it was art that saved me: my mental health story

This Winter, Unsinkable is honoured to be be partnering with Twentytwenty Arts (Founded by Unsinkable ambassador Megan Kee) for Life on the Line. Life on the Line is a public art project and mental health awareness campaign using art to raise funds for mental health support. Ten Ontario-based artists will be sharing their artwork and stories on Unsinkable every week until January 2021.

This week we have the honour of sharing Ramune’s story.

All ten works will be available for sale in signed and numbered limited editions of 50, where 75% of all sales will be donated directly to the Canadian Mental Health Association Toronto’s Family Outreach & Response Program. Canadian Mental Health Association is the largest service-based mental health organization in Canada.

In a way, it was creativity that saved me. I went to art school in my late thirties. Before that I felt my life was always dancing to someone else’s tune, that the way I lived was subtly and constantly eroding my sense of self. When I started to make art, I came to realize that everything I created was a reflection of me. At first this was frightening – far too revealing, I fought with feelings of shame and worthlessness. I struggled with the fact that not everyone who saw my work liked it, they seemed attracted and repelled in equal measure. Some found it confrontational, it made them uncomfortable, others loved it and wanted to see more. But, twenty years down the line, I have come to understand that whatever other people think, my art is still something worthwhile.

The sculpture photographed for Life on the Line is part of a series which I call All My Hurt. This series gives physical form to emotional and psychological states that are felt but lack words and are too seldom acknowledged. Feelings that don’t have an acceptable place in our society, like rage, neediness, sexuality, vulnerability, feeling unlovable, being paralyzed by fear…

Creating the work gives me a way to investigate and express buried feelings and unsettling experiences, bringing them to light in a world that generally uses shame to silence them. From the time we start feeling, we are constrained by a society that too quickly, and too often, dismisses, minimizes and distorts our experiences. I grew up surrounded by people who were at best embarrassed by, and at worst enraged by, extreme shows of emotion. My inner world was not welcomed. When I did express anxiety, anger or hurt it was usually ignored, or I was told they the feelings were wrong.

Eventually this ended my attempts to share what was so important and integral to who I am. I quickly started to conceal the parts of me that were shameful and confusing and to learned to fit in. To look, sound and act in a way that was acceptable and didn’t evoke discomfort in others. After a while, I was hardly conscious of the tangle of emotions inside me. I went to school, went to work, went for drinks, bought stuff, had nicer and nicer places to live … but the truth is that I knew, somewhere deep inside, that none of this would make me happy.

Luckily I had the means and opportunities to start connecting with the real me. I’ve done – and still do – lots of different kinds of talking therapies. I’ve also worked with a spiritual mentor and a shaman, but the biggest part of my journey has been learning to make art.

Which brings me back to the series, All My Hurt. In doing the work, I translate emotional rawness into sculpture as an act of caring – for myself and everyone who sees the finished pieces. I am bearing witness, bringing complex and often unrecognized psychological states out of the shadows and into the light. I am trying to give physical form to feelings that don’t have a place in language, or life, so that they can be seen, considered, embraced, loved.

The work oscillates between figuration and abstraction. Some pieces are actively abstract and enigmatic, bringing to form almost unnamable and deeply buried inner feelings. Others appear as more representational, referencing the human body in shape and gesture. Some are disconcerting and disturbing, others are humorous. They all come from a place of personal vulnerability and, hopefully, they are all fiercely honest.

For me, creativity is therapeutic. I work through introspection and reflection and consider how my concerns manifest in ourselves, our culture and community. When I am creating a piece, the most important quality is honesty. I don’t try to make the work overly designed or polished, what I am looking for is sincerity. Finished pieces appear simple, reinforcing their unsophisticated content, and keeping them close to their place of origin – my own deep inner feelings.

My work originates from my practice of drawing. I write and sketch in a notebook most mornings. It’s my way of staying linked to what’s inside, what’s real and important. It’s also a great way of expressing and so discharging feelings that might otherwise dominate my day. Sometimes I just scribble, and then I cover that scribble in more scribble, enjoying the physically of letting my arm move any way it wants, of hearing my pen rip through the paper. Using my crayons, I have brutally murdered stick figures of people who upset me and, on another day, drawn us dancing together under a blue sky. When I start a new picture in my morning pages I am totally engaged in the emotions behind my marks and, after a while, I becomes more engaged in the drawing itself. It’s a process of letting go.

If I don’t do anything creative for too long, I get sick. I develop a general sense of unease that turns into exhaustion involving crap TV and junk food and then my body starts to develop unexplained aches and pains. I get short tempered, overeat, start sleeping badly and this accumulates into flu-like symptoms.

I avoid labels, and have never considered myself to be mentally ill, but I now know how important it is to do the work that enables me to maintain some kind of equilibrium. I have felt despair, grief, longing, loneliness, heartbreak and thankfully, when I committed to being an artist, the discipline of a daily art practice enabled me to express, embody and ultimately love those parts which I had worked so hard to keep caged and hidden.