Updated: Nov 3, 2020
I spoke to artist alabamathirteen (AKA Michelle) about her art and how it related to mental health. She currently has a piece in the Arts & Minds exhibition which was part of Love Arts Mini Festival 2020.
Click on the audio link below to hear our conversation or scroll down to read some edited highlights of what Michelle said.
The piece that I made is basically three black and white Polaroid images, including two self-portraits. The lower half of the work is a soundscape, a visualisation of a sound recording that I have translated into a cross stitch embroidery piece.
The piece is exploring my experiences during lockdown. It’s called The Shielder. I was one of those ‘lucky’ people who had to shield and the piece is exploring isolation. And loneliness of having to spend so much time literally just in one room. Not being able to go within 2 metres of your own family.
I have to be quite careful because I have a medically suppressed immune system. This is even when there is not a pandemic going on. I’d just got to a point with my art where I was starting to be able to find places where I could go outside and start exploring making sound recordings, taking images to go alongside. Then all of a sudden it was like, no, you literally cannot leave these four walls. It was quite annoying. I felt frustrated, I felt a bit lost in how I could continue to do that work. How can I take photos if I’m just in one place. I felt like what was the point of it! I felt very uncreative.
So, myself and a friend started doing a photography challenge. Using prompts, we would find ways to make photos. I was confined to using my phone to take photos – I’m not massively keen on digital photos. But I found a device that allowed me to print photos from my phone on to Polaroid film, which has been an absolute gamechanger for me.
The actual piece is exploring one evening where I was feeling particularly frustrated. One of the images is a self-portrait of me looking out of the window. There’s a lot there about the outside world, feeling like you’re contained while the world goes on outside your window. The sound recording was actually taken while I was taking that self-portrait. It was a way of dealing with the emotions of being put into that situation.
This is the first piece where I’ve incorporated sound recordings into the artwork. I record the ambient sounds of a place, that background noise. The traffic, the trees moving. I use an audio programme and there’s a button that create a visualisation of the sound waves. I noticed that they look quite pixelated and that’s very much like cross stitch. That relationship between something very traditional like cross stich and something very digital. It’s just a strange process of using a computer and then sitting stitching.
For me the tactile nature of stuff is very important. I’m much more interested in analogue and experimental photography. I use old photos a lot in my work. I come from a background of ‘making’ rather than ‘art’. I like to have something to hold in my hand. There’s so much for me around embroidery. A very feminist history. Women embroidered at home and it wasn’t a ‘public’ thing like fine art was. Part of the reason I like embroidery is that it’s literally and metaphorically adding layers on to things. There’s a lot in my work around false memories too. People have a concept as photography as a truth; I feel that photography is more about capturing a moment, without necessarily capturing the context. There are layers and layers!
Art is a way to help me deal with mental health issues. There’s something about embroidery in particular that I find very meditative. You’re so focussed on these stitches. It’s a way of closing my brain down to everything else. It helps me with anxiety, it’ll really calm me down. Because of my physical health problem, I often end up stuck in bed. And there’s only so much you can watch on tv, books you can read. One of the big things for me to fill those blocks of time (so I wouldn’t overthink and start to get anxious) was to just sit and stitch.
I don’t come from a formal art background. I often feel like a bit of an imposter making art as someone who hasn’t had an arts education. That can impact on confidence in creating work. I never considered myself to be an artist, but the more I’ve explored these things, the more I’m like, “No, I can make art as well.” And now it’s something I can’t imagine not doing. When I can’t make art that’s when I tend to be the most anxious – and my OCD will flare up. It’s been a great way to be able to explore and process what’s going on in my head.
I’m interested in whose voices get heard in art. Whose stories are being told? How accessible are those stories to other people? Who gets to take up the space? My work’s becoming more personal – about how I navigate those places and spaces as a disabled woman. If we can just be more challenging of the traditional narratives that would be fantastic. If you haven’t had a traditional arts education it can be hard to find people and move forward. A lot of the advice would be “just get out there” and I literally cannot get out there! But I’ve managed to find some great support organisations like Arts & Minds and Outside In – that really helps.
Let’s listen to people, amplify the voices of people, don’t talk over them. If you want to share those voices and change those traditional narratives, let the people who are telling those stories, tell their stories. Find organisations that raise you up and help you have your voice heard.