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Art in Quarantine: how a mental health collapse introduced me to my art style.

I was always a very inventive child; art has been something I’ve been invested in for as long as I can remember. I have a terrible memory but can still distinctly recall drawing stills from my favourite music videos during my adolescence, the focus of the artwork changing as my interests did throughout the years.

I used art, writing, photography and dressing up as cathartic outlets; they became crucial parts of my character and development as a unique individual. My secondary school experience was riddled with mental illness. I suffered from depression and an anxiety disorder and am still in the midst of a war between myself and my mental health.

I took fine art as a GCSE and had a fatiguing experience – an underfunded art department resulted in many temporary teachers, and my mental health was on a slow decline. I had no idea how to create a portfolio effectively and had little support on my art project – my ideas remained ideas and left me with a constant feeling of unease. Following a structure in art was something that I had never been exposed to before and was something I struggled immensely with; the subject was no longer about art that I wanted to produce and quickly became nothing but filling sketchbook pages.

Eventually, I gave up on art and put my focus into core subjects like Mathematics and Sciences to ensure I did well in them. Being an Asian POC, the emphasis on subjects like these was always prioritised over the arts. I’ve had a long, turbulent and borderline manipulative relationship with the art that I have produced in my lifetime. I received a commendable set of GCSE grades in 2017, of course, excluding art. I flourished academically in all departments besides the one I seemed to identify with the most.

From here on, it was a constant stream of self-deprecation, as I was an individual who defined themselves through their grades and their intelligence. Failing art, despite being aware of the circumstances and my choice to neglect the subject, had destroyed any sense of my artistic self: it was as though I had two separate personas – the academic and the artistic – and for some reason, they were immiscible.

Unfortunately, I cannot say that things became easier post-2017. The amount of art that I was producing lessened rapidly; confidence in my skills depleted almost entirely, and I often struggled to find any inspiration. I studied Mathematics, Physics and English Literature for my A-Levels and was only able to express myself in the eccentric way that I dressed. My mental health continued to worsen, and then it was time for the new academic year to begin. Starting university and pursuing a BA were challenges that I honestly wasn’t prepared for. I was still creating art on a very infrequent basis but was mostly dissatisfied with what I would produce.

Mid-2019 was when I had created an online Instagram account to showcase artwork that I had made in the past, but even this was redundant and barely used. I had an incredibly difficult time at university and noticed a shift in my mental state. After many consultations and evaluations with therapists and general practitioners, the consensus was that my brain had graduated into a more manic depression than before. Having hobbies and regulating my day-to-day activities became strenuous, and I found myself in a constant state of despair.

I remember sitting at the kitchen table in our shared accommodation in February of this year. It was raining and very much one of those ‘I feel the weight of the entire universe upon me’ kind of days. I am inspired by song lyrics that resonate with me and am very-much into pop art, so I took four lines from my favourite song I was listening to and turned them into a pop-art inspired comic strip. I remember this so vividly because when I looked at my finished drawing, I felt content with what I had produced for the first time in ages.

A few weeks before this day, I had gone to an art store and purchased a large canvas and some paint supplies – they would sit in my room, opposite my bed, and mock me and my lack of inspiration. I dreaded opening or using anything that I had bought in fear of ruining the products. The announcement that the UK would be heading into lockdown resulted in our academic year taking a turn for the strange. I found myself having to move out of halls earlier than anticipated, and shortly after I did, the virus affected three out of five of the members in my home. Having to contain and manage a consecutive stream of physical illness within the house was unbearably difficult, alongside juggling online examinations and my own mental health.

Thankfully, each member of my family made a full recovery, but it now felt as though myself and my thoughts were spiralling out of control. I was constantly in a state of mania, sleeping throughout the day to avoid facing reality, and had quickly found myself at a breaking point. I had been painting a little throughout this time where I could and had started posting things on my art page again until I had a complete relapse of critical, destructive thoughts regarding my work.

Not that you need one when it comes to art, but I did not have a distinct art style or a process that I particularly enjoyed at the time. I was so incredibly frustrated with the situation, with being indoors, with being in charge, with not knowing what to do to make myself feel better.

I had a canvas I was working on: it was drying in the corner of my room, and I couldn’t stand to look at for any longer, so I painted it entirely black and started hand-printing acrylic paint in different colours all over it like a child. It was one of the most cathartic moments that I’ve had in a very long time – and also probably quite a comical sight, me sobbing into a bottle of wine with my hands covered in paint. I did not care about the consequences of me pouring this paint directly out of the bottle and onto my canvas. I did not care about the final piece or what the canvas would end up looking like. I did not care about my precious light-grey carpet that could’ve easily been destroyed in the process of this abstract moment.

I didn’t care about anything at all and, at that moment, it eased the overwhelming anger I was feeling in ways that I had not previously experienced.

It made me realise that I was obsessive in regards to my end products and final pieces of work because they are a culmination of my efforts – I learned that you do not have to make art with the idea of an end piece in mind and that the process is just as rewarding sometimes. I woke up the next day with a headache and an odd-looking abstract canvas. The colours were vibrant against the black background and, for some reason, I felt relieved looking at it – even if the sad, empty feeling was still lingering in my chest.

Articulating the way that I feel and the emotions I am experiencing is usually tiresome and can be immensely difficult for me. Strangely, it felt as though this painting was depicting (and almost validating) the feelings of mania that I was trying so desperately hard to comprehend, which is why it will always be one of my favourites.

It introduced me to the broad concept of abstract art; I suddenly had a revelation that imperfect art is still art – art does not become defective just because I am my harshest critic. It is still art, and it doesn’t have to be perfect for it to be still considered art.

I found a type of art that I enjoyed making, that I resonated with – and this is most important of all.

I now try to enjoy making art and avoid making it for the sake of posting something on Instagram. I learned that, while I may not like something I produce, that doesn’t mean that other people share the same opinion. I’m now at the end of this article but at the beginning of this art journey. Of course, I still have moments where I despise things that I create because I’ve been staring at them for too long. However, all art has its contextual story, just like I have mine. Every single piece of art that I’ve ever made in my life is important – it depicts a story, whether it is about my love for something, a traumatic experience, or simply for a financial benefit. It is a part of who I am and deserves to be put out into the universe.



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