“Art is very clearly a form of communication. I have a hard time putting my thoughts and ideas into words. For example, I talk in circles and can usually be pretty weird in social situations. I mostly internally process everything. However, I use art to speak because that is the way I best express myself and reach out to others. I don’t think that is just me, either. It’s a way to define ideas and educate people when words fall short.”
Name: Kristen Graham
Art materials: Watercolor pencil on Birch wood panels
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Honestly, I never know what to say about myself mainly because I think of two different ways I could tell you about myself. There is the weird awkward person that I am or the person I am from the outside looking in. The facts are that I am a 24-year-old artist residing in Austin, TX with my incredibly intelligent and courageous husband and pets. The only formal education I have in art is from high school, and I graduated college with a B.A in Anthropology and a minor in Psychology. In college, I always thought that I would land somewhere in a science field, but after I graduated I started teaching middle school art. That lasted for two years. While I don’t think teaching was for me at all for several reasons, I think it pushed me to where I am now. I never had any time to make my own art or be creative in my own way, and I think I really needed that. Being a teacher you deal with external stimulation all day. It was a hard environment to deal with and really took a toll on mental health. Art is something that has always been the easiest form of communication for me. I feel that I have only recently found my voice and feel more comfortable talking about my experiences.
At what point did you begin creating again? And how did it feel to finally focus on your own work?
When I moved to Austin I told myself that I was going to have a better work-life balance and started working on a picture for my parents. It was mostly experimental because I felt like I really had no idea what I was doing. That piece was honestly about teaching myself more on color theory. It really wasn’t that great, honestly. Then last year about this time I started the large sweet potato still life that ended up throwing this whole thing into motion. When I started it, I didn’t have any intentions of making a career out of my art. I just really wanted to finish it because it had taken so long. It wasn’t until I finished it in July, 2 weeks before the school I worked at started back, that I knew I couldn’t return. My creativity and passion had been sparked. I quit my job a few days later. I actually left the state for a month to gather my thoughts and decide if I was really going to go through with this. I felt really great to pursue something that felt like “my thing.” I was nervous of failure that it wouldn’t lead anywhere. I still am. When I first started my work, I felt like I had to prove my worth in the art community because I am mostly self taught, I just started working on my pieces, and I don’t have an art degree. However, I swear this happens to everyone, I had gotten in my head and had to tell my doubt to take the backseat on this one. I definitely feel empowered by what I do.
Where does your inspiration come from?
The people that I have met and the people most directly in my life have inspired me the most. My family has a history of severe depression, bipolar disorder, suicide, and anxiety. It was something that my mom would occasionally talk to me about when I was younger, but something that no one was actively talking about with each other. I think it wasn’t something that was understood enough to know how to approach. My husband has also been an inspiration to me in the way he has pushed himself to overcome stigmas about who he feels like he should be vs. who he actually is. I think that’s actually what a lot of people need help figuring out. When I was teaching, I met so many people that struggled with mental illness. I think I was shocked at how much it got swept under the rug by the administration. The thing that kept me going was a group of friends at work that helped me when I had panic attacks or people who understood me when I would admit to suicidal thoughts. People need a community and they need a sense of belonging. I have met so many people who have talked to me about how their mental illness makes them feel.
I couldn’t agree more with your statement about people trying to figure out who they should be vs. who they really are. It’s quite the struggle. How did your husband manage to overcome it? And is there any piece of advice you could offer to other people about that journey?
My husband is bi-racial and has grown up wondering how he fits into the picture. He has found writers, actors, and comedians that he looks up to that have struggles similar to his, such as Zadie Smith. Mostly, every day he wakes up and tells himself that it’s a new day. It’s going to have its struggles, but life is messy and you have to struggle in order to grow. Find role models with similar struggles that focus on pushing through and rising up. I understand his need to externally talk and think even though it’s incredibly overwhelming to me. Just like he understands that I need quiet time to sit and stare. He talks me down when I need it. And he talks me back up when I need it. Dialogue with people you love whether you are struggling or you are watching someone struggle. Establish needs and reciprocate the love and selflessness. More importantly, help you sometimes, too. There is no shame in seeking professional help. In fact, I think everyone should at some point because everyone could afford to have a few critiques.
How would you describe how it feels to create your artwork?
It’s like a breath of fresh air, but it’s also stressful. I can be pretty hard on myself about my work. I think with every piece I have done, I’ve questioned my abilities and my worth as a person. At times, I question if this is actually going to lead to anything or if I’m just wasting my time. My thoughts usually get out of hand. Sometimes I can’t even work because I’m so afraid of failing. However, I always pull myself up and complete a picture. That’s why I do what I’m doing. My pictures describe that whole cycle for me.
Tell us about your creative process.
It all started with a still life which also happened by accident. A sweet potato that I kept for too long had rotted and started sprouting about my fridge. I set it up as a landscape with a bag for mountains and the potatoes as cliffs. That became the beginning of my “Rotten Life” series. I’m a very curious person, and I like teaching myself new things. After this I began experimenting with rotting my vegetables and trying to replant them to grow for the purpose of painting. I’ve actually learned quite a bit about gardening. I’ve always been interested in how things decay and the symbolism behind it.
Considering this series came about organically (pun intended), what is your planning process like with combining the food with mental illness? Do the ideas just come to you or do you think of a concept and then allow the vegetable to rot?
When I start planning out a project, I usually talk to someone about his or her feelings with a mental illness or I think about how I feel. I bounce the ideas off my husband sometimes. It’s good to have that person. I usually get ideas from that and start experimenting with the idea. However, more often than not, it always leads to something else. For example, I had an idea of completely stripping the outer layer of grapes off to reveal their nakedness, but that led to a different project. My painting of tomatoes was because I was cooking that day, and I ended up posing tomato guts in different positions. I usually try and pick vegetables that are often overlooked or find a different way to look at more mainstream ones. That’s why I use rotting. It’s fun, and I usually just wonder what would happen if I put it in dirt. I don’t always use the vegetables that I put in the ground to grow because sometimes it just doesn’t work with what I’m wanting. It’s very experimental.
What is the story behind your artwork, if any?
For me, my mental health is something that I’ve always tried to hide. It always seems to surface, though. I don’t want it to define who I am, but it is a part of me. When I think of my mental illness, it’s like there is something eating away at my head and my thoughts that I can’t get out. It’s a very personal. At times, it feels like I can’t properly interact with people because I can’t get out of my head. When I paint vegetables, I’m trying to paint them in a way that gives them human qualities. It’s all about the growth and the cycle of being rotten and then growing. The combination of a growth coming from a person’s head, arm, or mouth is relatable to how that mental illness makes that specific person feel. The individuals that I’m including in my portraits are people in life that have some form of mental illness that are willing to share their stories with me and the world.
Is there anything you’ve personally learned about growth and decay through creating this series?
Since I’ve started this series, I’ve learned about my own strength. Sometimes, I wonder why I was afraid in the first place. On days that I’m feeling low and having a hard time doing anything, I make sure and write down every little thing I did that day. I put a positive spin on everything. The next time that happens, I can see that I can power through. It’s ok that there is decay in life. Everyone has it in some form. For me, I learn about my darkest side and really harness those feelings. When I’m growing, that’s when I teaching myself how to move forward and use what I know, felt, and learned. There’s no use in letting that information go to waste.
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