Friday, March 10, 2017

Ren Hang

A question was emailed to me.  I can't tell how old the student is.  I assume that he is young.

Me and my classmate do a work about madness so we use some of your painting and we need some information about you. So we have questions for you. We read you used medicines to paint so why did you use that to do it ? In which circumstances do you paint? Thanks for your help and your time.  Have a good day, Stael Manoé PS: I love your work 

My answer is terse and wooden;

Medication is important.  It evens out my emotions.  It gives me energy.  Willpower is hard for some schizophrenics.  We are not lazy, but we may not have the energy or focus to do tasks.  Negative symptoms of schizophrenia are things that are lacks, or minuses.  Lack of motivation, lack of concentration, lack of desire.  Sometimes I think that what makes life hard for me is being too sensitive.  Medication shields my emotions a little, like a wall around my mind.   I hope this helps you.  Thank you for liking my art.  Sincerely, Karen May Sorensen

Then this came a day laterI am a little confused who is writing.  I guess that Manoe's teacher is emailing.  Communication on the internet can be difficult.  But I am really happy for the chance to give a better answer.

I am working with Manoé Stael (who send you an e-mail about your work because we are preparing a presentation about madness). I am sorry to disturb you but I am really interested by your art so I have other questions.
So here are my questions :
Is it difficult to paint when you have the effects of your medications ? Or is it easier ?
Does painting get a little something off your chest ? Do you feel you better after that ?
I’m sorry if I disturbed you, you are not required to reply at this e-mail.
Sincerely yours,
Célia Rouffiange. 

Now that the questions are clear my writing flows;

The medications help me to be a person living in society.  Making art is easy.  But having a relationship with a husband and family is hard.   Mentally ill artists who cannot live in society often do not survive.  They take their own life.  I believe this happened recently to the excellent photographer Ren Hang in China.  Or Vincent Van Gogh.  All artists have to have a level of emotional stability before they create.  My medication gives me the mental stability so that I don't take my own life.  The pain of mental illness is very strong.  Medication dulls that pain.  Medication also dulls creative thought and slows your mind down. So I take as little medication as I can get away with.  I don't know Manoe's age, but the threat to creative mentally ill people, of suicide, is high.  I hope he is old enough for the topic of suicide.  Making art is my natural gift, medication does not help that, it can only hinder it.  Medication helps me in that it soothes some pain.  An artist cannot live to make art alone.  Life for art?  No.  There has to be more to it.  Friends, loves, happiness, all these things outside of art are necessary to survive.

I love to make art because I am making the visions in my head real.  My art is painful.  It is colorful, and that is fun, and it is creative, and that is fun too.  But there is also so much sadness and darkness.  Probably my art tells the stories of my life.  It is a beautiful life with both joy and pain.  Am I better off because I tell my life stories in my art?  Yes.  Certainly. 

All people will have challenges in their lives.  The challenge in my life has to do with living with a mental illness.  This is a source of pain for me to overcome.  However, all people have sources of pain that they must overcome. The stories of peoples lives are all different.  But I don't believe anyone has things easy.  It is just the challenges comes in different forms.
The one physical thing medication does for me is give me a little extra energy.  I have to have energy to stand at my easel and paint. I have to be able to focus on my artistic task for many hours.  The medication helps in very small bits.  Just a little boost of energy and focus.  But it helps.  At high levels of medication it is both hard to focus and sedating.  I would not be able to work at a high level of medication.  So you see the question of medication is complicated.  Different outcomes at different dosages.

Please tell Manoe that he was brave to email me.  I like his courage.  What age is he and what country does he live in? I hope that I am able to help with the project on madness.

This is the response I got to my question;

Both of us are 17 and we live in Brussels. I think that your story is really interesting ! I really like your courage and I admire you. 
We are honored to speak about you and your art during our presentation. 
Thank you for your time! You help us a lot, thanks again, 
Célia Rouffiange.

Last week I read about the suicide of Ren Hang.  He was a Chinese photographer.  He was 29 years old.  Looking at his photographs I am struck by how effortless they seem.  I think that is part of his brilliance, making a photograph look effortless.  For example; a naked man hanging by a tree branch over a pond.  The crouch of the naked man in mid-air is perfect.  His leg covers his private bit.  But the crouch of the naked man is also perfect in that there is a feeling of joy and freedom.  I can feel exhilaration.  I can feel the physical prowess and beauty of youth.  Most photography leaves me a little cold.  It is not my medium.  But Ren Hang was my favorite photographer in the world.  None of his work is tepid.  He hits a note of beauty again and again and again.  Conceptually everything is new.  He summons poses for his models like a magus, straight from the Eye of God to the photographic paper.   His beauty almost always has an erotic element, so in this, his view and my view coincided.

I ached for several hours after I found out he died.  A cold feeling in my gut.  This had to do with the news that his death was not natural.  A Chinese newspaper had written that he jumped off the top of a 28 story building.   So he could have lived.  But he chose death.  In one article I read that he had trouble with depression and voices.  Another article said his trouble was cyclical depression. It feels like the world has lost another Vincent Van Gogh.  I wondered why, with this modern age boasting of treatments and medicine, how a Van Gogh can die.  Is the medication available failing for the living, or is it too poisonous for living.

Was Ren Hang's depression treatment resistant?   Or did Ren Hang reject depression treatment because of side effects of the medication?  And I'm not talking about physical side effects.  I am talking about the negative impact of psychiatric medication slowing down thought, diminishing interior vision, fogging up perceptions, and dismantling overall connectedness to the universe.  Artists are sensitive.  For me I am keenly aware that my artwork's quality is dependent upon emotional sensitivity to an inner world and the outer world.  And I also an aware that the medication I take builds a wall around my mind to prevent me from experiencing sensitivity.  My mental torment comes from an excess of perception and overwhelming sensitivity.  So that is why I take medication.  To numb me a bit.  Is being numb uncomfortable in and of itself?  Yes.  They are just different kinds of pain.  The pain of being medicated vs the pain of being medication free.  I am just lucky that my character is such that I can find joy and value in the narrowest of circumstance.

When I was 29 I faced an existential crisis.  It is no accident the age that Ren Hang died at 29.  He probably faced, in some form, the same existential crisis I faced.  The age of 29 is a rather visionary age.  You look at the landscape of your life.  You assess.  And you think, "This is what I can have.  And this is what I can't have.  Do I want to continue?"  When I was 29 I was a very immature artist.  Unlike Ren Hang I was not famous, I did not have a large body of work, and I certainly had not discovered yet a signature artistic vision.  So when I faced my crisis I had very little to lose by living.  There was so much of me and my work that was not defined.  My crisis had to do with accepting an alternative path in society.  I could not be the person I wished to be.  In my mind, at the age of 29, I wanted stereotype living.  I wanted to be a young woman like the young women I saw in movies.  A 8 hour work day, financial independence, friends and going to parties.  There is a temper tantrum element to suicide.  You think "If I can't have what I want, I don't want to live."

For me, the answer to life at the age of 29 was "Be humble Karen.  Walk very slowly and be humble." 

Friday, February 10, 2017

An Artist's Evolution; Part III

Working at the Wadsworth Atheneum changed my life.  It saved my life.

After living in a mental institution I needed to get back my self confidence.   Visitors could check in their coat and backpack with the security guard, and then they would talk to me.  Sometimes our transaction was only a matter of paying the entrance fee.  But about half of all the people who walked in had a question.  They might ask directions to a special show.  We provided maps of the museum and helped people find what they wanted to see.  And when we answered the telephone, we directed calls to curator's offices, or helped with traffic directions and parking.  In rare occasions we would be asked where to find a specific work of art.  Quickly I discovered that in order to do my job well I needed as much education about the Wadsworth as I could get.  When a new program of docent training began I applied and was accepted.

Public speaking is an old friend.  In high school my senior year I was captain of the debate team.  The learning curve how to be a public speaker had been steep.  When I had my first debate as a junior I nervously chewed on a necklace while I spoke.  And with the necklace in my mouth I whispered.  Because the judge couldn't hear anything I said the score out of a possible 50 points was zero.  After a zero score, there was no place to go but to improve.  Then I got it into my head that our school's bedraggled, losing, debate program could be better if I was captain.  So the summer before my senior year I went to debate camp at Baylor College and wrote a debate training manual.  They voted me captain not because I was popular or smart, but because I was the only one who had thought to prepare for leadership.  As a captain the way I helped the debate team was by emphasizing debate preparation.  I tried to make it fun.  I would schedule a study night at the town library with a spaghetti dinner afterwards at my house.   Before every debate there was study and a dinner at my house  With this strategy there was a huge improvement.  Our debate teams started winning big.  And for myself I had a year long run of perfect 50 point scores.  My partner was a freshman and the weakest debater on the team.  I wanted him with me so that my score would pull up his score.

So I had the skill to talk to an audience.  But why was I now interested in talking about art?  It was because with art I always asked the question "Why?"  As a child I had gone to art museums with my family and to myself asked questions such as "Why is this piece of garbage in a museum? Why is that considered art?  Why do I like this artwork?  What was the artist thinking?"  When it comes to art there are usually more questions in my mind than answers.  And I like to live with a longing to connect, both emotionally and intellectually, with a work of art.  I have been fascinated by art for a very very long time.  In college at Barnard my student ID gave me free entrance into any art museum in New York City.  On weekends I both studied and feasted on art at museums.  Bizarrely, it never occurred to me to make art an academic pursuit.  So the docent class at the Wadsworth Atheneum was my first introduction to art history and I was so happy to realize that many of the answers to "Why" about art could be learned by reading.

As a docent the best training advice I learned was how to activate a visitor's brain.  For example, when you read a book a specific percentage of your mental attention is activated.  When someone lectures to you, a different (and lower) percentage of your attention is captured.  And finally, if I stand in front of an artwork, the guaranteed highest percentage of attention I can get from the museum visitor is to ask a question about the artwork.  When you ask a question the listener searches their mind for an answer.  But ultimately I think the duty of a docent is to simply get the visitor to look at the artwork.  I like answers that lead the viewer back to the artwork.  It never ceased to amaze me how swiftly museum visitors flew through an art gallery.  A mere glance at most paintings.  As a docent I wanted to slow down the experience of looking at art.  I wanted the masterpieces to get their deserved attention.

How did working at the information desk and becoming a docent save my life?  It caused me to perform a task where I gave the best of myself.  Because I love art so much, I gave my all for it.  And in giving my all, I discovered that while my new mental illness came with deficits of cognition, there still was a lot of the old Karen left.  I had lost a part of myself during institutionalization and breakdown, but the core personality still existed.  The Karen who liked challenges still existed.  The Karen who was curious still existed.  The Karen who was ambitious still existed.  The Karen who had discipline still existed.  And the Karen who could talk to crowds still existed.  There was only one concession the museum had to make because of my mental illness.  It was a matter of time.  I could only do one tour a day.  I had tried to do two back to back tours (what all docents sometimes had to do) and had found that at the end I almost fainted from mental exhaustion.  I don't have the mental endurance that a healthy person has.  No docent liked back to back tours.  They were draining for everyone.  But I alone was excused from this double chore.  Because I had a mental illness.  And that did piss some people off.

There were so many experts who worked at the museum.  And every Monday morning (while the museum was closed to the public) the total docent body got an hour and a half lecture on either the newest exhibition or some other facet of museum life.  Docents were expected to always be learning.  And it was probably during one of these lectures, when a curator was explaining the skill behind a painting's composition, that the question first popped into my head, "Isn't he jealous of the artist?"  To know about art, and devote a career to explaining art I thought must automatically lead to jealousy of the artists you study.  Because it was the artist who knew the joy of creation.  All commentary afterword by the experts must pale in experience.  Did the experts mind living in the shadow land of the artist creator?

Of course swiftly the answers came to me.   I myself was jealous of the artist creator.  And people who have careers in the art world do not necessarily feel that they live in the shadow of the artist creator.  But the imaged fun that the artists were having making their art really did start to interfere with my satisfaction of being a docent.  I began to wonder if it was at all possible for me, a non-artist, to get into an art school.  In the same city as the Wadsworth Atheneum there was a good art school, The University of Hartford Art School.  Why not make an appointment and talk to someone about my chances of getting in?   I thought that for this interview I should at least have an artist portfolio.  So every day, for three weeks, I did a drawing a day.  I took a pencil and make a drawing.  Then I went over the pencil lines with a very fine felt tip pen in black ink.  And when the ink was dry I erased the pencil markings.  At the end of 21 days I had my artist portfolio.  The University of Hartford Art School was kind enough to let me come in and talk to a representative.

During this appointment I got a huge shock.  I will explain my shock in the next installment of "An Artist's Evolution".

Friday, February 3, 2017

Key To My Artwork

There is a key to understanding much of my recent art.

It is an experience I suppressed.  My unconscious mind was trying to communicate a traumatic childhood experience through symbolism.

I was sexually abused.  But I disassociated and formed a second self to handle the memories.  Now because I am mature and emotionally ready, my mind has been giving me the suppressed memories.  The memories started emerging in December.

The artwork featured at the top of my blog is titled "Two-Headed Mermaid".  It was finished last May, six months before the memories started surfacing.  One face is knowing and looks at the viewer.  The other face looks off into the distance, oblivious.  I am trying to show, in this picture, the nature of my mental disassociation.  Then there is the reason for the disassociation.  The penetration by my father's finger.  Thus the meaning of the fish's nose penetrating the mermaid.  A real moment in time and its consequences. 

The body of work I have been producing for the last 4 years shows 3 prominent signs of sexual abuse  If you go to my website,, you can see all the examples.  The first and most obvious sign of a child who has been abused is the drawing of genitalia.  Children who have not been abused draw figures with clothing.  Children who have been abused focus on genitalia and include it in their figures.  My fascination with depicting genitalia is because my father's behavior caused heightened awareness.  Also, when I emphasize male genitalia it is fear that makes me draw it large scale.  I did not want to touch my father's genitalia but he encouraged me.  My relationship to male genitalia is not a feeling of arousal, rather it is fear, so they are drawn large scale in order to make them look dangerous.

The second sign of sexual abuse in my art are the twined or knotted legs.  Girls who have been sexually abused show legs specifically shut in their art.  My art has many female figures with legs that are woven together, with no space in-between.

The third sign of sexual abuse is the hole in the chest.  I have seen on-line a self-portrait by a young victim of sexual abuse with a hole in the chest.  In my art many times there are creatures that have large spaces in their center.  These creatures seem to grow around a vacant center.  I can only imagine with sadness what the hole in the chest means.  It is an emotional symbol.  The heart has been removed.  Trust has been violated.  I trusted my father as a child and gave him unconditional love.  How can a child recover when there is a hole in their chest?  It is the greatest wound.

Right now I am in shock.  There is no anger or depression yet.  I am trying to wrap my head around the new memories, always asking the question, why?  Dad sexually molesting me seems like the craziest behavior.  He had so much to lose.  And he is a really smart guy.  Couldn't he grasp that there would be psychological consequences to me?  What he did was risky and nuts.

My first reaction when the memories started surfacing in December was a sharp sharp pain in my heart.  It was like someone drove a knife into my heart while it beat in my chest.  My heart hurt so bad.  And then there was wonder at the price I paid for suppressing memory.  So much mental energy!  My brain defied reality.  It overcame and hid reality.  And was this event, or events, the thing that triggered so much mental illness later in my adolescent development?  Dad broke my brain!

Every morning I pray to God.  And when I pray, I name the people in my life that I love and who enrich my life simply by being alive.  Now I don't know what to pray about Dad.  He is alive and healthy.  I have to say, "God, you handle him.  Because I am at a loss what to think or suggest in his case."  I don't want to hate.  But I don't see how I can forgive.

It is very hard to work nowadays.  It is very hard to concentrate.  I am in shock.  My drawing on the easel languishes.  But there is an appointment next Tuesday with a new therapist.  And I have a book to read about surviving sexual abuse.  My marriage took a blow when these memories started.  My husband and I are now celibate and I can't bear to be kissed on the mouth.  He kisses me on the cheek.  For about three weeks in January I swore I wanted a divorce.  I took a vow to never have sex with a male for the rest of my life.  And taking that vow made me really happy.  But of course, my husband is not the enemy.  Far from it.

Turmoil.  My life is in turmoil.  There will eventually be healing.  Healing will come.

Sexual abuse is the key to deciphering my art.