The Bipolar Aesthetic

365 Days of Artistic Disorder

Posted Oct 06, 2014

A few months ago, I received a large package in the mail. I love receiving packages in the mail. Who doesn't? Unless of course it's ticking. Though honestly, I'd still take it if it's ticking if it was a Rolex. Anyway, back on track. Inside the wrapped box was the book, 2:365, accompanied with a lovely letter describing it. Normally I'm pretty much on top of things that don't need much explanation when it comes to books, but this was an exception. The book 2:365 is a gorgeous volume filled with evocative abstract paintings (abstracts are my favorite by the way). Once I read the note, I understood this was no ordinary art book. It was a visual journey tracing one year of the author's experience of bipolar disorder. I was hooked. So much so, I wanted her to tell not just me, but others about her project. So I invited her to write a guest post. Here is Missy Douglas on 2:365. What a ride.

 On December 31st 2013, I placed a blank canvas on the paint-spattered easel and picked up my brushes for the last time. The painting I was about to begin would be the final hurdle in 2:365, a year-long artistic project which had traced the disordered life of an unmedicated bipolar sufferer.

In the wintry darkness of that New York New Year’s Eve, I painted a golden tree twisting its way through crimson rooftops into a bright blue sky, its branches cradling a luminous sun. The forms and colors emphatically proclaimed beauty, happiness and security. Yet in the accompanying diary I had desperately scrawled, ‘Why am I here? Nothing will ever change. Why did I do this? What was all this for?’

The idea for 2:365 had surfaced entirely on a whim. My artistic partner – American sculptor Kim Rask – had casually suggested it over coffee one morning in our favorite Brussels café. The concept, although ambitious, was deceptively simple. Each day, for the entirety of the year, I would paint a canvas. Completed wherever I happened to be in the world, each painting would attempt to reflect my emotional and psychological state - mania, depression or stability - over that 24-hour period. And in order to give a ‘pure’ a view as possible of the disease, we decided that I would stop taking medication for the duration of the project. The aim – if there was one at this point – was not only to give people a glimpse into my life as an artist, but also to provide a candid visual record of the personal day-to-day journey of someone living with bipolar disorder.

At this fledging stage of the project, neither of us had delusions of artistic greatness or altruistic grandeur. But the more we talked, the deeper the idea of 2:365 resonated. Without consciously realizing it, my condition and our art had always been intertwined. The overriding theme of our work had found its roots in psychological introspection, analyzing the ways in which the physical body could both harbor and reflect internal struggle. Questions of identity and self-perception had been consistently played out on canvas and in polyurethane, plaster-clad glory. But this new project would mean taking on a very personal subject, my bipolar disorder, as a motif in its own right. It was a big gamble. Did I have the stamina to take on such a huge undertaking? And more importantly, was I ready to expose myself so publically, to come clean about having the disease for the first time?

I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 19 as an art history student at the University of Cambridge. At the time, the diagnosis had made perfect sense. As a child, I had been wildly unpredictable, oscillating between anxiety and precociousness. Yet despite accepting the disorder and embracing my symptoms, I chose to remain silent. In a world where acknowledging imperfection was tantamount to failure, I held back for fear of being rejected or, worse still, regarded as self-absorbed and melodramatic. I dealt with the highs and lows in ashamed secrecy, performing before my loved ones and concealing my true self for a long 17 years.

But that November morning, in that small Belgian café, I knew it was time for a change. So on January 1st 2013, with trepidation and palette knife in hand, I took my first steps along the artistic road that would eventually be known as 2:365. Notwithstanding my initial reservations, the project picked up natural momentum. As each day dawned, images would reveal themselves. When my body buzzed and thoughts raced, I painted with wild creative energy. My visual and mental acuity was as sharp as a tack, enabling me to make singular connections between emotion and subject. When I depersonalized – when I experienced that distinct sensation of watching myself from beyond my physical body – I saw life’s planes and angles from a place high in the sky. And when the tide of depression overwhelmed me, I strove to see beauty in pain. Everything – absolutely everything – I felt was channeled into the artistic process. It wasn’t long before a distinct visual vocabulary was beginning to establish itself, with form, color and technique all becoming highly symbolic. Trees, crosses, spheres and windows all took on a peculiar significance. Synthetic blue proclaimed implacable performance and red was a livid marker of anger and panic. Numbing despair became clouds of milky white and baseline normality an expanse of shallow black. Multicolored chaos screamed of uncontrollable mania with slashing brush strokes and scratched-out paint.

For those who were aware of the project, this outpouring of emotion prompted the inevitable question. Was this process, the realization of 2:365, therapeutic? To that question I was categorical in my answer. Despite the long-held belief that creative activities can be beneficial in the treatment of mental illness, going through this visual process every day did not increase my sense of wellbeing in the short term. In fact, trying to localize that essential raw emotion and interpret a particular psychological state had been very difficult. It had often exacerbated the depression or mania that I was experiencing at the time. At best, 2:365 had made me understand the rhythm of my disease and that living with the condition – existing in the eye of the bipolar storm – was absolutely exhausting.

In fact, the beneficial effects of 2:365 became clear not while the project was under way but in its aftermath. What started as a personal endeavor in the privacy of my own studio became a powerful rallying cry to those living with the effects of bipolar disorder. Opening myself up in such a public way was petrifying, but what resulted was a collection of 365 paintings that had more emotional impact and capacity to challenge stigma than I could ever have imagined. Since the release of the 2:365 Art Book, fellow sufferers and their loved ones have contacted me, sharing their stories with a new-found resolve to speak openly about their struggle. And that’s precisely where the power of 2:365 lies. The more people engage with projects like this and talk about their experiences, the more we can challenge the misconceptions and assumptions which swirl around the condition. Bipolar sufferers are so often hidden in society. I have no doubt that we all know someone who has been diagnosed but we are completely unaware of their private battle. And, more often than not, these people are interesting, talented and successful, with just as much to give as everyone else. Let’s keep talking. We need to tackle the stigma surrounding bipolar disorder head on.

Missy Douglas Ph.D is a British artist and writer based in Seattle and New York City. She works with fellow artist Kim Rask under the studio name ucki ood. The 2:365 Art Book, containing reproductions of all 365 images and Missy’s written diary of the year is available to buy through their studio website shop at 10% of proceeds benefit the International Bipolar Foundation. Paintings from the 2:365 collection are available for purchase too.

Image: Painting 365 of the book, 2:365, by Missy Douglas