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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

Art for Life's Sake

I've been sharing recently about my mental health journey. Below those posts you'll find one called "Renewal and Healing," which speaks to the power of art - both for its creators and its audiences - to spark newness, reflect the wide range of human experience and enhance well-being.

The images in this post are from a recent trip to Winston-Salem, NC, one of the most vibrant art-friendly towns in the region. Its industrial past has been transformed, former tobacco plants and rail lines repurposed into public buildings and spaces, like this one.

Travel, even the shortest and simplest of trips, can be a trigger. I've previously mentioned the seasonal aspects of manic-depressive (bipolar) illness. This trip was no exception. Here's what I wrote in my journal as I tried to process a minor pre-trip panic attack with a bit of self-deprecating humor.

20 Aug. 2021

First depressed, then increasingly irritable and short-tempered. Some days it feels like the inanimate objects you interact with intentionally oppose you. Today, for example, I imagined the small watermelon mocking my ineptitude in placing it's slices, wedges and ends into a single Tupperware container. Even more insolent was the so-called Glad wrap I intended to use to cover the bowl of remaining melon pieces. Clearly, it wanted to have a little fun, playing hide and seek around it’s box-shell mouth. I was having none of it. Instead, I ripped its fake plastic-tubed head from its body and hurled it across the empty kitchen. The small plastic cones intended to secure the roll into the box came undone and appeared mysteriously sad, alone on the floor like canceled old men. It was the kind of sadness that does not induce pity. Mercy was nowhere to be found. I was having a mixed episode, where depression and mania take turns violating you. It is not pleasurable.

(Jillian Mayer "I Am Fine" from TIMESHARE)

Jillian Mayer's "multimedia exhibition exploring environmental collapse, reflectivity, leisure, adaptation, privilege, the institution, and art" was one of two exhibitions we engaged with at SECCA

(Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art).

The other was Freeman Vines' "Hanging Tree Guitars," a viscerally unsettling exhibition of sculpted guitars and other wood-based figures.

"NC-based artist, guitar maker and one-time blues musician makes contemporary art sculptures out of old wood, some of it from a tree used for a lynching." (Here's a link to the SECCA site.)

While the blues would have been a fitting soundtrack for an exhibit which needs no commentary or "background" music, I invite anyone who visits the site to cue up Billie Holiday's or Nina Simone's version of "Strange Fruit" for an immersive experience with a subject white America would sooner brush past or brush under the carpet.

The wall-panel essay repeatedly invokes the "trans-formative" power of art. I was grateful to be reminded of the James Baldwin quote included above:

"Not everything that is faced can be changed: but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

The Yoruba guitar (top) links the Southern blues musician-artist to the West African religious tradition at the root of much African American (and African Caribbean) culture. Among other qualities, the panoply of gods are humanized: they represent the complexities of our condition rather than being idealized titans or omnipotent deities removed from human experience. The tricksters are not primarily evil nor are the parental figures entirely good.

This art (like the mythology behind it) is not afraid of death. Our society is. Our fear of engaging with life's more difficult topics like mental illness, suicide, addiction, sexuality and race is masked by politics and ideology.

I believe the artist is one of our culture's central figures to engage with these challenges. Those of us who are also on the bipolar spectrum know the extremes of death-foreboding darkness and high-voltage flight. I am not romanticizing mental illness. The remarkably high occurrence of mental illness among artists does not mean that artists are likely to be depressed or that all bipolar patients are artistic. The challenges of creating art and making something compelling enough to share when one is not sick are already huge. It is impossible to create when you are experiencing the extremes of depression or mania.

But when the gods are with you, and your vision aligns with the motion of your blade, your brush, your voice, then transformative creation can occur.

And sometimes that's just enough to carry you through to the next gig or at least a rest-stop.

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