Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Meditations on Manicures

I mentioned to a friend the other day that I painted, and almost immediately felt the need to qualify that statement - like my relationship to my love of things femme, I've always had an uneasy relationship with the idea of myself as any kind of artist. I've been sculpting and painting for years - probably as long as I've been writing, when I really think about it, and I've finally conceded that I could possibly be called a writer. But an artist? The idea makes me squirm. Art is certainly a thing that I do - but I've never considered myself an artist. Not really. Nowadays the vast majority of my artistic efforts go into my nail art, and I haven't actually thought about my discomfort at being called an "artist" for a while because of this. See, nail art isn't "real" art. When I painted, I always felt like I SHOULD be calling myself an artist, or at least a painter. But now it's not even a question - even though I'm utilising exactly the same skills creating nail art as I did every painting I ever made. I'm just into nail art - it's a much less challenging, much more comfortable title.

This might sound like a massive leap, but thinking about my paintings and my nail art and my motivations for both these hobbies has really crystallised a lot of things about how my brain works now compared to how it used to work, and my relationship to art in general.

( I'm going somewhere with this, I promise)

This thing is a nightmare to photograph. The picture is full resolution, so it will probably look better full size.
I've never been comfortable calling myself an artist or a painter because I don't feel the same way about my work as other artists I've met do. I think of painters, as artists, as people who are emotionally invested in the actual physical product they are producing in a way that I'm just not. I hear from other artists about how they hate giving up pieces, for money or whatever, because they get attached. A boy I dated a long time ago hung on to HSC final artwork even though it was ENORMOUS and totally unweildy, and completely different stylistically from anything else he had done since. But he wouldn't get rid of it - he had nowhere to display it, because his walls were covered in his current work. But he couldn't bear to throw it away. I found this utterly baffling. 

His attachment was totally different to how I relate to the pieces I make. As soon as they're done, I lose all interest. There is a huge piece I did that took me about a month of working almost every day, all day. Lord, probably longer than that. I don't know, I was unemployed, my sense of time was even more hazy than it usually is. But it's sitting in a corner of my house now, untouched. I bought a sealant to coat it with, because it's largely acrylic and I know it'll flake like whoa if I don't, but...eh. It's been there for over a year now. It doesn't matter how much time, or love, or energy I've put into my paintings - once they're done, it's over. I used to make a habit of giving them away as soon as possible so my house didn't become stacked with paintings I had no interest in. These days I have less time to paint, so it takes a lot longer for them to stack up, and I end keeping them out of laziness. There is one I've been MEANING to give to a friend for..oh, a year or so? But I always forget it's even there.

However, I love painting. When I first started seeing my current therapist, she asked if there was anything that made consistently made me happy, even a little bit. (I was in that lovely dark depressing place where nothing at all is capable of making you happy) All I could think of was painting. The feeling of the brush in my hand, the way I could feel the paint sliding on the hand surface through the bristles, the paint stains all over my designated painting dress, the feeling of thick oozing paint on my fingers...these things all felt like bliss to me when everything else was sharp, difficult, and painful.

When I was younger, I would get mood swings where the urge to paint would seize me so strongly that I HAD to PAINT, RIGHT THEN, with whatever I had. I had a painting hanging around for a long time that I'd made one night on the detached door of an old cabinet with blue acrylic paint, a flour and water mixture (because I NEEDED white and I had no white paint) and candlewax. A similar sort of thing would happen with writing as well, where I would stay up all night typing so intently and intensely the edge of the table would bruise my wrists without me noticing, but sometimes the mood swing was too intense to be let out with words. The moods I needed to paint out were always wild and wordless, savage fits of rage or excitement that could not be contained.

Later, once I started seeing head doctors and whatnot, they helped me identify these fits of intense mood swings as a symptom of my Borderline Personality Disorder - they were actually (in medical terminology) brief manic episodes of varying intensity. If you're someone who is also prone to these episodes, I imagine the intensity of the urge probably needs no further explanation, even if your mania manifests differently to mine. But if you've never had a manic episode, I'm not even sure how to explain just how overwhelming this state of mind can be.When my head wasn't working well at all, and these episodes came on frequently, it was like there was a giant, grabbing me by the shoulders and swinging me around, wrapping me up and soaking me in whatever the giant was feeling at the time. I was more or less helpless against these mood swings - if the giant picked me up and he was angry, then I would be uncontrollably furious. If he was happy, I would become so saturated with happy I would come out the other side, and become ecstatic. If he needed to paint, I would paint until my hands were crusted and I couldn't keep my eyes open.

The overwhelming nature of these moods were a combination of two things - firstly, that as someone with a personality disorder I am just naturally prone to more intense mood swings than neurotypical people. But secondly, as someone with Borderline Personality Disorder specifically, my ability to cope with emotions of any intensity is also diminished. If you think of your head as a cup full of sloshing feelings, my cup is smaller than other people's. It doesn't take as much to make it overflow, and when it overflows there is no room left in there for rational thought or reason.The way my brain works when left to it's own devices is an unfortunate combination of too much liquid in too small a container - a sure recipe for a big ol mess.

I used to paint in order to combat this overfull feeling - when I could feel a tidal wave of feeling crashing over me, I could siphon some of it out with paint and wax and whatever else I could find. Trying to hold it all in was useless - but giving it somewhere to go helped me cope. I would stop struggling to think clearly, to make sense of anything, to rationalise, and just relax. I'd let the wave take me, and direct my hands. I'd paint with eyes open but consciousness absent - my conscious brain would go hide in a corner, while the mood washed everything else away and out. I made some great stuff this way. But once it was done, once *I* was done, the physical object held no meaning for me. It was the process of letting it out that mattered - not what was left once it was over.

Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine and extensive therapy, I haven't had a full on manic episode in a long time. I do still get mood swings, and they still suck. But they no longer overwhelm me - now the giant is subdued, and sleeps most of the time. He's nudged me with his foot every now and then, but he hasn't been able to pick me up for a long time. Which is good, it's progress. But the problem of my too-small cup of a brain remains.

While I've managed to shrink down my moods to a manageable level, I'm still not able to process as much as neurotypical people without side effects. I just can't carry as much at once - my cup is too small. Things that would barely touch the sides in a normal brain leave me feeling so packed and overwhelmed it's like everything is oozing out my ears. Rational thought gets squeezed right up against my skull, and I can't make sense of anything any more. You know how your skin feels stretched, sensitive, and painful when you've eaten too much or you're really bloated? That's how my brain feels when I push myself too far. My head gets all taut and stretched out, and everything hurts because it's all too sensitive, and there's just NO ROOM and I can't cope.

Nowadays, this is why I paint. I used to paint in order to siphon off the excess feelings, but now it works in a similar, but slightly different way. Previously, I was overtaken by my moods so quickly I couldn't prepare for them, couldn't make a little hiding place for my conscious mind. Now they come on much more slowly, with many more warnings, and if I'm paying attention carefully enough I can see them coming and batten down the hatches. Painting has become the place I hide my consciousness in while a manic or negative mood is careening around the rest of my head kicking everything over. It's a safe, calm little spot in the middle of the chaos, and the more intricate and careful the painting I'm attempting, the stronger the walls. My paintings have become more deliberate, methodical, and increasingly intricate because the more I have to concentrate on what I'm doing, the easier it is to ignore the waking giant until he gets bored and goes back to sleep. Narrowing my focus down to a tiny curl, a crisp edge, a smooth expanse of black allows me to put aside all considerations other than making it perfectly aesthetically pleasing. Instead of flailing around inside the mess my brain becomes, making the pressure worse and the noise louder, I sit as still as possible and put everything I have into concentrating on the tip of a very fine brush.

Which is where nail art comes in. I loved all the intricate curls on my last huge painting, but soon after I tried starting a new one and ran out of steam really quickly. I don't have the time to plan out or put together a painting of that magnitude anymore - my attention span is just too short. And frankly, since it's been sitting in the corner for over a year, I'm not hugely keen on creating another to take up even more space.
But with my nails, the artwork is small, quick, and temporary. It doesn't have to last for any amount of time, or contribute anything of perceived value. I can let myself sink into the pure aesthetics of a crisp edge and a tiny flourish, without worrying what I'm going to do with it once it's done or what I'm doing it FOR. With my paintings, I always felt a little guilty that they didn't really MEAN anything - they were just coping mechanisms. Some people liked them, which was neat, but I never used them to consciously communicate anything in particular to anyone. I don't feel the same pressure to create something of "artistic value" with nail art. I actually kind of like how derisive "real" artists can be of it as an art form, because the more I hear that, the more freedom I feel to do with it exactly what I want or need to. I've discovered recently that if I don't do some kind of nail art, rather than just painting my nails, for too long I really miss it. I miss the focus, I miss the quiet in my head, I miss being able to settle into that tiny little point of view and forget everything else. Which is partially how I found myself painting bright pink lollipops on my nails the other day - I just really, really wanted to paint, and I had a lolly coloured polish on, so off I went.

So that's good. It's progress. It's healthy.

But sometimes...sometimes I miss the mania so badly. I know that what I feel now is how I'm supposed to feel, that this is "normal". But sometimes it feels like an overexposed copy of a life, washed out and pale. I miss being swept away, and overcome. I miss the intensity, the drive, the feeling of overwhelming glory.

I wonder if I'll ever stop missing it.


  1. Thank you soooooooo much for sharing. I know it is hard to get it out and most people don't understand but I'm glad you found something to make you happy. I LOVE your paintings! Is it too much to ask for one for my house? If so, I'm sorry I crossed the line.

    1. haha, no, that's not over the line. There might be some logistical issues though - flick me an email at thereluctantfemme@gmail.com and we can talk details.

  2. Lovely work! I also struggle with the fine art label...my is am "ARTIST"... painter,, sculptor. I do decorative stuff. Henna, glitter, doodles on fabric. I have had manic episodes where I had to struggle to get all those IDEAS out of my head as soon as I could....my hands having no clue how ro manifest my visions but the struggle was glorious! I couldn't sleep and I didn't need coffee. Haven't felt that way in years... missmit, sort of. But I still have the urge to create...just not on such a big scale... which is probaly OK.

    1. typing on an ipad is not as easy as a keyboard.... I meant to say my FATHER is a "real" artist... andnI have always lived in that shadow...

    2. I have no idea how I would deal with it if either of my parents were a "real" artist...I probably never would have started at all, out of fear of not living up to them.


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