Visual artist Mark Hetherington works in a range of media. In a candid article he describes the development of an issue-based practice that emerged in response to dealing with chronic depression and the disabling effects of other peoples’ prejudices.
Standing in front of a group of attendees at an Art for Health workshop for the first time was an odd experience, because almost exactly five years earlier I was in a very similar group in Blackpool Central Library. My original thought was to do it partly to try and help people and partly just to see if I could do it. I had done a few presentations as part of my degree course and always found them difficult, but this time was very different. Although I knew the organiser of community arts project Anon, the attendees were total strangers and I think this made it easier, especially speaking about such a personal subject as mental illness.
In 2007 I was hit by a major bout of depression. Although I had had minor episodes throughout my life this was far worse. I couldn’t work and made three attempts at suicide – ending up being divorced. When I began to recover I decided I was going to art college; this seemed the ideal time to try. My new partner supported me throughout my time doing the Fine Art and Professional Practice degree at Blackpool and the Fylde College, and without her I probably wouldn’t have even started due to the anxiety which went hand in hand with the depression.
People often can’t or won’t understand how you’re feeling about your state of mind. Whether it is totally outside somebody’s range of experiences or they can find it hard to relate to (their ignorance can simply add to your problems).
Making art can help to communicate your experiences to others. It can also help to clarify things for yourself. I often wasn’t quite sure WHAT I had been feeling and creating a piece of artwork would help me to get things straight and to see things a little more clearly. I think that an important point about my work on the subject is that it is all based on my experiences.
I don’t feel qualified to talk for anyone other than myself because, although there are common factors, I think everybody’s experience is unique and when doing the artists talk I emphasise that point. I try to make it clear that when you suffer you are not alone but that your experience is your own.
I think the first thing for me when creating work based on depression is to find some common ground between what I’m trying to show and those who are going to view it – some frame of reference that will give the audience a foothold so to speak.
For example, I felt very vulnerable throughout my depression and the nakedness of the figures is a kind of shorthand to show that – in a way that most people would understand. I like to use a variety of media and experiment a lot, but I think it’s often an instinctive rather than intellectual decision when it comes down to making the choices I make.
The subject often chooses the medium itself, for example the scratchy pen and ink helped Depression get its message across, while the unsubtle, expressionistic cuts in lino echo the rawness of the feelings of that period.
Crushed, a very small sketch, was one of my first attempts at expressing how I felt in an image. My recovery was just starting then, and I wanted to try and communicate something of my feelings. Anyway, this little picture, two or three inches across didn’t really work for me because I was trying to convey a feeling of dull oppression and I couldn’t find the right image or word I wanted. But however unsuccessful it was it was a starting point.
A little while after I drew Crushed, I was thinking about how to visualise my experiences better. This led to a shoot with a photographer friend. Who Am I? I Am Nobody! What Am I? I Am Nothing was the first piece I made using photography.
I was trying to do a couple things with this image – firstly to capture the disconnect between who I feel I am and the person I see in the mirror, which is an ongoing thing, but not really a problem. Secondly, I was trying to express the feeling of total emptiness, the feeling of being a non-person, the space where a person should be. I’m not sure now whether it works but at the time I felt it was a great step forward from the previous doodle.
Resumé began as a piece created for homework over Christmas while I was doing my Foundation Art and Design course, to be used as the basis for exercises in abstraction. I wanted to try a different way of showing what was going on in my mind and the pills I used were actually the last of my anti-depressants!
I can’t remember what the assignment was exactly but there wasn’t much of a reaction from the tutor as I remember. Some of my fellow students had quite strong reactions to it though, one called it “harrowing” when she realised it reflected my personal experiences.
I wasn’t happy with it though. I think that removing a figure made it a less personal piece, detached and too much like viewing the results rather than the feelings. I experimented with linocuts after that and cutting into the lino felt like a symbolic recreation of self-harming, which in itself is a way of exorcising the demons temporarily.
The Visible Man was a response to the emptiness I felt during my depression. Feeling I was totally empty and void inside emotionally contrasted with the fact that there is this collection of organs and tissues all unconsciously working away even when we feel at our lowest and most inactive seemed an interesting paradox to me. I did a couple of other pictures in this way, another male and a female figure. However the female version was less successful, I think because it took the idea too far away from personal experience.
Depression – the drawing of a figure with the hole ripped in his chest – came from an open call for contributors to submit work to an anthology on the theme of Mental Health issues. Here, I was trying to sum everything up – the feeling of pain and emptiness, that my heart and soul had been ripped out – all in one image. Originally the background was just black. It seemed to cry out for more though, so I got out an old dip pen and a bottle of white ink and just wrote it all out in one go, trying to channel the thoughts and feelings that would lodge in my mind.
Art wasn’t helpful to me when I was in the middle of chronic depression, but as I started to come out of it – and since then in trying to raise awareness – it has been very helpful to me, and I hope to others.
It is a useful complementary therapy and a non-harmful form of self-medication. Creating depression related art isn’t a constant for me – but I do still feel I need to do it from time to time. Interestingly when I post these images to social media they are the ones which get the most reactions and comments, and from people who have been or are still having issues themselves.