being once my wellness had stabilized significantly. I spent a good portion of my years in high school in a debilitating depressive episode that restricted me from being able to attend my normal daily life. I spent most of the time in and out of treatment, both in and out of state. Throughout that time I had a constant change in scenery, always finding myself surrounded with walls and faces I didn’t know, and getting to know them very well only to be ripped away again. The idea of interior/exterior became very interesting to me in this period and I wanted to explore it artistically. Also, despite the fact that I was at a very low point in my life, I figured that one thing I would get out of my struggle was inspiration for art. So many people made great art out of the kinds of things I was feeling then. So many artists were severely messed up. I thought now that I had shirked all of my life’s responsibilities and was thoroughly in pain, I would finally have the time and mindset to make great art. I was wrong, though. It turned out it was a full-time job to struggle, and when I tried to draw during that time my efforts fell short. The wounds that I was trying to draw inspiration from were too tender, and when I touched them my head was dizzied with the pain so I couldn’t sort anything out; it was too overwhelming to make things. I saw this as failure, which was not a helpful way of seeing things. When I got better, my days and routines sputtered back to life and the opportunity to try again was there, but I feared jumping back in. Most of the time I couldn’t believe my luck that I had made it out, constantly looking over my shoulder to check that I had really cleared that dark forest. It was too risky to try and access those feelings immediately. I feared that I would reveal any better feelings I was experiencing to be false, that I would still find the trees around me if I looked hard enough. When I went to college I tried again. I found that with my wounds healed and a clear head, I could interrogate those parts of me and still feel okay. Tackling something as big as “depression” or “trauma” or “anxiety” does not seem to be easy for me. As far as my mental health relating to my work, I have worked mostly with specific fears that are wrapped up into all those big words. I am afraid of a lot of things, and often ashamed of those things too. When I take things I am too afraid to say out loud, or the parts of myself I am most ashamed to face, and put them on a surface, so they stare at me, I feel better. Mental wellness was required for me to deal with mental illness in my art. I was upset to discover this when I was unwell, because I had mistakenly told myself it was a small benefit in a sea of misfortune that I was owed but could not have. I should at least get some good art out of all of this unhappiness! In truth, I was disappointed because my inability to create marked the dissolution of a romantic fantasy of some sort of artistic justification for my suffering, something I was seeking out when suffering was most comfortable and I had no intentions of improving. When I managed recovery, I saw this disappointment for what was. The good news was that in my bettered state, it didn’t matter to me anymore. Now, as my world continues to gradually lighten, I can keep finding small pieces of myself that are healed enough to paint in full color.

How did you begin this project?

This project began mostly as an intersection of feelings I wanted to explore and artistic experimentation I wanted to try. With a solid background in more traditional portraiture, I was ready to explore new compositional possibilities. An art professor from college, in response to the work that came out of this curiosity, showed me a book of Neo Rauch paintings which also helped me push my boundaries. Armed with new technical inspirations and a range of potent feelings that I wanted to express artistically, this project came to life.

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

Sometimes when I depict emotions that are difficult in paintings, it doesn’t come out cleanly. As you might expect, it can be hard to know if the art is helpful, especially when the feelings are raw. However, this project exemplifies some of the instances where the emotional benefit was very real. For a few years, I have developed the casual artistic practice of drawing my own body when my relationship with it is particularly difficult. My discomfort in my body has been an issue and detriment to my mental health since I became aware of my body at all. As a solution, I began taking photos of myself that were emotionally challenging to look at without criticism, and then I drew them. When the picture became a reference for art, it lost the shame and pain to which I thought it was intrinsically linked. The art that came from these photos made me feel love, and when I discovered this ability, I felt like I had struck gold. It provided a reprieve when I was having a difficult time. My piece “ashamed, the soothing” is one of the first times that I employed this approach in oil paint. It was a difficult, powerful, and rewarding process for me.

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

The pandemic began about a month after I recovered from my most severe depressive episode. Because of this very odd timing, the depths of the pandemic lined up with the first times I was able to unpack my experiences with my mental health in art. The isolation and confusion of the period created an odd suspended feeling in time, I think this affected the way I processed my experiences. I can certainly say that the pandemic forced a lot of self-reflection whether we wanted it or not.

Has the stigma around mental health affected your art practice?

Primarily, stigma around mental health made me question my own art frequently. For teenagers, especially for teenagers socialized as women, there is a constant battle with societal invalidation regarding mental health crises. There is no right way to struggle, and certainly no right way to talk about it. I often feared that any attempts to make art about my struggles with mental health would feel cliché, performatory, and shallow. I found the only way around it was ignoring the stigmas, but they never fail to creep up and instill self-doubt.

How has stigma affected your life in general?

When I was struggling most with my mental health, I spent a long period of time engaging in self-injury, which is one of the more stigmatized depressive behaviors in adolescent girls. The physical remnants that come with self-injury became a part of my body, even when my feelings and behaviors changed. I felt a lot of shame about this practice when I engaged in it, and continue to struggle with insecurity of how I am perceived as a person with the physical evidence of my self-harm still around, even though I have long since stopped cutting. The stigmata whose scars still mark my limbs today were efforts of escape from the shame I was already feeling as a struggling young person. It's a behavior incredibly common among adolescents, and even so, it is ruthlessly demonized and written off as a ploy for attention. In my time in treatment, I met a lot of kids who struggled with it like I did, and encountered a range of feelings that others had towards the behavior that linked so many of us together. When I think of stigma with mental health, my heart goes to the tender place I hold for those who are inclined towards self-harm. It is a peculiar and sad phenomenon that leaves its ghosts hanging around long after it has ended. Those scars and stigmas feel one and the same.

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

Based on my experiences, I have found that stigma shrivels in the light of connection. I have gained the most relief from shame and stigma about mental health when I have felt close to someone else’s art. In art we can access representation of the emotions that are hard to identify and face in more harshly-bound mediums of connection. I believe that diverse artistic approaches are the key to making these connections. In other people’s songs and stories I have heard articulated things I couldn’t articulate myself, and from that experience, I could create for myself. One of my main takeaways from my mental health journey was that nothing works for everyone. Not all help can come through conversation, and sometimes facing other people is too overwhelming. If we can face something they created from their interior, it's a little easier to put it next to our own interior.

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

As a person who has only just started adulthood, my work is rooted in an awe and excitement for the artistic legacies behind me. From bands I obsessed over to books I have thrown myself into, I have always been hardcore about the art that I love. I hope that other people who are similarly fan-types can see that about my work. Though I have had my difficult trials, I have found one of the best things about my life is enjoying the creations of others. It has been the best way for me to balance the painful parts of making art about my own mind. I am grateful for this love, and wholeheartedly believe that healing will be built from the connection we find in each other's art.

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