Drawing Bipolarity: Visual Representations of Manic-Depressive Illness

This piece of writing sat alongside my first solo exhibition, Drawing Bipolarity, at Insole Court. The project has come such a long way since then and, now that exhibition plans are underway for over the course of my PhD research, I wanted to share this to give a sense of why art is such an important part of this project.

The purpose of the art is to both explore and communicate findings from the research, as well as drawing from my own experiences of living with bipolar disorder since childhood. This means the artwork creates a space to provoke thoughts about how medical categories have evolved, and to challenge our perceptions of mental illness today:

Alice and Serpent

Drawing Bipolarity

Social representations of bipolar disorder remain misguided because of stereotypes. Manic-depressive illness has become connected with wild unreliability and irrationality. Such a lack of awareness leads to confusion at the level of family, friends and those in social positions of responsibility for vulnerable people. This means those who suffer can find themselves in positions that leave them incapable of finding suitable help and support.

The effects of the perpetuation of stigma made me hide my illness as meticulously as I could. Despite suffering with this chronic condition for over a decade, only recently have I felt comfortable talking about my experiences – completing postgraduate research into representations of bipolarity has helped me openly use my voice.

However, my voice was always there, it’s just that it was hidden within my artwork. Since childhood, drawing has been invaluable in finding self-worth and a sense of safety. Art began as a means of reconciling the space between reality and terror, and I would draw the aftermath of violation, recreating it with a sense of wonder to try to understand what was happening to me. Suffering with tactile as well as sensory hallucinations left me desperately trying to find out why I was experiencing both physical and emotional decay. Art became a way expressing my experiences in the hope that someone might be able to help me.

Those unfamiliar with bipolar are often surprised to learn about the scope of symptoms, from cognitive dysfunction, to hallucination, to memory loss. Now that I have a greater understanding both of myself and of this illness, I try to visually recreate symptoms of manic-depressive illness to create awareness. It can be so hard to put symptoms into words and, if you have never experienced it, it must be so hard to imagine what it’s like to lose your own consciousness and sense of reality. For me, visually depicting experiences hopes to bridge that gap, to make it easier for me to explain, and more accessible for others to understand.

For that reason, my art often tries to communicate experiences of manic-depressive illness through images in nature, because I hope depicting my perspective alongside recognisable visual symbols creates a point of accessibility. I started to look for emotional expressions in wildlife and nature to visually represent characteristics of bipolarity as I understood them. Having now completed the first stage of my research into representations of manic-depressive illness in the nineteenth century, I also draw from my research into archival medical case notes and literature.

This exhibition focuses on a range of work depicting bipolarity in different forms. Pieces drawn from medical case notes convey nineteenth century forms of treatment and social perceptions of manic-depressive illness. Art based on literature, such as works by Lewis Carroll and Edgar Allan Poe, further explore the nineteenth century social construction of manic-depression. Concept pieces, animal illustrations and portraits visually recreate my own experiences of manic-depressive illness, from feelings of shame, to recovering my reality, to delusional beliefs about death and decay. This selection of pieces primarily uses pen and ink, playing with different textures such as pointillism and line detail to portray features such as confinement, agency and absence.

If you would like to see all of the artwork that was featured in this exhibition, please go to my facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/cerysknightonart/. I have put the artwork in the order it was set out in the gallery so you can get a feel of the narrative of the exhibition.

Now that I am re-starting this blog, my plan is to add to it regularly with writing about individual pieces and collections, starting with work from this exhibition and leading up to the pieces I am working on at the moment.

I am very fortunate to be able to undertake this PhD thanks to research funding from the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership. If you would like to find out more about the research itself please visit: https://www.cerysknightonart.com/.

I also want to say thank you to Mark at Making Minds who made this first exhibition possible! Please have a look at what he’s working on at the moment: https://twitter.com/the6699project

Thank you for reading!

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