I’m excited to unveil my latest painting, which is part of an emerging series. The theme of this series is the exploration of mental health and depression. For me, the crows represent the twin natures of depression and anxiety. Like shadows, they drop noiselessly through your periphery, heralding a shift in moods and perceptions.
But they are not only negative figures, but positive ones, too. The challenge of getting through a depressive episode or panic attack can open one up to new ways of seeing the world while breaking down the old structures and illusions. This process is also famously linked to art and creativity. If you would like to read more about my own battle with depression, click here.
This is a highly textured painting created with various sculptural and textural mediums and thick paint. There are a lot of layers of color below the pale hues that show on the surface. I also painted this one more loosely and energetically than some of my previous paintings.
You can also check out this piece in my Etsy shop.
Whew, back again from another trip, this time to England. Mike and I spent most of the time in the country, but took one day to go to London. My goal was to see the Anselm Kiefer exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts, a retrospective I highly recommend.
If I had to use one word to describe Anselm Kiefer’s work, I would say “Layers.” Layers of history, meaning, symbolism, and personal reflection. Also, layers upon layers of paint, chemical processes, and all kinds of found and conjured materials and textures.
Kiefer is known for his handmade books, which appear as both a means and a subject of expression throughout his career. Many of his books are personal and more traditional – large collections of watercolors, for example. However, there is always something experimental and unconventional going on. The books in the exhibit dedicated to the female nude, for example, are painted on layers of plaster. In glass cases nearby, he has presented books composed of lead. He paints on the lead “pages” and introduces various corrosive elements to the process.
Thematic to his work is the interaction of elements and the chemical changes associated with time, decay, and weathering. At his huge, sprawling studio complex, Kiefer leaves paintings outdoors with the idea that they continue to be in progress even when he is no longer applying his hand to them. The ancient art of alchemy is a key theme throughout the show.
One of my favorite pieces in the exhibit is called Ages of the World, a site-specific installation in the ornate rotunda of the Royal Academy. The piece is composed of stacked-up painted canvases, long sunflower stalks (a recurring image for Kiefer) rocks, and other detritus. Like layers of sediment, the stack seems to be sinking and grinding down into the earth under its own weight.
However, my true favorites are the paintings. Pictures do not convey the sculptural texture of these works. Two of my favorites are Ash Flower and Osiris and Isis.
I also appreciated the work For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night. The painting is an homage to the Jewish poet Paul Celan and it depicts a figure in the yoga posture, savasana, with a tree growing out of his torso. The figure lies under a dome representing the Celestial Firmament. As someone who has only been making art full-time for three years, I cannot imagine working on a single painting for as long as Kiefer worked on this one. He returned to it off and on for fifteen years.
The show ends with another installation of huge panels arranged in a maze-like formation. The panels are covered with huge woodcut prints representing the forest around the Rhein River. The images evoke the melancholy and forbidding landscape of Germany immediately following the war. It is almost shocking to see woodcuts not only on such a large scale, but arranged in a way that makes the viewer feel claustrophobic and disoriented.
As an artist and particularly a painter, I am inspired by Kiefer’s focus on process and materials. I am still at a stage where I’m -well, let’s face it – still afraid of my materials. I want to exert control and I feel lost when the materials overwhelm me. Kiefer shows the way when it comes to chucking any need for control and yet he manages to be in control of the process anyway. It’s the difference between being a macro- and micro-manager, I suppose.
I also love that Kiefer is concerned with so many of the themes and media I find myself drawn to these days: origins, the cosmos, nature, yoga, printmaking, bookmaking, and using found materials. Most importantly, his work has a no-nonsense sincerity you can’t find in most contemporary art. He takes on the large issues of history and myth and makes no apologies about it.
I love nautical folk art. When I was a kid, my mom would get me a doughnut at the little cafe in our grocery store. There was an old-fashioned-looking, carved panel of a whale on the wall that I remember very well. It represented everything that Ohio was not. It seemed to be from another age and another world; a world of stormy seas, sailors, and tall ships.
Linocut seems like the perfect medium to pay tribute to nautical folk traditions. It is inherently imperfect and it can have a charmingly primitive look.
This piece was easy to envision, but unfortunately a little difficult to execute. It was the first time I’ve done a reduction (more than one color) print on my little letterpress. I sized 30 pieces of paper for it, assuming I would have a lot of throwaways.
However, when I got to the last ten prints, I realized that the carved linoleum plate had slid gradually, even though I had affixed it with spray adhesive.
The only reason I can think why this happened is that there were some mineral spirits still on the surface of the printing press where I glued the plate. I readjusted it and kept going, but then it was nearly impossible to line up the images for the second color.
Out of thirty, I only ended up with nine decent prints. Oh well! That’s life, I suppose. But I am happy with the successful prints. Check them out in my Etsy shop.
I am pleased to announce that I have changed the name of my Etsy shop and blog! From now on, I’m calling my business and shop Pith and Root Studio.
I have mulled this step over for about a year. When I first opened my Etsy shop, I thought the best thing would be to use my own name, figuring that an artist’s name is their brand. That’s certainly true, but this can make your brand appear a little blah alongside cute shops with inspired, memorable names.
The other problem is that I changed my name when I got married and now everything associated with me uses my maiden name or a hybrid of my maiden and married names. For awhile, every time I opened up my shop and saw “Heather McCaw Art” it would bother me. My work exists in its own sphere and it seems awkward to tie it to something that can change with a little paperwork. I began to see a rebranding as a way to honor and breathe life into this creation of mine and allow it to stand on its own.
So I came up with Pith and Root Studio, which I think more accurately describes my creative work as it has evolved. For me, Pith and Root refers to the natural forms that have cropped up in my work recently. But it also points to the heart and the essence of things, which is what my work – and all good artwork, for that matter – aims to represent. Also, I thought “Studio” as opposed to “Art” is a more apt description for the range of items in my shop, which include paper products, prints, and, maybe in the future, other products featuring my designs.
This is a very exciting step for me as I continue to grow and mature as an artist and entrepreneur.
Check this new work out, as always, in my Etsy shop.
I was overwhelmed by the response to my last blog post in which I talked about my lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety. I received so many comments expressing support and even some private admissions by friends who had struggled with similar problems. I was so encouraged by the response that I submitted a more polished piece to the Huffington Post and guess what? They published it! You can read it here.
My own mental health challenges were very much on my mind this week as I mulled over asking for a medication adjustment at my next doctor’s appointment. Earlier this year, when I sought treatment for anxiety, my insomnia was out of control. I was constantly keyed up and had difficulty focusing on anything. After several months of treatment, and lots of yoga and meditation, I discovered that I had “flatlined.” In other words, wasn’t feeling much of anything. No ups, no downs.
It was strange. But perhaps a very positive sign, as my anxiety has all but disappeared. My doctor suggested I reduce my medication. I’d like to get off of it altogether.
At any rate, this was a strange experience for me and it made me think about the nature of ups and downs and mental and mood disorders. I think I suffer from a little bit of cyclothymia, which is a very mild version of bi-polar. I’m used to swinging up and down, but completely disconcerted by this unfamiliar feeling of bland evenness.
In the world of psychiatry, every tendency, disorder, and mood is collected, rated, charted, and categorized. This is what I was thinking about when I started this new series which I think I’m going to call – aptly – “Flatlining.”
This series has grown right out of my “Illumination series” which document my first serious foray into abstraction. I think I am beginning to develop a more unique language with these new pieces. Here is one of my most recent “illumination” pieces. You can see my jumping off point!
I am also working on some more figurative drawings and prints which I will update you on in my next post.
Until recently I would rather have died than admit what I am about to say, but here it is: I suffer from depression and acute anxiety. The truth is, Robin Williams’s death this week struck me as sad at first, but soon took up more and more of my thoughts over the past few days until it became a clarion call. I needed to speak up, for the first time in my life. If it helps just one person to feel less alone, the uncomfortable exposure is worth it. So, I’m speaking out about this condition, which is woven into the fabric of who I am.
Before anything, though, I must fervently state that suicide is no answer at all. If I had ever acted on any impulses or thoughts I had to kill myself in my darkest days, I would have missed out on so much in the years ahead. I never would have experienced the joy, happiness, love, friendships, and thrilling, enriching experiences, not to mention my own personal achievements, which no one and nothing can take away from me now. I have even come to see my depression as a kind of gift, which helps me to experience life more deeply and on more levels.
My earliest experience with feeling hopelessly sad was when I was about nine or ten years old and I had been in the hospital with pneumonia. I had severe asthma as a child, so it was a scary and life-threatening ordeal. For weeks afterward, I was on a lot of medication, including corticosteroids. That was when I first remembered feeling out-of-step with the world. For me, that feeling of alienation is the most pervasive and debilitating aspects of depression. From that time on, I looked at my peers and felt a chasm between us. I couldn’t often relate to them and I didn’t really know why. I’m not sure that feeling has ever left me.
During my teenage years, I suffered from what is called “major depression.” I was hospitalized for seven months. I was in such anguish, I flatly refused to go to school. I didn’t want to leave the house. I just wanted to curl up and read books from my early childhood, as if I could reverse the aging process and become a care-free little girl again if I read The Wind in the Willows for the tenth time.
Much of what I felt was what normal teenagers experience and feel, but depression is, in part, the grotesque magnification of typical emotions and moods. I felt like a hideous freak and that I needed to hide myself from the world. When my parents suggested I needed to be hospitalized, I embraced it. I thought I was somehow winning or getting away with something… I didn’t have to go to school! I could hide myself away and maybe never go back!
I came of age in the hospital. I learned that I loved The Cure. I pierced my own ears several times and they got infected. I shaved the side of my head. I also learned that art was my passion and salve. It has been so ever since. In the hospital, I made many friends who remain close to my heart, though I don’t remember their last names or have any idea how to find them now. They were the only people who stood on my side of the warped glass, looking in at the world from afar.
I had not completed my descent into depression when I entered the hospital. I learned that sadness presaged despair and unending tears, which gave way to numbness. Finally, I would arrive at a state of complete emptiness. This was rock bottom and it was a relief. The only drawback is that, to feel better, you have to climb back through all of those stages again: the hollowness, the numbness, the grief, and then sadness before there can be any happiness. The staff at the hospital actually told me the crying and agitation I felt meant the meds were working. Because I was feeling something again. I have made that descent and climb more than once.
The ordeal of trying to find the right medication is discouraging and often fruitless. It is darkly funny that patients with a condition marked by interminable pessimism would be so difficult to treat pharmacologically. As for me, prozac made me crazy and agitated. Lithium made me listless and sleepy. Zoloft did nothing. Paxil worked a little and so that’s what I continued to take until I was in college. I never seriously thought about killing myself, although I experienced a desire to self-harm and thoughts of “suicidal ideation.” The bad thing about putting a bunch of sick teenagers together is that there is a lot of copycat behavior and thinking.
When I left the hospital and rejoined the “real” world, I felt a permanent displacement. The effort of getting through my days, turning in homework, and pretending to be a “normal” teenager was about all I could muster. Every day felt like so much work and so much effort. I often didn’t know how I could get through it. I would have liked to disappear from my family and never see anyone ever again. I suppose that might qualify as suicidal ideation, just wanting to disappear. It would have been a relief to be locked away in a little dark cell forever, with no demands and no face to put on. Ironically, that would have felt like freedom.
It wasn’t until I was in college that my depression finally lifted. I became excited about school and living on my own. I saw my future as a ladder of goals I would work diligently to reach. Sometimes I would wake up and feel that empty chasm opening up inside of me, but I would tell myself in a clipped Mary Poppins-esque voice to just keep going, “spit spot.”
And that seemed to be the solution for a long time. To not stop. To just keep going and throw myself into work and life. I thought I had kicked it or that I knew how to manage my depression and often patted myself on the back for learning how to do it on my own. However, I think I may have been ignoring rising signs for a long time.
Early this year, I finally had to admit that I needed to seek help again. It came after a day in which I lay in my bed all morning unable to do anything but listen to my pounding heart and racing , panicked thoughts. For about a year, I had been feeling a constant feeling of impending doom. My thoughts would often run in circles and I couldn’t get off certain subjects that caused me the most stress and made me feel most powerless. I was consumed with thinking about every possible catastrophe that might befall me. I would game out possible chains of events, looking for the worst-case scenario so that I could prepare myself. When I couldn’t think of anything else to worry about, I worried I was overlooking something that needed worrying.
This is what is known as Generalized Anxiety Disorder and, at least for me, it is the other side of depression. It is closely linked to all the negative thinking that causes depression. In a way, it felt much worse and more terrifying than depression because, rather than sapping my energy, it expended what little energy stores I had. It was frenetic and exhausting and brutal. Depression might call to you with a steady stream of voices saying things like “you are worthless, ” “what’s the point?” and “nobody cares.” Anxiety, on the other hand, shouts at you: “You’re an idiot,” “what the hell are you thinking?” ” you will fuck this up,” and “no one gives a shit.”
I have sought treatment and new medication and I do think it has helped a lot. The most effective therapy I’ve found is cognitive behavioral therapy, which is the practice of identifying distorted thinking and challenging it. It became a little easier to get moving in the morning and to accomplish things after awhile. Yoga and meditation have also become life-savers for me. In learning to sit with the sadness and emptiness, I’ve found peace.
After several months though, I have to conclude that Andrew Solomon is quite right when he says “the truth lies.” Depressed people can carry persistent delusions, but often the thoughts that torment them are undeniable insights. Things like: “We are all essentially alone.” “The planet is fragile and we are overwhelming it.” “I may grow old and have no money and no one to take care of me in the end.” None of these thoughts may be denied or disproven. Dwelling on them is what makes a depressed person depressed.
Why are some people more prone to depression than others? I know in my case, it runs in the family. Partly due to the grief of losing a child, my grandmother suffered from depression in the decades before adequate treatment was available. She was hospitalized herself at one point. My father, too, has been dogged by depression and anxiety. Like me, they have both found relief from modern antidepressants.
Just as depression runs in families, so does suicide. No one in my family has ever committed suicide, as far as I know. It’s a mystery why one person may come through depression stronger while others never make it back. Some people come back again and again and then finally succumb, worn out by the battle. I wonder if one day, researchers will begin to study families like ours, full of resilient depressives and look for some contrasting factor – possibly genetic – that separates us from families where suicide touches every generation.
I have often heard people say, “well, everyone feels anxious or depressed sometimes.” That is true. I believe every human being has the capacity to feel depressed and many will experience some measure of it in their lifetime. Depression comes from loss, either experienced or feared.
Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we have, and depression is the mechanism of that despair… In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance. – Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon
The more fiercely I love, the brighter and more beautiful the world can appear. However, each time I feel that pure joy and connectedness, the more I fear and mourn its loss even while I still have it.
How could someone like Robin Williams, who understood joy and laughter so well, feel such devastation? Perhaps at every moment, he experienced keenly the ephemeral nature of comedy. He knew better than anyone that the laughter always stops and is replaced by an empty pause until the next laugh comes. He lived in that silence, in the interstices, as much as in the laughter. Perhaps in the end, he made his home there.