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Into the Light

'Visions of the Mind' Brings the Work of Artists With a History of Mental Problems Out of the Dark


The medications have lifted her from the darkness and depths of yesterday, when all, once again, seemed hopeless. Now at her kitchen table, she sketches in quick strokes, the sharp, shiny lead of her pencil barely sweeping the paper--classical music and lifelong uncertainty lingering in the background.

It's hard to identify a time and place at which the life of this 52-year-old artist began to unravel. Perhaps it was Paris. What more unlikely setting could there have been for her first marriage--to an English professor and poet--to crumble?

Or maybe it was the apartment where she slung a rope over a cupboard and tried to hang herself, or the college dormitory room where she swallowed the pills. Or does it go back even further? One day as a child, she came home in her Brownie uniform, threw herself down at the foot of a stairway leading to her tiny bedroom and couldn't stop crying.

Episodes of depression, since diagnosed as bipolar disorder, have been a constant shadow on her life. The other constant has been art.

"When I do this," she says, focusing on her sketch pad, "I don't feel like I'm conquering my mental illness. I feel that I'm trying to find the essence of something and put it down on paper."

Her pain and art always have been carefully divided. Set upon a kitchen towel in front of her is a lemon, still green, plucked from a tree behind her Pasadena apartment. She is drawn to that which is of the Earth and finds peace in nature. That the lemon does not speak to the confusion of her life makes it safe subject matter.

Lucy, who didn't want her real name used, is one of 10 artists whose work is featured in the exhibit "Visions of the Mind" at the Rouge Galerie, 21 E. Holly St., Pasadena, today through July 21. The artists are participants in a drop-in art program at Pacific Clinics, a nonprofit behavioral health-care provider with offices throughout the area.

Among her works in the show will be a painting of two yellow apples, another of raspberries and plums, and a pen and ink drawing of eggs. The destructive nature of bipolar disorder in her life--lost jobs, lost relationships, lost hope--is not evident in any of them.

"These pieces do not show who I am or what my experiences have been in life. That's not what comes easily for me," she says. "This disorder has done a lot of damage in my life, and I've learned not to tell people about it who have power over me."

After graduating with an art degree from St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Lucy taught for two years in Africa. Her intent was to return to graduate school, but life got in the way. She attended Syracuse University and the University of Minnesota but dropped out. Finally two years ago, she enrolled at Cal State L.A. to earn her teaching certificate.

Her classroom work was fine, she says, but student teaching turned disastrous. At times, she couldn't talk straight, think straight. One day she referred to herself by the wrong name.

"It's a sinking feeling. It's like when you've plummeted down under the sea and you have the bends. It doesn't last now because of the medication. Now I know what's going to happen, and I know it's temporary. I feel it coming, and I allow myself to feel that way, and I tell myself it's going to last a few hours or a day or three days, but it won't last forever."

Bipolar disorder often is likened to a roller coaster: rising to boundless heights where anything seems possible, swirling, then free-falling sometimes to a place closer to death than life.

"At times I have felt so dead and so heavy that I didn't care about anything," she says. "It is total deadness."

Her focus grows deeper as the outline of the lemon and background towel begin to take shape. Since she stopped student teaching earlier this year, art has brought her peace and, perhaps, a sense of direction. Recently, she has drawn illustrations for medical publications.

"The whole idea of art is to lose yourself in it. That's when it's really going well. It's like anything else. If you lose your self-awareness and become engrossed in whatever it is you're doing, that's your bliss, right?"

Then as she continues to sketch, in a voice barely audible, she adds, "Follow your bliss."

Guillermo Martinez, 45, has heard voices inside his head since he was a child. They were male and female, sometimes loud, sometimes a whisper, sometimes only sounds. They came to him when he was 9 and eventually took control of his life.

"They told me to commit suicide," he says. He could feel the spirits inside of him, pounding on his heart and rising in his throat. He started pacing, then started drawing them. "They didn't like that. They tried to torture me if I didn't stop sketching them. I showed them to people and [the drawings] freaked them out, which was not my intention."

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