Before The Anxiety Project I made dozens of drawings, a play, and a solo-performance piece about my sister’s traumatic brain injury and death. This visual narrative in The Autoethnographer reflects on the creation of the solo piece.
Thanks to the HUB Gallery staff for such a beautiful virtual tour.
When I started The Anxiety Project almost five years ago, it was never my intention to exhibit the drawings in any other way than as part of a performance. In my mind, I wasn’t so much making art, as using drawing to try and express what I seemed to fail to express to others with words alone. (I know that sounds a lot like making art… But for reasons those living with anxiety and depression will understand, the idea of making art is too intimidating to have as an intent). I was coming to grips with the fact that I’ve lived with anxiety and depression most of my life and have, more often than not, let them take the lead in how I moved through the world. Anxiety and depression were essentially in the driver’s seat and I was just along for the ride. The drawings help. Drawing every day helps. Drawing as a regular part of my meditation practice helps. I even integrated drawing into my therapy, often sharing them with my therapist and discovering how much meaning they contained for me.
As I started to develop performances and presentations around the drawings, they became integral parts of my story and I loved projecting them as big as possible, depending on the venue. They were/are my scenery, sometimes even my props. So when people talked about the drawings and how the drawings affected them, or how they wanted more time with them than the performance allowed, I was always a little surprised. I didn’t have much confidence in them as stand-alone drawings, or as drawings one might go to experience in an exhibition.
But here we are. Two exhibitions of work from my Anxiety Project happening in 2021. Both exhibitions include drawings from the project’s performances, as well as pages from the most recent part of the project, a visual narrative, Inside Anxiety and Depression – very much a work in progress. The HUB Gallery exhibition will also include our short animated film, Inhale, Exhale, Draw.
The work in the project is very personal. But it also seeks to make meaning out of the fact that anxiety and depression are pervasive in the archives of human experience. And it seems this is true for biochemical and social reasons. I’m eager to experience the drawings in this context, despite how risky it feels to have them stand on their own outside performance. I hope others will discover something in them that speaks to them and helps shed some light on their own experience or that of someone they love. (The first and third photos below from the HUB Robeson exhibition are by Ashleigh Longtine).
So pleased to share that tomorrow 12/13 at 3:15 EST, our short animated film will screen as part of the Life Screenings International Film Festival (link above).
“Life Screenings International Short Film Festival displays films that show a world we want to live in. Exhibited filmmakers from around the world StreamYard/FaceBook Live in and local filmmakers attend as well to discuss their creations and engage with the audience. Four years running, this 82 minute happening takes place once a month at the Winter Park Library and is free to the public. For the time being, this is a virtual StreamYard/FaceBook Live event.”
I don’t consider myself a visual artist in the traditional sense. I do draw, and I make performances to go with my drawings, but I’m not a trained studio artist who makes and exhibits work as my chosen profession. I flirted with that world some thirty years ago, exhibiting for several years at galleries in Erie, Pa., and in annual festivals. But theatre and performance were really my trade. Then I went on to earn a Ph.D. and felt compelled to do the kind of scholarship expected of an academic. Which I did, co-authoring three books, publishing a number of articles, and delivering the requisite conference paper once or twice a year. All the while I continued to draw, rarely sharing the work with anyone. I would make it, look at it for bit, then stack it up with other drawings and tuck them away. Or I would doodle and sketch when I was supposed to be writing.
Drawing, mark making, is my true passion. So when I started making drawings about living with anxiety and depression over four years ago, I had no real plan for them. They were therapeutic at a time I really needed the distraction, along with actual therapy and some difficult personal work. That work led me to making performances with my anxiety drawings and wading into the graphic medicine world with visual narratives that were also part of the performances. Most of the drawings are pretty small, 9″x12″, with a handful at 12″x14″. For me, they were images I could scan and then project in performance, projecting them as big as possible, depending on the venue. My favorite performance space for these drawings is Dixon Place Theatre in New York, where they were about ten feet high! That’s how I wanted to see them. So it never occurred to me to seek out gallery exhibition opportunities. Oddly, I’m an artist who was making work I didn’t think of as art outside the context of the performance. Even though people kept telling me the drawings were powerful in and of themselves, I either didn’t hear it, or more likely, didn’t want to battle additional insecurities about whether or not they were “good art.” They worked as a story-telling aid, and that was what I needed.
When Lindsey Landfried, curator of Penn State’s HUB Galleries, approached me about doing and exhibition of the Anxiety Project drawings and related work I was surprised, more than a little scared, but also grateful. I’d been working on gratitude as an antidote to the feelings of disconnection and isolation that usually accompany regular bouts with anxiety and depression. And I have much to be grateful for. So why not be grateful for the opportunity to share this work in a new way and to allow the drawings to speak for themselves for a change? My performance collaborator and side-kick, Dr. Tyler Sperrazza, offered enthusiastic encouragement to take the opportunity. Hopefully we’ll be doing a livestream of a performance as well.
I’m incredibly grateful for the HUB Galleries staff, who have made this process as stress-free as possible.
Inhale, Exhale, Draw has been accepted to a second film festival. The Impact DOCS festival. “Our Mission: To support and promote filmmakers who are making a difference in the critical issues of our times through producing impactful documentaries…” and we’re hosting a watch party (register at the link above) on December 2 at 10:00 a.m. Our watch party, hosted by the Arts and Design Research Incubator, will be moderated by Dr. Michael Green. Michael is a pioneer in the field of Graphic Medicine who creates comics, uses comics to teach medical students, and is also still active caring for patients and doing research on several fronts. We’ll also have core member of the creative team available to answer question about the animation and film-making process, including Alexander White (our animator), Cindy White (our director), Rich Biever (our composer), Tara Caimi (script development), and I’ll be there as well.
I’ve been making work under the umbrella of My Anxiety Project for quite some time now. The various twists and turns the work has taken (drawings, performances, publications, animations) are more the result of my complicated relationship with my own mental health than to any particular plan. Sometimes I make the work to exorcise my own demons or to try and understand my struggle with anxiety and depression. Sometimes I make the work believing it might be useful to others who live with anxiety and depression, or others trying to live with and be an ally to a friend or loved one. I’ve been following my thoughts, feelings, fears, body aches and pains, almost improvisationally, trying to listen to them and let them guide my pencil across the paper. A few weeks into the pandemic (Covid-19), when it was clear things weren’t going to be “normal,” for some time to come, I tried to take stock of all this work. Asking myself what’s next? And to my surprise, discovered that my relationship to my anxiety and depression is actually one I can live with. I discovered this as a result of starting a new visual narrative piece, Inside Anxiety and Depression. A piece I’ve been constructing one page at a time, each page hand drawn and hand written. Each an attempt to articulate the truth of living with these companions. A truth I can only express from having accepted them as my companions and working each day to live in balance with them. Each day I focus on mental health, and not mental illness, seeking to be inside anxiety and depression but not owned by them. This brief silent movie is excerpted from the longer work, a work still in progress. I’m grateful to have it appear in Intima.
This is a big week for our short animated film, Inhale, Exhale, Draw. We’re getting our premiere at the Canberra Mental Health Film Festival, under the umbrella of This Is My Brave, Australia.
“This Is My Brave Australia is dedicated to breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness, one story at a time. Through the sharing of stories and experiences of those in recovery, we provide a sense of community and hope; and we aim to encourage others to share their stories. We believe that each time one of us shares our story, there’s another crack helping to break down the stigma of mental illness. It’s time to be brave and bring mental health issues into the spotlight. They’ve been in the dark too long. Stories are told with poetry, musical performances, film, and spoken word.”
We’re scheduled for two screenings, EST (USA) 7am on October 27, and 11:00 pm on October 29. You can register for tix here. W’re excited and grateful.
Our director and animator (Cynthia White and Alexander White) developed two short teasers for our first animated film, Inhale, Exhale, Draw. We’re now in the process of developing the next project. Who knows where this will lead. We’ve talked about a series of short animations – or maybe even a short documentary film. With such intense concern for the long term mental health impacts of Covid-19, along with considerable research that suggests we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg at present, we believe our focus on mental health is important. It’s a very complex subject, from causes to treatments, mild to severe cases, medications, therapies, interventions, stigma … and the list goes on.
For me, it’s the combination of living with anxiety and depression, doing research and making artistic work to understand – not just my own experience, but others as well, that drives the ongoing Anxiety Project and my work with this terrific team of collaborators. Hopefully the work will make a positive contribution to our collective understanding of mental health issues (anxiety and depression in particular) as well provide some inspiration for people to explore their own creativity as a tool for improving their mental health.