On art, mental health and creative healing - an interview with Ilona Sturm
* Ilona Sturm was born in New York City and lived and worked in Rome before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area. She began painting while living in Mexico City during her university years studying political theory. Upon returning to the US, she dedicated herself to pursing art.
During the eighties, she joined an Artist Brigade to Nicaragua and collaborated on a mural in Esteli. Shortly afterwards, she began art school where she studied painting and photography. After attending the Skowhegan School of Painting, Sturm moved to Italy and exhibited in numerous painting and installation shows.
In the Fall of 2018, Sturm was an artist-in-residence at the The Lakkos Project in Heraklion, Crete where she painted a mural and camped out at the Archeology Museum.
Sturm is a colorist. Her use of color is intuitive, subjective, and improvisational. She is interested in the history of writing, alphabets, and ancient art, particularly Minoan. As an artist-alphabetophile, she marries symbols and images from her imagination with 'found' pictorial artifacts to create a personal language. She also researches how meaning is constructed through the forces of historical, cultural, and subjective elements. Find more about Ilona Sturm here
Can art be a successful way for people to explore and articulate their mental health problems?
Doing art can be very healing. There is scientific research and anecdotal evidence to show that expressive arts provide an excellent way to explore and, ultimately, heal from psycho-emotional challenges. Painting, drawing, music, sculpture, dance, theater, writing, etc. all provide pathways to respond to life more full-heartedly. The ancients knew this. Troubled people may engage in habitual patterns of returning to thoughts in cyclical and unhelpful ways. Rumination is reflection without transformation. Artistic activity can interrupt and overcome ‘ruminating’ by activating our physicality, our creativity, and our emotional awareness.
As Holocaust survivor Dr. Edith Eger writes, in her book The Choice, “There is no healing without feeling.” When we express ourselves, we trigger our emotions and the amygdala, which is the part of our brains where our deepest, oldest traumas and memories lie. Experiences that are often out of reach of our more conscious selves, are stored in what we call our physical body. These experiences are made more accessible and available for transformation through artistic expression.
The English word ‘emotion’ comes from the Latin word ‘movere,’ which means ‘to move.’ Emotions involve, by their very nature, an internal state of movement. To have emotions is a dynamic state. We say ‘That moved me’ after seeing a powerful film. Depression, in its simplified state, is emotional stagnancy, a fixed state of affective inertia. Doing any type of art activates our emotions, as we project ourselves into everything we make. Fiction writing explores metaphors and characters. Dance is about physicality and the body. Painting uses colors to provoke powerful feelings and sensations. Drawing and sculpture engage us viscerally and manually. In each case, art is a vehicle to move ourselves to new places. The artistic process triggers subjective interior states that we may have sought to distance ourselves from. This can be a generative, challenging, and transformational means to heal. It can make us more mindful and reflective, improve our relationships with others, and release us from harmful patterns that our nervous systems have adopted as coping strategies.
Creativity is also an end in itself. To be creative is to be free. Your creativity is an inviolable internal state. It is a renewable source of healing, communication, and connection, within yourself and with others. As long as there have been human beings, there has been creativity and the liberating powers it affords us in our lives.
Do you think there is a link between traumatic experiences and artistic performance?
Whatever experiences feed and inform an artist in any medium will in some way surface and be evident in the artwork. Some people respond to overwhelming and unpleasant life events by seeking control or perfection in their lives. Their artwork may be technically masterly, but dry and intellectual. Another artist projects their trauma and raw emotions in artwork that is angry, violent, and as disturbing as their experience. We see this a lot. It can feel powerful to jar people with your story. If we have delved into understanding the story of our personal development, and even that of the intergenerational traumas that all human beings have lived through, there is a great deal of material to draw from. We can only create from what we know. Artwork will always reveal something about the artist and their past. What is revealed may seem mysterious or overly obvious, but the interpretation of art is as subjective for the viewer as it is for the creator. Because art traffics in imagery and symbols, trauma will find a way to speak to us through it. Words cannot fully explain what the full human, in all their visceral and psycho-emotional facets, has experienced. There is no substitute for the expressive wholeness that art offers.
Biographies of highly creative people have often described – though not scientifically demonstrated - their battle between inspiration and psychopathology. What is your opinion on the connection between creativity and mental illness?
Some highly creative people are happy-go-lucky individuals who are rewarded for their efforts. That said, creating something tangible and visible, by drawing upon interior states of being, is not an activity for the faint-hearted. Material rewards are rare for most creative people in the arts. You have to stay steady and engaged, with or without praise and recognition. There are many opportunities for false starts and trapdoors leading to banal flattery and misunderstandings of the artist’s intention. Highly creative people in the arts are driven to create. Why? Inspiration doesn’t always feel positive. Imbalance, anxiety, anger, grief, regrets, and profound feelings of separateness also create the impetus to express something, to understand and grapple with oneself. To make peace. To see what lies below the surface. To externalize the enemy. To re-visit and rehash the past in the hope of gaining self-knowledge. All of this may not be conscious. There is a spiritual and mysterious component to all this as well. Many well-known writers and actors have been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, either during their lives or posthumously. The extreme states they experience in life serve as a calling for them to communicate. Trauma is transformed when it is turned into story. We tell our stories over and over to understand them better and eventually be free of the power that trauma can have over our lives.
Yesterday I led a workshop called “Paint Your Heart Out.” One of the participants is a professional art therapist. She spoke of working with a young child doing art and said that his self-portraits radically changed over time as he got better. Eventually his self-portrait showed a healthier integration of himself within the world of other people.
Is there a possibility that art may succeed in presenting mental health issues to a wider audience than any other medium could do?
The arts are excellent means to communicate about mental health with the public. Because the content of artworks of all kinds is drawn from the reservoir of human experience, the messages embedded in artworks are accessible and meaningful. People look to be moved in their everyday lives. Routines, habits, and daily demands upon us create callous sensibilities and shut-down states of emotion. When we resonate with artworks--theatre, dance, film, music, literature, etc.--we feel more and empathize more. We understand the human condition better and we grow and connect more with others. Ideally, we also become more concerned with social inequities and we desire a good life for others as much as for ourselves.
Can art serve as a means of therapeutic intervention?
Expressive art therapy is an effective way for individuals to learn about themselves, their emotions, and how to release what they need to for greater health and balance. All therapists can benefit from incorporating different modalities into their therapeutic interventions to open up more varied channels of communication. Whether it is intra-personal or inter-personal, communication with self and others is critical for health. When we fully focus on something, we are in a sacred state. Doing art, whether as a therapeutic exercise or as a daily practice, gives people the opportunity to be in communion with themselves. Art can induce joy, reflection, self-awareness, understanding, peace, and self-acceptance. Art-making in the context of therapy is a vehicle to one’s core.
Tell us a few things about your approach to the art you make. What are the ideas that intrigue you to create and your relationship to them.
I discovered painting when I was living in Mexico City in my twenties and had a short respite from struggling to decide which academic major I would choose in University. I realized then that though I had been taking many creative writing classes and been keeping a diary for years, I ultimately did not want to commit myself to a life of trafficking in words. I was a color and image person: a visual artist! This epiphany was a great relief. From that point on, I let the process of becoming an artist be my guide.
While I focused on oil painting and drawing in art school, I have created bodies of work in photography, artists books, installation, sculpture, video, and printmaking. I am not equally proficient in all media, but I choose media based on what I want to communicate, and the context. I have also learned and performed many types of world dance, studied musical instruments, and recently written some short plays in a couple of playwriting classes. What intrigues me the most, after decades of this open approach to experimenting with so many art forms, is the creative urge itself.
I also teach art and the Spanish language, and I approach my teaching practice much like an art. I improvise a lot and hope to make each class an opportunity for growth and greater self-expression in the students.
Recently, I have surrendered to the idea that personal growth and increased powers of self-expression are more important to me than fame and fortune. I still want acknowledgement and material compensation, but those things are not what drives me to be creative and to do art. I don’t really care about worldly rewards as much as I thought I did.
What intrigues me: The face. The emotions that get communicated through expressions. How our imbalances, life stories, and diseases become visibly tangible through our bodies--our expressions, our gestures, our gait.
Life-drawing was the first art class I ever took, before I began to do oil painting. I am fascinated and endlessly entertained by the challenge of drawing the live model. The practice of simply holding a pencil, and trying to be true to what I see, is a revelatory activity. It takes physical and mental self-control to faithfully draw what you see.
Finally, I’m interested in children and how they learn and develop. Theories of creativity do not seem to focus much on children. I am currently researching and writing about how creativity has been the driving force for human selection, by enabling the most creative problem-solvers to survive. It is an inherited feature of the human that I don’t think we fully understand.
Once, after a visit to the magnificent Heraklion Archeological Museum, I realized that many of the artworks, the faces on the figurines, expressed to me a trauma or strong emotion of some kind. I felt as if they were created with the dual spiritual/religious purpose of communication by the maker instilling a vicarious empathy in the viewer. I have not yet encountered a simple explanation for why Minoan art/artifacts came into being.
You have travelled and worked in different parts of the world. Do you think there is a sense of “community” in the themes that you explore, in the places and the people you choose to depict in your work?
I love to do ‘Street photography’ when traveling. Except for New York City, the United States offers few opportunities to see groups of people congregating, talking, playing, and relaxing in public spaces. My street photography documents the gestures and dramas that occur in public spaces in Mexico, Spain, India, Greece etc. How do we communicate with our bodies? What non-verbal dynamics exist on the streets and plazas? How is urban life an unfolding and communal street theatre for those who can see it like that?
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Quit trying to please your parents. Don’t accept the role your family wants you to play in the family theatre. Start enjoying life earlier. Relax your shoulders. Breathe deeper. Pay attention to holding onto bodily tension. Trust your gut.
Name one thing that you want to do but haven’t done yet.
Be part of an international theatre collective.
You can also find Ilona Sturm on Instagram
Despoina Limniotaki is a Psychologist MSc and the Founder of the social, co-operative business The Healing Tree, addressing the need to end the stigma against mental health problems, helping to improve the services, to raise understanding and gather help around those who need information and support (firstname.lastname@example.org).