Power in vulnerability

Jemima Wilson discusses mental health, the arts and the Save the SCA Campaign

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Art: Victoria Zerbst

Even in the midst of passionate rallies, surrounded by a vibrant community, I sit amongst empty sketchbooks, staring at over 50 notifications, too drained to create or write.

Throughout the campaign to save SCA, I haven’t been alone in fighting loudly while feeling quietly deflated and unable to shake off old demons. It is a bittersweet realisation that so many of my peers have also been suffering in silence.

I went to speak to Safari Lee – an artist at the SCA whose practice focuses on mental health. Safari told me “Art is the perfect antidote to the effects of existing in a world which feels like it’s stuck on fast forward. Slowing down, practising mindfulness when considering a single artistic idea, physically working with our medium, like metal, clay and paint has enormous therapeutic benefits.”

Mental health issues are fetishised in parts of the art world, and there’s still a fascination with the ‘tortured genius’

Yet despite the fact that art itself is a powerful healing tool, it remains that for many practising artists, working conditions and negative social attitudes can exacerbate, or even create, ongoing problems. The glamorisation of the ‘starving artist’ buys into the perception that a lifestyle fuelled by late nights, alcohol and caffeine, yet supported by very little income, is de rigeur.

For some, this may be the case, however for many others substance abuse and poverty are far from a glamorous flirtation. Informal networking is seen as vital, leading to a cycle of late nights and long days that can make it feel impossible to take time out for self-care. Safari tells me that whilst the issue is complicated, “Mental health issues are fetishised in parts of the art world, and there’s still a fascination with the ‘tortured genius.”

This cycle is perpetuated by the culture of working “for exposure” within the arts, often whilst working casual jobs on the side to keep a steady income. Artists, designers, musicians, writers and performers give up hours of their time to complete jobs simply for the reward of having their work “out there” in the industry. Safari concedes, “It feels like a rite of passage one endures to get noticed in the art world.” This is rewarding and welcome initially, but can wear thin: “As I get older and have been a practising artist longer I feel frustrated to ‘give away’ my labour or creations.”

However, Safari was keen to reiterate that many of the aspects that cause stress for artists can also be a blessing. “To be honest, the arts have provided me with the opportunity to earn money where other industries haven’t. Although it can be sporadic depending on sales and commissions, there is flexibility and the potential for working on multiple jobs and multiple media simultaneously.”

Cultural engagement is fundamental to our way of life, with more Australians attending galleries than football games each year, according to the 2013 report, Arts in Daily Life: Australian participation in the arts.

Yet career artists remain marginalised in wider society. We are taught that art and culture are nice hobbies, but hardly worth pursuing a career in. Perhaps it is little wonder that those who dare to dream of being an artist are susceptible to mental illness.

I am back to those 50 notifications, and it is whilst I’m aimlessly trawling Facebook that a timely discussion about Melania Trump and her nude photo shoots catches my eye.

Friend 1: Did you read the story about the photographer Ale de Blasseville? He is wonderfully deranged…

Friend 2: He is an artist…

There it was in a nutshell. The derogatory language used to describe those suffering from mental illness – deranged, crazy, mad, and psycho – is intrinsically linked to the stereotypical eccentric creative, and subsequently romanticised.

Now, with the spotlight on art institutions and organisations, we must harness that power to take care of our own, not exploit them

“Wonderfully” deranged? Sure – wonderful work is often borne of suffering. Artists are powerful, empathetic, emotionally driven people. Perhaps it’s time we turn that empathy inwards and begin to challenge the damaging glamorisation of mental illness and substance abuse in our industry.

There is great power in our vulnerability. We must demand a future for the arts that is not only prosperous, but also healthy.

Safari Lee’s first solo exhibition is called “An Unhealthy Dose of Low Self-esteem” at SCA’s Dedspace Gallery on the 31st August 2016 from 3pm. It will feature newly created film, painting and jewellery work, plus artwork created during times of psychiatric institutionalisation.