When Art Gets Very Personal
Updated: Apr 19
I will never ever forget what it was like leaving the neurologist's office on that fateful day, as the ground began to shake in the center of my soul, and the mass grave I had kept carefully hidden for the past twenty-five years cracked wide open. Like the worst zombie apocalypse ever, all the trauma I had suffered as a teen came boiling to the surface. There's a reason psychologists dealing with PTSD call this the “emergency stage”. As I went into total lockdown mode, it would be two years before I could feel even the slightest emotion again, except for incredible panic attacks that made me feel like I was suffocating inside my own skin. Writing and God would both be crucial in my long journey to recovery from severe PTSD. There's more than enough to fill a book, were I inclined to write one. But it was in putting my trauma into visual form through doing art that I finally got back the ability to feel.
The artwork that artists make for others has always been the bread and butter of their careers, and is what each artist becomes known for. The society portraits of John Singer Sargent, for instance, which made him a rich man, or the paintings Francisco Goya did as Spain's Court Painter, brought these men to the top of their professions. For both of them, however, their personal art--the art they did for themselves--was very different. Especially for Goya, the atrocities of war and oppression, the isolation of his deafness, and being old and sick led to some of the most horrific works in western art, often called the “black paintings”.
There is perhaps no art more autobiographical than the works artists do for themselves alone. Art has an amazing ability to access the subconscious. Here's where the deepest emotions, issues, and thoughts can rise to the surface and find expression, without the technical constraints of “having to make a good picture”. Especially when combined with the written word or journaling, this kind of self-examination can be crucial in processing our emotions and what's going on in our lives. Painting, drawing, or writing about what you're feeling or experiencing is a kind of telling your own story. It can give clarity and result in a better understanding of ourselves and more self-awareness and insight. Many have heard of the “letter you won't send”. The simple act of getting it off your chest and setting it down on paper can be an enormous release. Of course, you may not want to then leave it lying around!
Don't get the idea that purely personal art is just for people in pain or with issues. Many artists have great fun creating journals and sketchbooks that are a record of their lives in words and pictures, or whatever interests them at the moment. Altered books and scrapbooking can be about any theme or topic, or just whatever catches the artist's eye, and traditional media has always given artists the means to express something about themselves without using words.
So, how much of your personal art do you share with others? They say that struggle is a part of the human condition, and human connections come through vulnerability. It takes courage to share, but it does seem to be worth it.
I've heard the question asked, if great art comes from a place of pain? I do know that art gets a whole lot better when backed by strong emotions. To me, it's a huge compliment when someone says they get an emotional feeling from my work. Working through severe PTSD absolutely liberated my painting. How did I get my emotions back? I did drawings of my anger with an art therapist. It worked.