Sunday, May 5, 2019

Through My Lens

"Through My Lens - Self Portrait"
© 2019 Tammy Kaufman
9" x 12" soft pastel on Sennelier La Carte Pastel Card

Despite the scary potential of facing the continued stigma that far too many still have toward those with mental illness, especially having a somewhat public persona as an artist, I’ve come to realize that openly acknowledging my own battle with it is a solid step toward healing. Painting is also an invaluable part of that healing process for me, along with having found highly qualified and trusted mental health professionals locally. This has given me a bit of courage to publicly recognize my complex mental health challenges and if you are struggling yourself, may my 'coming out' as mentally ill let you know that you are not alone. As I’ve progressed along this meandering artistic path as it crisscrosses with my mental health challenges, I’m finding that my own response to my artworks is changing. My paintings and sketches are generally feeling less like marketable commodities and more like a means of simply expressing the emotions evoked by the various scenes I’ve seen in person that made me want to paint them in the first place.

That being said, after several months of extensive therapies and treatments (which are currently still ongoing), I felt I was ready to open myself up enough to enter an important juried pastel show. This, it turns out, was premature and I was in fact not ready. I wrote these words immediately upon finding out I was denied the validation of an award at this show: "The painting at the top of this post was submitted, and accepted, into the North Carolina Statewide juried pastel exhibition. I know I should be happy this work, which is so personally meaningful to me, even got accepted into such a show, but I'm not going to deny that I was heartbroken to learn that I was, yet again, passed over for an award and the validation I have so desperately craved that would tell me I am in fact an artist.  Despite being part of the show, it still hurts to fail once again to earn an award after trying so very hard so many times. I'm going to let myself be sad for as long as I need and reevaluate whether juried shows are just too much for the fragility that is me right now, and simply paint for myself alone."

This is what complex mental illness does. It strips you of any ability to look objectively at a situation. It convinces you that you have no worth, no value, nothing meaningful to offer. It tells you, over and over and over again, that you are nothing but a tiny insignificant detail that can be merely flicked away and no one would care. It suffocates every good thing and drowns it all in a sea of doubt, insecurity and hurt. It whispers into your ear “you should have never been born; you can’t do anything right; you’re just a burden and a waste” repeatedly until even the tiniest of disappointments seems to prove the whispers true, overriding any successes that may come along. It torments you with feelings of inadequacy, the belief that you are not enough, you will never BE enough, until you are so exhausted from the Sisyphean task of trying to find some meaning and value in your existence that the pain manifests not only in your mind but expands into a deep burning ache in your throat, chest, head, gut and muscles. It makes you crave sleep, only to deny it to you; crave foods, but nauseate you when you try to eat; desire to get outside and exercise but deny you the strength and energy to do so. Living with complex mental illness quite literally feels like being imprisoned in your own mind.

My artwork is part of my therapy and hopefully will facilitate the healing process, and I recognize that very fact makes many of my paintings perhaps more deeply personal to me than they should be. Because of that, I also realize entering juried shows requires exposing my raw vulnerability to a juror sitting in judgment of those paintings. A juror who obviously is looking, not at me, but my work in an almost clinical and analytical sense. But as I cannot yet disconnect what I create from what I am, it likely is in my best interest for any hope of beginning to heal to keep my works, at least most of them, to myself alone for now. That does create a quandary for me though. Part of me strongly believes art is meant to be shared, and I admit there is a certain joy in those few times that something I have painted actually speaks to another. On those rare occasions, it almost makes me feel less alone and isolated when I can share a part of me to which another human being responds positively. So, I need to find a way to exist with a foot in both realities – to share the work of my heart while still protecting that same fragile heart…