Thesis

I make work to share my own personal narrative, and to give myself a space to create works which challenge my perception of reality. I am plagued with nightmares as my brain tries to unravel the traumatic events I have lived through, and I choose to make art documenting these internal struggles. Because of my mental illnesses, I live in a reality that does not always line up with what is perceived as the real world; I experience flashbacks and hallucinations. I have experienced psychotic episodes, and these things can be terrifying. Through hallucination, psychosis, and dream, I am questioning how I perceive reality. I embrace these things that are taboo, that make people uncomfortable, because I do not have a choice. I have to coexist with these experiences and memories. It is important that I keep my hands busy as it helps keep me feeling present and grounded. I work primarily with clay and ise katagami (a Japanese craft of papercutting). Through making things I am able to take up space. I make work because I am interested in finding my own internal balance and peace. My processes involve intense craft and detail and a significant amount of attention as I work through traumatic memories, and physical anxiety.

A Complex History

     My work is influenced by personal history, events, and the memory of those formative experiences. Therefore, it may provide greater insights if you understood aspects of my past.

I was born in a small town in Nova Scotia, the eldest child with 2 younger brothers. At three and a half my parents went through a rough divorce, where my brother and I were abducted from our Dad. Eventually we were located and our Dad was awarded partial custody. I grew up with unstable parents who did not act in adult ways; there was rampant drug abuse and physical violence. Due to the financial burden of drug addiction, as well as the effects of poverty, we often went without adequate nutrition. Growing up in this unstable and volatile situation led to prolonged abuse: physical, mental, and sexual. This left me with trust issues, low self worth, and a desperation for attention and affection.

 

Mental Illness

      At about 6 years old, I began having extreme suicidal ideations. Obsessed with death and dying, I would pray to God to kill me. My work “Please Δ Make Me Stone” (figures 1, 2, 3) examines some of my battles with religion, faith, colonialization, ethnicity, mental health, and my abusive past. This work speaks of the first time I tried to commit suicide at the age of 6, suffocating myself with a pillow, passing out, rolling over and beginning to breathing again.

Figure 1: “Please Δ Make Me Stone 1 in 3” ceramic, ise katagami screen, gold paint on exterior, 2017.

Figure 2: “Please Δ Make Me Stone 2 in 3” ceramic, ise katagami screen, gold paint on exterior, 2017.

Figure 3: “Please Δ Make Me Stone 3 in 3” ceramic, ise katagami screen, gold paint on exterior, 2017.

     At this point in my life, I began to play with dolls and Barbies. My Dad and stepmom found many Barbies at yard sales, and they would make furniture and clothes for them. For a while this was my therapy. I would play out the events which happened at my Bio-Mother and step Father’s house, talking out how I was feeling and what was going on. This became part of my routine when I came to my Dad’s for the weekend. I continued to play with Barbies for much longer than most girls typically would; looking back that seems like a strong indicator that socially thing for me were not quite right. I played with dolls until the 8th grade. I see direct relationships between this and the art I am making; working at a similar scale as dolls, I am playing out the inner workings of my mind in a way that allows me to further analyse and share my experiences.

     My parents have a hard time understanding mental illness so it was not until my adulthood that I truly began receiving help. My battles with mental illness have been a confusing part of my life. Most of my life I did not realize that something chemical was wrong, and so I blamed myself. Today we know I have bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and (complex) post traumatic stress disorder. For the first time I have a diagnosis which makes sense. I spent most of my childhood in and out of therapy, because I was troubled, because I was a difficult child and teenager. However, because of my parent’s lack of understanding and obliviousness to core issues, they often trivialized the matter by saying that I was acting out and self harming for attention; this affected me and still does to this day. I did not understand why I was staying up for days on end making art, I did not understand why I was obsessed with suicide and with hurting myself, I did not know why I had cruel voices in my head, why I would hallucinate sometimes, or why I did not fit in with other people. I am not neurotypical, my brain is broken, and as with something that is broken one cannot simply will away the issues or effects. I am disabled by my mental illnesses; however, I am an artist creatively seeking my way through making and self expression.

     Looking back now, I can definitely see my bipolar disorder throughout my life. I would stay up for days, pedantically making art, painting my walls, writing stories, practicing the clarinet, making and writing music, acting and writing plays, sewing, crafting, and researching on end. This was mania; I was manic, and then I would crash and sleep for 16 hours a day for days, and then the mania would come back. That was the vicious cycle of undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

At 15, I moved with my Dad, stepmom, and brother to Calgary. This brought me many opportunities, and more importantly it got me away from my Bio-Mother and peers who were cruel to me. This new environment allowed me to take an art class for the first time ever. At my art teachers’ recent retirement, she told me I was the most prolific student she had ever seen. Art saved my life. I am a survivor of prolonged childhood abuse.

     Because my parents refused to properly acknowledge mental illness they frequently punished some of my most frightening episodes.  Recalling a vivid memory of a particularly self-destructive moment just after my 19th birthday I had taken a large number of pills, cut myself multiple times, and eventually ended up in my closet with a belt around my neck. Fortunately, my father found me, however after removing the belt from my neck he then proceeded to yell and deprecate me, leaving me there alone and confused in my room. I was struggling and what I needed was love and a doctor; instead I booked a ticket to Calgary and flew out the following week.

     When I came back out to Calgary at 19 I ended up falling into an extremely abusive relationship; I was in this relationship for 4 and a half years, escaping with my life and not much else. Abuse is a cycle, breaking this terrible chain is an ongoing struggle. Just over two years have past and I can see the direct correlation between how the adults in my childhood would act, and my tolerance towards my abuser. Since beginning to research the psychology behind Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I have begun to see correlations in how my symptoms have manifested, and how I was an easy victim for my adult abuser. 

 

(Complex) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

     Trauma effects the body, the mind, every part of who you are and how you interact with the world. Through the narrative of a survivor of childhood and domestic abuse, I speak about personal trauma. This voice is important to me, and it is important to my artwork. Through careful navigation in the world of PTSD I have come to understand many symptoms which are almost universally shared with women coming from an abusive relationship. It is in these commonalities that I have begun building a symbolic language within my artwork, which I would like to further explore as I move forward.

     In Healing the Trauma of Domestic Violence, the authors recognize five main symptoms they see in women who suffer from PTSD as a result of domestic abuse in relation to self advocacy. Self-advocacy is one of the first heralds that must be overcome once you have removed yourself from the dangerous situation, but I can testify that this is one of the most difficult things to accomplish. The first of these symptoms is placing other people’s wants and needs ahead of your own; in this action these women are often trying to distract themselves from their own needs, because when they put themselves first, they tend to feel selfish, rude, and guilty (Kubany). The second commonality is an unassertiveness and tolerance of disrespect; this explains how women with PTSD end up feeling trapped in a life with their abuser (Kubany). This effects their ability to communicate their wants and needs with others, which can lead to unjustified tolerance for an inordinate amount of disrespectful treatment from their abuser. Thirdly, it causes them to make decisions driven by “supposed tos” (Kubany); this explains why many women return to their abusers, for had they based this decision on rational analysis, they would have most likely left the situation much sooner. Decision-making based on self-imposed obligations will often fulfil others wants and needs at your own expense. The next symptom is the inability to deal with hostility; this ties directly into a person’s self-esteem as they are unlikely to stand up for themselves when someone says or does something hurtful. It is common that these women feel intimidated and threatened by aggressive people and they often become deeply hurt by other’s comments, as they do not have the self worth to question the hurtful statement. The final symptom is negative self-talk; in this symptom, we see women who are saying and thinking things towards themselves which are just as hurtful and disrespectful as their abusive partner had been towards them. It is seen again and again in treatment, where women will repeat these common statements about themselves. “I should have known better . . . I could have prevented it . . . I have bad judgement . . . There’s something wrong with me . . . I’m stupid . . . I’m a loser . . . I’m a fool” (Kubany). This negative self-talk leads to additional suffering, and contributes to depression and low self-esteem. By becoming better at self-advocacy, these women are able to take control over their lives, and get what they need out of treatment. Over time we can expect to see an improvement in self-worth, and distress levels will likely decrease.

     PTSD is a difficult illness to treat in that it occupies space in the person’s head. It is a real, lived experience, which changes how you perceive reality. It also physically changes the neural network in your brain, which effects how you react and process events in your day to day life. I have been receiving treatment for two years for my PTSD, and I still find it difficult not to slip into these old, familiar habits. The mind is altered after it has endured trauma. In my case I have experienced repeated trauma over most of my life. My case is considered complex, because it was not a singular event that caused my PTSD; this changed the way it can be treated and the expected rate of recovery. Through making, I try to make sense of the complex world that exists in my mind; flashbacks and nightmares are a regular occurrence in my life which is only amplified when I am under stress.

 

The Domestic

     The domestic space in my artwork is not how others likely view the domestic. To me the domestic space holds so much hurt, trauma, and loss. So, when I am making works reflecting on these spaces I view them as spaces with confusion and inner turmoil – it is an uneasy place. I show this by creating cluttered spaces, spaces with a lot of visual information.

 

Clay

     Clay is a material that to me is second nature. I understand the properties of clay better than I understand my own mind, and this is my preferred method of communication. I can communicate with clay in a way that is impossible with words. I stumbled into the world of clay quite by accident; I received a scholarship in grade six, which gave me the opportunity to attend a Christian art camp. During my time at this camp, I was exposed to many different artists, the majority of whom claimed that God was working through them creating the art. I will never claim this; my talent is my own and my hard work and dedication has nothing to do with any sort of higher power. One of these artists worked in clay, creating sculpture that dictated the stories she read in the Bible. This was my first time working with clay and I was instantly hooked. I bombarded this poor lady with a million questions; she said God was working through me, I continued to ask her question after question until I was so full of information and book recommendations I do not think I could have absorbed anymore if I wanted to. I took this knowledge home with me and began requesting books to come via my local book mobile. This is how I learned about pit firing; at eleven years old I dug clay out from the beach, mixed sand into it, made multiple sculptures, and stole every metal container there was in my house, leaving bobbins, thread, and scrap materials everywhere. I placed my precious objects in these boxes. I took them and buried them on the beach; on top of my treasure pile, I built a fire. I sat with this fire for 24 hours, begging that the tide would not be too high. I then waited about 12 more hours before I dug my treasures up. At 11 years old I successfully dug up my own clay, added grog, and pit fired it, all within weeks of returning home from Bible camp. Looking back at this I realize how I utilized my lack of adult supervision to explore the world in a way most children are unable to, I allowed my artistic expression to help me navigate the world, keeping myself focused, busy, and away from home.

     Is it any surprise that I am here 14 years later? Clay had me hooked very early on.

     Clay is my therapy, it is a way to self soothe, to use my hands and keep my mind busy. Whether I am home making tea sets for different tea shops, making mugs for the next market, fulfilling commissions, or building a sculptural world, clay is my constant. Clay is my love affair.

 

Ise Katagami, and My Time on a Japanese TV Show

     Ise katagami is the Japanese craft of paper cutting. I was first introduced to ise katagami as an optional assignment in Bill Morton’s 200 level fibre class. I took a stab at it (pun intended), and cut two stencils. I then took those stencils down to the ceramic department and began pressing slip and glaze through the smoked paper. I was invited to take part in a video, to show the versatility of ise katagami, and how it can be taken outside of the world of fibre and textiles. I showed my experimentation, and then I honestly did not think much of it after that.

     Fast forward to the summer and I start getting weird phone calls from California, and then a few weird Facebook messages; it sounded like a scam so I ignored it. Then I started receiving calls at work. Finally, they called me one day when I was in my studio and I answered the phone on speaker, and as this person starts talking Andrew begins googling everything that is said, very quickly I realize this is not a scam. The person calling was Naomichi Hosoya, a talent scout on behalf of TV Tokyo, and I was offered a spot on their television show Who Wants to Come to Japan. This show portrays people from all over the world who practice Japanese craft or culture and have never been to Japan, and the people on the show are sometimes offered the opportunity to travel there.

     After that conversation I immediately googled ise katagami and the video ACAD made was the first thing that popped up in my search. I continued with the process answering all of their questions, and two weeks later, I get a call from border control. The officer explained there were two men from Japan here, they did not speak any English and they handed her a piece of paper with my name and phone number on it; she wanted to know why they are here. I answer her questions, and they were let into the country. The next day, they ring my door bell and I spend the day filming in my basement. A week later, I was contacted again to have the fired ceramics filmed; during that filming, I was surprised with the news that I would be going to Japan. A week later and I was in Japan, in the August heat.

     My time in Japan gave me many wonderful experiences; I was able to work closely with national living treasures, including three days spent with Mr. Kobiyashi, a master paper cutter. This opportunity expanded my knowledge of ise katagami, and gave me the cultural enrichment I had been longing for.

     While working with Mr. Kobiyashi, he made me promise that I would continue making and sharing this craft with those home in Canada, stressing that this is a dying medium but that I present it in a modern way that could help revive this craft. So, I continue to cut the special smoked paper from Japan, and I continue to plan my return trip. This craft is special to me. For me this craft affords my brain a task that requires my complete focus; I must pay attention to every cut or else risk ruining the entire piece of paper. I create different types of pattern and density of cuts; in some places, there is less paper than there are open spaces. I feel strongly in my promise to Mr. Kobiyashi, and I intend to continue this craft as I move forward in my artistic career. It was simply put to me that I am the first ceramic artist they have ever seen incorporate ise katagami with my work, and I do not intend to stop anytime soon.

     In Nova Scotia, my teachers and parents recognized my artistic focus and talent, and with some careful orchestrating, I was able to spend some time with Joy Laking (1950-present), a famous local watercolour painter who captured the beauty of where I grew up as seen in figure 4 (Laking). This was the first time I ever saw professional art tools and materials; my parents were very poor so my art supplies were limited to what came from Walmart on sale. Joy Laking was very generous and gave me some drawing tools and a stiff drawing board. She had me draw my feet as an exercise while I spent time at her place, and she was impressed. I was able to watch her paint and I enjoyed her insights to a world I desperately wanted to be a part of.

Figure 4: Joy Laking "Chairs at Portaupique" watercolour, 91cm x 66cm, 2016.

     In high school, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with the late Pat Keenan (1961-2010), a local figurative sculptor represented by Gallery West (figure 5). Pat Keenan would come to my art class nearly every day for several months, teaching us how to make figurative sculptures in clay, encouraging us to cut off body parts to hollow them out. This is when I began to become brave with my ceramic art and less precious; I knew I was the one in control and could fix any mistake I made. Pat Keenan was a very talented sculptor and a generous person; he enjoyed spending time with us and imparted so much knowledge and confidence.

Figure 5: Pat Keenan "Big Miller," bronze, H48cm x 23cm x 25cm

     Additionally, in high school I was able to work with Andrew Tarrant (1967-present), a local ceramic artist (figure 6). Andrew Tarrant came to my class to do a wheel-throwing demo and get us on the wheel. Our school had two wheels, and I was one of the only people in my class brave enough to hop on it and get dirty. I threw three bowls in the first 30 minutes I ever sat down on a wheel, albeit with a ton of support from Andrew during the process. From then on, I was captivated by the wheel, and how challenging it was. Five years later, I am sitting in my first day of Greg Payce’s 200 level wheel-throwing class, and Andrew walks into the room. . . I reintroduced myself and we caught up; throughout that year I sit in on Andrews’s extended studies class, learning everything I can. Near the end of that year Andrew offers me the opportunity to work with him during the summer as his apprentice; I accept without a second thought. Two and a half years later and I still work closely with Andrew, as he has generously dedicated part of his studio for my work and myself.

Figure 6: Andrew Tarrant "Est Finis Omnium - End of All Things", ceramic, 2015.

     I am thankful for the opportunities I have had along the way, and am forever grateful for these three people for sculpting who I am as an artist today, and for encouraging me to continue my artistic education.

Process

     I work in a highly detailed and methodical way, building complex surfaces both in clay and cut paper. The way I work helps me achieve balance in my own mind; keeping my hands busy allows me space to process my thoughts and feelings. An important aspect of my making process that I have begun to realize is that I have an overwhelming need to take up and occupy space, which is why painting and drawing never cut it for me. I make work which occupies physical space, taking my internal experiences and pouring them out into the world. I need people to see me and listen to me, I look forward to feedback from the viewers of my work. The most impactful reaction I ever witnessed was to my piece Fragmented Memory (figure 7); a viewer stood and read every part that they could see, and when she turned around her cheeks were stained with tears. We embraced and she wept on my shoulder. As I felt her chest quickly shift up and down, I thought this is why I make what I make. This is why I make work about my own challenges with mental illness and personal history. She found her own voice in my work and we related with our common experiences. It is comforting in way, to have that type of reaction to a work of art that I poured part of myself into.

Figure 7:  Fragmented Memory, ceramic and mixed media sculpture, Length: 123cm, Width: 63cm, Depth: 46cm, 2016.

     I work with earthenware clay, seduced by the possibility of building an extensive colour palette. I have spent the past two years developing a colour palette of my own. I work in many layers of slip and stain, treating it much like how I would paint in my past. Like most ceramic artists, I am attracted to the wet stages, when the slip looks like a second skin placed over the clay; at times, it feels as if my work has a breath and life of its own at this stage.

     It has been within the last year a half I think that I have finally began to really and truly understand clay. It seems like you hit a point in this process if you stay on the road long enough, where you understand clay better then you have any person or version of self. At this point I understand how to wheel throw, I understand how best to pay attention to a handle so that it welcomes someone‚Äôs hand, and I understand surface much better. This is not to say that I have nowhere left to improve. On the contrary, now that I understand it I feel like I am finally in a position where I can push past what I know, past what is comfortable, and really begin to explore this medium and way of making.

     It has been important to me while I am in school that I take this opportunity to push my conceptual vocabulary and begin to discover symbolism within my work. I work sculpturally because I find it challenging - every aspect must be planned and accounted for. I also find it breaks up the monotony that can come from producing functional work day in and day out while not in school.

 

What Does the Future Hold

     As I anticipate my graduation in May, I cannot help but to think of what the future may hold for me. To begin with I will be continuing to work closely with my mental health team. My doctor anticipates that it will be many years before any significant outcome is achieved through my ongoing treatment, as I live with a combination of challenging psychiatric disorders.

I have been working on my functional studio practice over the past several years, and have been unable to keep up with the demand for my work while in school. I will be continuing to develop my studio practice, and small business, fulfilling wholesale orders and commissions.

     Video work has been a secret passion for quite some time, and I am currently working on a private project which showcases my art making and life as a disabled artist. Previous video work has afforded me the opportunity to travel to Japan and so I foresee myself further developing videos as a means to describe, document, and build a stronger community and following.

I hope to continue making lasting connections with other artists. The relationships I have made have had a lasting impact on my life and artistic career. In turn I would like to continue to give back to my communities. I have been invited to a number of high schools year after year to share my experiences, triumphs, and challenges as I develop my professional practice. I intend to continue to develop these talks and demos as I move forward; these activities are extremely rewarding, and I love the impact it has on students.

     I would like to move forward with my education, in purist of my Masters degree. Education has always been a very important part of my aspirations, and I would love to have the opportunity to teach at an university level. As well I believe it would assist in the further development of my artistic practice, and afford me the opportunity to travel as a visiting artist, as well as taking part in residencies. At this point my heart is still drawing me to Japan so I anticipate traveling there in my near future.

     So, wherever my life may take me, I believe that I will continue forward as a creative person and maker.

 

Works Cited

Kubany, PH.D., Edward S., Mari A. McCaig, MSCP, and Janet R. Laconsay, MA. Healing the Trauma of Domestic Violence.       New Harbinger Publications, 2004, pp. 1-193.

Laking, Joy. Joy Laking Gallery, www.joylakinggallery.com.

Swayer, Jill. "Pat Keenan (1961-2010)." Galleries West, www.gallerieswest.ca/artists/historical-works/pat-keenan-%281961-       2010%29/.

Tarrant, Andrew. Trespasser Ceramics, www.trespasser.ca. 

 ©2019 Alisha Marie Adams

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