A Recovery Blog

This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Working In The Quiet

It’s been so quiet lately. I’ve almost stopped watching TV, first because I wasn’t getting a signal for a lot of the stations and then because I wasn’t so interested in watching the programs or movies. In fact, some of the programs actually made me feel uptight. Then I was thinking that the satellite programming was so expensive and I could use the money each month for art supplies. It’s quiet also because I haven’t been singing much or listening to music or watching DVDs. Lately I seem to like the quiet when I’m drawing and painting and writing, though I do like to listen to something when I crochet or make jewelry. I’m talking into a tape recorder as a form of therapy and self friendship. It’s almost six months since I started doing that and I still recommend it. It makes me want to do a weekly podcast, maybe using excerpts from the tapes during the week, but I don’t know how to do a podcast yet.

My voice fills the void. I’m not exactly lonely and yet I seem to need to hear my voice and thoughts a couple of times a day. I figure why not speak out to the world or rather to a few people in the world once a week. I’ve listened to a couple of podcasters and their shows are very casual. I think it’s amazing how creative people can be with their computer and over the internet--words, music, photographs. If you want to be creative there’s a whole world out there in cyberspace. I’m only minimally aware of it, yet it intrigues me. It takes courage to write a blog or do a podcast or be creative in any way. And once you put yourself out there, you are really out there, warts and all. But that’s the way all of us are whether we can admit it to ourselves or not. Nobody is perfect. And that’s a good thing, it leaves room for learning and changing and what is “perfect” anyway? One person’s perfect is another person’s imperfect.

I tried working on a couple of portraits today. The first two attempts failed. The problem seems to lie for me in the surfaces I was working on. One was an 8” X 10” watercolor board that I found too small and the other was a 9” X 12” primed masonite board that I had painted over with white acrylic paint to see if the gouache would stick better to it. Nope. So I switched back to a 9” x 12” piece of 140 pound cold pressed paper and tried to do another gouache painting. I painted a middle tone over the paper, so I could work more easily from dark to light. Then I looked at a book by a teacher I studied with in New York City, Mary Beth McKenzie. She was illustrating a technique of hers where she first paints in gouache and then uses pastels carefully arranged often in cross hatching over the surface. Wow, she was and I’m sure still is, so talented and so brave. She has no qualms about using black to draw on her canvas or watercolor paper. She taught me more than any teacher since. I regret that I didn’t continue to study with her.

Anyway, I realized that I had acted too quickly when I put down a middle tone on the paper because when I looked at her illustration I quickly saw that she had left places untouched by the gouache to accent the highlights in the composition. She also approximated the colors of her portrait where I had just laid down a wash of one color. She stressed that when she taught, that you should try to get as close to the actual colors as you can and set up a relationship between colors and tones. And she’s absolutely right. No color exist in isolation. All colors are in relation to other colors. If you lay down a color that is not close to the reality, then you change all the relationships. I do this a lot, get lazy and don’t try to get the exact color and I predictably get lost and have to wing it. I did that on the Ronda gouache painting, but it came out all right anyway. Serendipity. Not intention. So much of good drawing and good painting is close attention, patience and practice.

So I went ahead anyway (no need to waste a good piece of paper) and tried to follow my former teacher’s instructions. I was doing okay, but she showed herself a master. I was moving along too quickly and I was overwhelmed by the choices of color. I have this large pastel box set that I got twenty years ago and never really used. It has three layers of pastels, a wide variety, but still I would have to approximate by blending several colors together. My portrait was starting to look more like a woodcut print than a painting or pastel drawing. It was kind of interesting and I felt some satisfaction to ease the disappointment of the earlier attempts, but now I have put it aside and will move on to something new tomorrow.

I meant to email several people today, but for some reason it’s messed up and I can’t send or receive email. So I have to call my mail service tomorrow and see if they can help me fix the problem.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Gouache of Ronda

If you compare the two portraits, you'll see the differences. The gouache has greater contrast between light and dark and the colors are more pronounced and opaque. The watercolor is more realistic and the gouache is more stylized. So you can see that the medium you choose to work with greatly affects the final result.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Watercolor of Ronda

The first of two portraits. This doesn't really capture Ronda, but it seems to capture the spirit of someone.

Egg Tempera Painting

My first attempt in ten years to paint with egg tempera. I had trouble making it opaque and it's pretty raw, but maybe that's a good thing. I'm not sure at this point.

New Techniques, New Supplies and An Opportunity

Unfortunately, my first attempt to do a batik did not come out. I didn’t have the wax hot enough and so it didn’t block the dye from entering the pattern. I’ve taken this week off from it and will try again in a couple of days. In the interim I have been studying how to make decorative Celtic/Chinese knots for beaded jewelry. Some of the knots are quite elaborate. The author of the books I’m using, Suzen Millodot, suggested using a cork board to pin the cords while working, so I went out and got a moderate sized cork board that rests nicely on my drawing table. There’s also another technique she introduces weaving cords around a cardboard tube or glass to make a bangle. I was successful at making one of them. Getting the right cord to work with is difficult, so Ms. Millodot suggested buying white nylon cord in bulk from a hardware store and dyeing it different colors. I bought 170 feet of it and will use my dyes to color the cords.

I ordered more painting supplies: inexpensive watercolor and gouache paints, somewhat expensive egg tempera paints, inexpensive gessoed masonite boards and more expensive watercolor boards. They arrived yesterday and so yesterday I painted several paintings testing out the materials. I do not have experience painting in gouache and only a very little experience painting in egg tempera, but I wanted to expand my choices of water based paints. The gessoed masonite boards are not for watercolor but for acrylic, gouache and egg tempera, so I tried painting a portrait with the gouache but it only partially stuck to the surface. Very frustrating. So then I tried using the tempera and it stuck but I had trouble making it go on opaque. The colors are lovely though and I kind of like the consistency. I was painting blindly when it came to what colors to use because I was working from a black and white photograph by Jock Sturges. (I really like his work and also Sally Mann’s photography. I have a couple of their books. The pre-psychotic painting was based on a Jock Sturges photograph.) I left the painting unfinished because I liked it and didn’t want to overwork it. The surface is very delicate, so you’re supposed to spray it with a fixative and then varnish it. I’ll have to figure that out.

Then I moved on to gouache again, determined to get the feel for it. I used 140 lb watercolor paper and redid a portrait that I had done in watercolor the night before. I wanted to compare the two mediums. The watercolor was more delicate and obviously more transparent and the gouache was more dramatic and color saturated. Two very different orientations. With watercolor you work from light to dark, gradually adding washes of color, whereas the gouache, because it is opaque, you work from dark to light as you would in oils. I also want to try to combine watercolor and gouache in another painting. I will post the photographs of the paintings in the next posts so you can see the comparison.

On Friday Richard came over to mow my lawn. While he was mowing, I quickly neatened up and vacuumed the living room/dining room area because I wanted to invite him in and talk to him about my business idea of painting portraits of his high school soccer team. I showed him the paintings of his daughter, son, and mother-in-law and a few others. He thought it was a great idea and said that he was sure that the parents would go for the idea if he pushed it. He said he had a lot of pictures of this years seniors and he would get the pictures to me, five to ten to start and see what happens. He is also an administrative nurse at a Veterans hospital and was thinking about some business ideas of his own because he’s a photographer. He wants to take photographs of the vets and their loved ones and he thought I could also make paintings of the photographs, so they could choose what they wanted. He said he was sure they would pay for it. This is very good news.

I’m thinking about calling my portrait business Second Sight and having business cards made up. On the business cards I will put my name, a P.O. Box (which I will get on Tuesday), my phone number, my email address and a website address. I’m going to try using myspace as my website address and post photographs of my work, so prospective clients can check me out and make their decision. I would like to have the cards made up in time to include them with the portraits that I send to the parents. I’m also considering doing the portraits for donations and sending a self addressed stamped envelope with the portrait and card. That way people can pay what they can afford. It also gives people who do have money the chance to be generous if they so choose. My mother is not keen on that idea; she thinks I should be paid a set price, but I’m so new to business and to painting portraits that I don’t have the confidence to ask for a lot of money. I think I need some experience first. My initial goal is to get paid enough to just cover the cost of the supplies I use and then take it from there. But for me, to be paid anything will be such a boost for my self-esteem. So wish me luck.

(A few hours later...)

My living room/dining room feel better now that I have my drawing table and supplies close at hand, but the voices have been murmuring negativity from time to time today. I know I will have to fight for the right to be happy and creative. If the voices really are teachers, then I will have to listen when they murmur and look out to make sure my steps return to the right path. And what is the right path? Not succumbing to negativity by learning to redirect my energies to the productive. There was a time not long ago when I had very little motivation and that to me is the essence of depression. It is a very hard spot to be in because you can only minimally redirect your energies and have to sit longer with the negativity and the longer you sit with it, the deeper it sinks in. That’s why I used to get audiobooks and listen to them for hours while lying on my couch. It numbed the pain and made me engage in something outside of myself and it was very easy to do. Now times have improved, but I am still ill--in recovery, but not recovered yet. There are times during the day when I feel my difference from the mainstream of people and I still feel some regret, but I’ve learned to adapt to both the plusses and minuses of being a voice-hearer.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Pre-Psychosis Painting

I painted this a little over ten years ago, a few months before I became psychotic. Never did name it...

The Batik Process

I got my tie dye and batik supplies on Tuesday, my large hole glass beads on Wednesday and my how to knotting books (hemp, Chinese knots and Celtic knots) on Thursday. I decided to try to do a batik first. I modified an earlier design that included the yin/yang symbol, washed and dried the twelve white cotton bandanas I got, chose one, folded it in half on the diagonal and drew the design on in very soft pencil. I then heated wax in a small craft heating pot till it melted and brushed it on the parts of the design I wanted to remain white. This being my first attempt I was awkward at it and continued to make a lot of mistakes as I proceeded through the process (which I haven’t finished yet). I learned (too late) that the wax was not hot enough. It’s supposed to be so hot that when painted on the fabric it sinks in and looks translucent instead of opaque. When the wax is that hot it penetrates through to the other side of the fabric effectively blocking any future dyeing except for cracks in the wax done purposely or by accident.

I tentatively decided to dye the fabric in turquoise and from there hand paint on yellow to make green in certain spots. Yesterday I did my first dye bath soaking and agitating the partially waxed fabric/design. I decided to jump in and not wait to counter my tendency to procrastinate, but I was nervous. While I waxed the design on my drawing table in the living room, I prepared the dye and the fixer (soda ash solution) in the kitchen. I wore a mask and goggles, but forgot to lay down a drop cloth on the floor and on the table. Luckily, I didn’t spill much of the dye and when I did I wiped it up right away. I had watched one of the three DVDs on how to tie dye which helped to prepare me. It reminded me of working in my darkroom, of the caution I used when mixing chemicals.

My darkroom is where I should be working. I have a professional darkroom sink that I bought about twenty years ago after saving up the money. Unfortunately, after I graduated from art school while I was still feeling sick, I neglected the darkroom and mice got in there and began ruining things and then my sump pump stopped working and I couldn’t use the sink. Anyway, it’s a mess in there though my negatives seem to me mostly okay. So last night after doing the first dye bath first working in the kitchen and then carrying the dye tray (with a gallon and a half of liquid in it) to the bathroom, I decided that I have to clean up the darkroom and get a new sump pump installed so that I can work downstairs without having any fear about endangering the cats (I had locked them in a back room for the hour that I worked) or accidently spilling dye in my main living spaces.

I poured the dye down the bathtub drain and rinsed the batik bandana in cold water till most of the dye was gone. The color was nice but a bit dark. I made a makeshift clothes line over the tub and hung the batik up and left the bathroom fan on. As it dried over the next six hours, it got lighter and prettier but I could see that some of the dye had gotten into my waxed areas though not totally. Today I made up a small amount of yellow dye and painted it on in certain spots but because the wax that was enclosing the spaces was imperfectly applied the dye spread, but only a little bit. It dried fairly quickly. The next step is to wax the areas that I want to stay blue and green. Once I do that (hopefully better than I did it the first time) I can submerge the batik in a solution of red dye which will make the rest of the fabric turn purple because of the combination of the blue and the red.

The final step will be to either boil or iron the wax out of the fabric. It is only at that stage that the true colors and pattern will be revealed which will be exciting despite all the mistakes I made. You can see that those somewhat expensive batik t-shirts really have a lot of work go into them and are worth the money. I think once I master the technique that I will find the work very satisfying. Next step is to do a tie dye on a small boys’ t-shirt. Making a basic tie dye is much easier than doing batik. You wash the t-shirt and then arrange it in a certain pattern and then you make up several colors and squeeze them onto the fixer treated shirt in repeating lines. Then you set it aside for a while, maybe overnight, to let the dyes set. Finally, you wash out the dye in the washing machine and then dry it. It’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea. There is no waxing and no dye bath immersion and no waiting several days to finish, at least not for the basic tie dyes.

I hope I’ll be able to show you photographs of the process soon. I’m going to see if I can get an inexpensive digital camera tomorrow because my camera is not working as of a few days ago.

Monday, May 12, 2008


Christina and Aaron's Grandmother

Portrait of Christina's Brother Aaron

Portrait Of Pam's Joe

Click on the image to enlarge it...

Portrait Of Christina

A Creative Surge

Still painting, but not much singing this week. The voices have been pretty quiet. I’ve been bringing my art supplies up from downstairs. Downstairs is a wreck due to repeated flooding from a slow drain outside. There’s mildew on the walls and some stuff is just ruined, but I wisely put most of my supplies in plastic storage containers. So now they are in my living room along with a chunk of my art books. Thanks to my mother I have many good quality art books. I’m not sure why it has taken me three years since I graduated from art school to return to painting and to my books, but there it is.

Earlier this week I talked with my parents and told them of my money making ideas. They were very supportive and said they would be willing to back me up financially so that I could get arts and craft supplies to start my own small business. They seemed particularly interested in me learning to do tie dyes and batik. I found a very good supply store online called Dharma Trading Company and spent several hours deciding exactly what I would get and how much. I ordered a starter kit for tie dyeing and for batik, a wide palette of colors to dye with, some plain white cotton clothing and three DVDs of instruction. I’ll spend the next month learning the basics. I’m going to start practicing on bandanas (I got twelve of them) and then move on to tee shirts, dresses, baby clothes, pillow cases, scarves, pants, whatever I can think of. There are several stores in town and nearby that I think I might be able to get interested in my work. One store has expanded to include a room that is just for kids’ stuff. I’m going to tie dye and do batik on a variety of children’s clothes from baby clothes to dresses and tee shirts and see if there’s a market for them at that store.

I’m excited to learn the various techniques. I have to figure out what my design/color style is going to be. I’m not a big fan of gaudy tie-dyes, but I should still know how to do them. My style will probably have more subtle colors and a wide variety of design patterns. Batik will be a challenge too and with that I can really get creative and, hopefully, sophisticated. I will get my supplies in a few days. I have one book on tie dyeing. The author suggested starting to collect these items: large and small marbles, stones, paper clips, various types of cord--thick and thin, corks, buttons, rubber bands, clothes pins. Anything that will leave an imprint. Wonderful. So I’ve collected everything but the stones so far. The technique reminds me of photography (photograms) and painting rolled into one.

In the meantime I’ve been crocheting small granny squares, five rounds, five colors. Very pretty. Once assembled they will turn into a skirt. Several years ago I picked up a book at a book sale that dates from about 1975. It’s called -- The Woman’s Day Book of Granny Squares and Other Carry-Along Crochet -- and it has some great projects in it. It’s dated yet I think it could be in fashion again. There’s a consignment store in town, newly opened, and I’m going to try to sell my crocheted items there.

And I’ve been painting portraits. A few days ago I asked Pam to send me a picture of Joe. Today I discovered three pictures of him in my email and spent most of the day painting two watercolor portraits of him. I’m still a beginner when it comes to watercolor, but I figure the more practice I get, the more I’ll learn. I think I’m fairly good at getting a likeness. Getting the right skin tone/color is hard to do and I find myself being a bit conservative. The next portrait I’m going to get more adventuresome. I think it’s important to vary my technique and not get stuck painting only in one way, with only the same palette of colors each time. I will also paint landscapes, still lives and city-town views. Landscapes emphasize organic shapes whereas paintings of objects and buildings emphasize sharper edges and more angular shadows. I need practice with ALL of it.

Painting portraits to give to others really motivates me to paint, so if you would like me to paint a portrait of you or your loved one, email me some good, large, color photographs and include your address. It would be a great pleasure for me. I’d also like to paint portraits of pets if you have any.

I discovered a way to include photographs. I haven’t been able to post them almost since I began this blog, so this is exciting for me. Unfortunately my digital camera is not working properly. I was in the midst of taking photographs of some of my artwork when the view screen went nearly white with faint lines across it. Still I’ll post the photographs I did manage to get so that you can get some idea of what my most recent watercolor portraits look like. I also have a few craft pictures to show. I hope you enjoy them.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Singing and Painting

My voices have been calling me evil again. I don’t feel evil, but them calling me so wears me down. I told my psychiatrist and he raised the Risperdal by a milligram.

The voices got negative sometime after I began a daily singing/playing practice in my music room. I was busy writing new songs and relearning old songs. I would practice for a half an hour or so several times a day. After a couple of weeks of this, I noticed that during one session my voice had gotten decidedly stronger. Then the voices began saying “Evil!” while I sang. I lost confidence. The next time I went into the music room to play I felt self critical and sang poorly. The time after that I gave up quickly. The voices had stepped up their attack and not just while I sang.

The thing about singing well is it takes practice, yes, but it also takes surrender. You have to be willing to get loud (and soft). It’s not for the timid. I don’t often have that courage to nakedly lay it all out there. I go only so far. That one day that I sang well I felt some power within me. I also felt sickness, the potential for delusional thoughts about my abilities. Not a lot, but enough for the voices to latch on. And yet, I still want to sing.

The psychosis varies in intensity throughout the day. When I took a break from singing, I became restless and started to wash the dishes. From there I vacuumed. Then on impulse I brought my drawing table out of a back room and into the living room. I’ve been trying to think up money making ideas and realized that I had a desire to paint watercolor portraits. My friend Richard is the soccer coach at the high school and I thought I might paint portraits of the players on his team. All I need are a few good color photographs. At one of the home games last year I had taken photographs of his son (who is a star player on his team), his daughter and his mother in law. I decided to start work using those photographs and now I have three watercolor portraits to give to Richard. I especially like the one of his daughter who suffers from mental retardation. She has bright blue eyes and prominent cheek bones, a small angular nose and smiling lips; she looks a lot like her mother. Richard is very conscientious about paying as much attention to his daughter as he does to his son which is another reason why I painted portraits of both his children.

I’m hoping that the players’ parents will like the portraits I paint well enough to pay me something for them. I don’t expect to get a lot of money for them, but anything at all would be a great boost to my self-esteem. I thought I could have business cards made up and clip them onto the portraits. Anyway, the idea is a good one and I would enjoy painting portraits of children and teens. I can also see it as a community service. The main thing is to do good work and distribute it. Now the question is will I approach Richard? I did ask my brother to ask his friends to give him photographs. I’m excited by the prospect of doing work for other people. It’s a way to break out of my self-imposed isolation.

So despite the voices saying I’m evil, I’ve been keeping busy and creative. I’ve also returned to making hemp jewelry and crocheting and I want to try my hand at doing tie dyes. There’s a consignment shop in town where I might try to sell what I make. In fact, when I think about it there are definitely opportunities locally for earning a bit of income; all it takes is motivation to work and to approach others with my work. Last year I was depressed, but not so much this year and though the voices are active on and off I have not been suffering from delusions.

Today I sang and the voices didn’t call me evil. Last week I was watching a movie about a violin teacher and her grade school students. At one point one of her students wants to give up and she says basically that you shouldn’t give up just because something is hard to master and I’ve been trying to apply that lesson to myself. Of course, I’m cautious. I have to be, but, within reason I will pursue the songwriting and singing. It’s interesting that the voices do not get upset when I draw, paint, crochet or make jewelry. I think that’s because songwriting and singing is more emotional for me whereas arts and crafts are meditative.

I’ve been trying to approach the voices with compassion. When they call me evil, I realize it is because they are hurting. It’s the same with people when they are hurtful to others. Pema Chodron says all the hatefulness in the world comes from defending “the soft spot” in ourselves, defending our own tender, vulnerable heart. We either shut down, armor up and/or lash out when we feel our heart is threatened. I tend to shut down and the voices tend to lash out. Either way we get out of touch with our own sensitivity which makes it easy to unintentionally or intentionally hurt other people. In the process we also hurt ourselves.

It’s not easy to be compassionate to those that lash out at you, but it is very possible. It takes a change in attitude. Just stopping for a moment and considering that the voices are hurting is enough to set off a positive domino effect. When I think of these voices as teachers and friends, I can tolerate their negativity better. Sometimes teachers teach harsh lessons and sometimes friends lose their way and are thoughtless. My therapist said the other day that none of us are perfect and that is so true. We have to live with our own and others imperfections. We have to give each other room to make mistakes because that’s how we learn.

I turned 46 on Wesdnesday and tomorrow I’ll have reached my 8 month anniversary of being free of cigarettes. I’m hopeful that this will be a productive year and that I’m moving in the right direction.