This year for Enriched Bread’s Open Studio I did an installation featuring a bed paired with selections from my Sticki/Scrap Notes series. This series is an ongoing practice of sticky-note journalling that helps me process and capture what it’s like navigating life with a brain like mine. Living with a mood disorder means the body and mind don’t always cooperate or play nice. Sometimes it feels like swimming upstream every day. Sometimes, though, it helps to draw and write about the fear, frustration, pain, joy, and humour that comes up along the way.
It all started a few years ago when I was between art studios. Most of my art supplies were packed up so I couldn’t work on any bigger creative projects. That didn’t matter though because I was also in a depressive episode so intense I couldn’t even bring myself to draw or write in my sketchbook. Having something be bound in a book created a kind of mental block for me because the sense of permanence felt like pressure to only create things of value. And how could I do that when I was feeling so low?
I had thoughts, ideas, visions though- that I wanted to express, that I could imagine being expressed elaborately and perfectly. But this, coupled with a pathological energy deficit and fleeting capacity for concentration meant that there was a backlog of ‘sketchbook entries to do’ hanging over me that became overwhelming and impossible.
By day I seemed high functioning – I had started my own business and it was going well. But in the unseen, in-between moments I was struggling a lot. Here’s the thing about having started my own business though – I had lots of office supplies. So little by little, in between using sticky and scrap paper notes to organize for work I started writing notes and doodles capturing some thoughts, feelings and reflections. It was almost intuitive, or mindless – there was no plan or to-do list or INTENTION, just marks on paper. And this freed me, it provided an immediate pathway of expression, without the barrier of perceived ‘value’.
A sticky note can be peeled from the pad as effortlessly as it can be released into the recycling bin. Sometimes a note is just a few choice words, maybe an ultra-simple scribble, scratched down when that is all that life allows for in the moment. And as I proceed in this practice of sticky note/scrap note journalling, sometimes I’ll come back to these and elaborate, sometimes this unlocked pathway of expression allows me to delve into more depth and detail as I am able. Sometimes I’ll start a day with a mind like a wet towel but the act of expressing and exploring that as a phenomenon itself, and then seeing something I’ve created, energizes and motivates me as I go. Like how after you jump start your car the battery charges by having you drive around.
Mounting this installation made me feel so vulnerable, I had no idea how it might be received, and in these notes I am very exposed as a living, flawed, anxious, neurotic being. It’s personal, but putting it on the wall makes it sort of confessional. To protect myself and others, I had to be careful about what was displayed or concealed or included at all.
And then, the open house probably had more foot traffic than most shows I’ve taken part in (oh how my past self would have longed for this kind of audience for my ‘real art’, my big, slow ambitious, technical projects). But this series isn’t really an ‘art project’ so much as it is a side effect of my existence, an artefact of survival. In this way I am free from any pressure of pleasing a grant committee, a jury, or anyone else. It doesn’t have to be proven, it just is. And if someone doesn’t like it that is of no consequence to me because the intention has never been to please, or to be effective or powerful or inspiring. Perhaps one day aspects of this practice will become the seeds for a more intentional, consolidated, ‘finished’ project. But for now they just are.
When I offer glimpses into this scrappy little world of mine, online or as I did in this exhibition, some people have told me they found it funny and relatable, like they are less alone in their struggles with mental illness. For this I am grateful. Representation and normalization are important.
I also made a content warning for this installation with some local resources listed. It was the only thing that got to be in a frame. If someone looked at that alone – well, great.
The bed was unexpected and unplanned but became a key piece of this installation. Some people likened it to Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” (1998). In that piece the legend goes Tracy went through an upsetting breakup, stopped taking care of herself for a bit, and holed up in bed. She turned around one day and said “this hot mess is art” and then she put it in a gallery. It was iconic.
My bed inclusion was perhaps more of an accident. It was a practical matter, really. I was doing an unrelated performance for the event opening that used an air mattress and I put it in my ‘installation area’ for storage. But something happened when the mattress was placed in the space – it transformed things. Instead of an exhibit of small drawings it felt more like a bedroom with a bulletin board. And then seeing the bed in dialogue with the work made sense. There are so many cultural and artistic implications around the bed as a symbol. Birth, death, sickness, healing, sex, rest, restoration, weakness, wasting away, hiding, dreams, sleep, sleep disturbances….Wow do sleep disturbances play a key role in my experience of mental illness. It had to stay. In my real life I keep sticky notepads around the house – in the office, the kitchen, my bag, and yes, one beside my bed. Some of the stuff on that wall in my installation was drawn from bed, even.
I didn’t use that air mattress for my performance in the end. Turns out it had a leak and wouldn’t be stable enough to perform the choreography I had planned. I found something else for the performance and left that leaky mattress in the gallery. Throughout the two-week exhibition I would lovingly come in to refill it periodically. Depending on when a visitor stopped by, it might be in various stages of deflation. At times it was a regular bed, others just a pile of sheets on the floor. But what is a better metaphor for the self than this? And not just me, not just people who are clinically sick in the head even, but for all of us. Life is a wild ride. It wears our spirits down with pain and grief and uncertainty but then fills them up again with love and laughter and beauty. Over and over and over again and that’s just how it goes. The most consistent thing in it all is the ebb and flow. Breathing in, breathing out. Just like that old air mattress.
I took the installation down yesterday. Rolled up the bed, packed it back back in the box, meticulously filed the sticky notes back into chronological binders. It was tedious. I wish I had a hope for this or a lesson or word of wisdom that would wrap things up, but I don’t. It’s all just something that happened. I’ll probably keep making little scrap notes. I’ll probably survive.