Channeling Feelings Through Art

Author: Susann Brox Nilsen

My mother, who is an artist, taught me early on to draw and to be creative. I drew and wrote stories my whole childhood, my imagination had no end. This gradually stopped during my teenage years though, and for many years I wasn’t using my skills at all.  After a while I guess I forgot what I was able to do. 

Back in 2009, after years in therapy, I had to reconcile with what my psychologist said to me: that I was moderately depressed. At this point I had been suffering from frequent periods of depression since I gave birth to my son in 2002. I also experienced periods of intense energy and lack of sleep. But somehow the last part wasn’t particularly emphasized in my therapy sessions. I was encouraged to continue therapy, and tried out several antidepressants, that didn’t really help. 

My mood-swings became a problem for me when I started Children’s art teaching-school, and I had to drop off already in the 1st semester. Eventually it also disabled me from having a steady job. This left me with being home a lot, feeling cut off from the rest of the world. Of course I told myself I wasn’t good enough since I couldn’t work or study.

At this point I was a single-mom. Me and my son were living in an apartment in my mother’s house. My mother was at this time painting in a decorative, ornamental style, and encouraged me to try it. I found the style a bit difficult, and I realized that it wasn’t quite my cup of tea. But I liked holding the brush, and how the oil paint moved. 

She gave me a canvas, brushes and paint to take with me home. The same night I sat down and was wondering what to paint. I couldn’t really think of anything I wanted to paint, but I remember feeling blue and sad that night. I tried to let the brush do the work, while I was thinking of what made me most happy at the time, which was my son. 

The end result was a portrait of me and my son in cartoon-style. I look vulnerable with big eyes, surrounded with a blue light. I am holding my son’s hand, which is surrounded with a yellow and orange light. I was very into Tim Burton movies and surrealism at the time, which I used as an influence. The painting became my first self-portrait. This was a breakthrough, and it sparked something in me that would be very important in time ahead.

I only painted self-portraits for many years. I painted both during depression and periods with extreme energy and no sleep. During my hypomania (I’m using the term – but at this point I still didn’t know I was bipolar) I could paint for several days in a row, with just a few hours of sleep. I often painted on 2-3 pieces at the same time, and I had a book full of ideas for other projects.  

During my depression, I had to focus all my energy on taking care of my son. The rest of the time I was fighting a constant battle against my mind. My head was working non-stop, and I never felt complete silence. 

Now that I had found painting, sitting down in my atelier was almost like meditation. It helped me to distract myself from dark thoughts, and transfer them over to the canvas instead. 

Painting became a very important tool for me, and a form of therapy. Through the characters I created, I channeled pain, anger and loneliness. But also happiness, love and hope. I felt a sense of belonging, and I found a way to express myself without talking. 

In 2013 I finally got diagnosed with Bipolar 2 and Borderline personality disorder. It explained many years of my life, and the fact that I had been misdiagnosed for 11 years was unbelievable to me. 

Looking at all the self-portraits now, it’s very clear what state of mind I was in when painting them. I often meet people that say I’m lucky to have such a gift, to “get it all out” through a paintbrush. That they wished they had a similar way to let feelings out, but they feel they lack skills to draw or paint. 

I always answer them to try creating a self-portrait. It doesn’t matter what material you use,  and it doesn’t even have to look like you. Don’t let the troll in your head tell you that you can’t be creative, try out different things instead and always have fun!

I truly believe that everyone has a creative-spirit in them, it’s just a matter of discovering what works for you! 


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