The public has a fascination with the hugely stereotypical mad-artist principle. But what is it like to be a mental health service user as an artist? Marie-Louise Plum confides to Gesbeen Mohammad.
Edvard Munch’s The Scream conveys the dark panic and anxiety-filled realms of the mind. Another artist, Van Gogh, lived through this torment. Famously, he chopped off his own ear and, after producing 900 paintings in less than ten years, took his own life. Even today insanity is still associated with artistic imagination, inspiration, and brilliance. Swedish researchers, however, found that those in creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric illnesses than anyone else. Yet, despite mental health awareness campaigns such as Mind’s Time to Change, the mad-artist stereotype prevails.
Health.com reported that nursing home and child-care workers are the most likely of all professions to suffer from depression. Artists and writers are sixth but their experiences of mental illness resonate more with society, because their work is often a reflection of the chaos most people face at some point in their lives.
Marie-Louise Plum is an illustrator and artist with borderline personality disorder. She also runs a blog called Mental Spaghetti, highlighting the works of contemporary artists suffering from psychiatric illnesses.
‘’It’s not really art therapy, or focused on any agenda. It’s for people who are using art as a means of therapy. I’m just interested in how art gives them a break, not so much why they draw what they draw.’’
We meet at in Walthamstow, at a design workshop she’s holding with fellow artists as a part of The Big Draw campaign. This part of East London is becoming a mecca for creativity, especially since the annual Arts Trail campaign began in the area in 2005.
Marie is wearing skinny trousers, with a casual black Chelsea Wolfe t-shirt. She smiles hyper-actively, instantly creating an atmosphere of comfort. Marie suggests going for a drink at a pub, where she greets other locals in the community. It’s slightly crowded and understandably, as she’s about to confess her own mental health problems, she asks if we can sit in the empty beer garden.
A youthful looking 32 year old, Marie carries herself with a bouncy ease, which is only betrayed by a voice that pitches high at times of nervousness.
‘’My artwork’s got lots of symbolism, there’s lots of secrets, there’s lots of working out. In all these nightmarish qualities and it’s very psychedelic so it [BPD] does feature heavily. But I never like to think too much about it. It’s my one failing. ‘’
Happyland, her solo exhibition during the Walthamstow Art Trail last year, focused on nightmares and was full of creepy colourful creatures crawling on children. ‘’ It’s only when you grow and look at the things that shaped you, that you think that’s quite a lot to go through as a kid,’’ she says vaguely.
Marie has always been actively drawing, even before she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, an illness that affects someone’s behaviour in all aspects of life. Marie brings up the phrase, ‘’carte blanche’’, several times. She explains that she always knew something was ‘’wrong’’ with her because she felt isolated from her friends and often acted provokingly. ‘’You generally get diagnosed a lot later in life as borderline but one of the main symptoms is your object relations – so your relationships with parents, friends are much weaker.’’
Pinning down Marie’s diverse artistic style seems impossible; she touches identity, sex, family, death and secrets. But it would fall into the category of ‘’outsider art’’ – expressive outpouring from the sub-consciousness.
“It’s how I express things, rather than drop bombshells, you have carte blanche [in art] to act as a bit of an asshole,’’ she says, laughing nervously. Her difficulty in maintaining relationships has a symptom – provocativeness in social situations – and disappears without facing confrontation. It projects on her art. ‘’If you paint, you can reveal things and if you don’t want to explain- you don’t have to. ’’
Marie’s been to therapy consistently for six years now and she’s ‘’fully functioning’’. Sufferers of borderline usually don’t get prescribed medication due to worry of overdoses. ‘’I was taking a lot of drugs and drinking a lot,” she says. “So I’ve taken all the anti-depressants.’’ Now she’s found Citalopram to help her through her depression and anxiety.
The Guardian published a feature by novelist Alex Preston, in the spring, on whether Prozac affects creativity. Preston writes, ‘’It seems to hamper as many creative types as it helps. We need to be sane to work but we must also be open to the insanity of creativity.’’ Marie says that medication doesn’t affect hers. However she does mention artists who have lowered their dose just to be more expressive.
Originally from Bedford, Marie has lived in the capital for 12 years, the last two in Walthamstow, where she also works at a college as an arts technician. She started Mental Spaghetti as an online diary in 2008 to write about her own experiences, but became too ‘’entrenched in misery’’, turning it into a platform for other artists to submit work.
She’s become a specialist in mentally ill artists and will be giving a talk at Bournemouth University in a week about marginalised groups in society. ‘‘Mental health awareness is a great thing, but recently in the last couple years there’s been huge campaigns.’’ She admits it’s controversial. ‘’But there may be perhaps a potential [risk] to cross over from mental health awareness to mental illness promotion.’’
Despite her tidy hair, prim demeanour and soft articulation, she is the embodiment of the substance-abusing, free flowing, and obsessive-compulsive artist. ‘’I used to do a lot of partying – horribly stereotypical but I got involved in the wrong crowd. We hung out, took drugs, drank.’’ After various trips to A&E due to ‘’various reasons’’, Marie began using mental health services.
‘’I’m obsessed with memory, collecting things. I’ve always hoarded things. Now I’ve got to the point in my life where I want to get rid of it.’’ Her up-coming exhibition, named The Art of Letting Go, next year will feature these themes.
As someone intrigued by the segments of memory, Marie is thinking about the works of art that will be left after her death. ‘’I’m not with anyone, I don’t have children, I don’t have a house and I just think shit, what’s the point of being here? So maybe I’ll just leave something behind.’’
All the art work displayed in the slideshow are under the copyright of Marie-Louise Plum and can only be used with written permission from her.