Thursday, December 11

The lights are on (but nobody’s home)

Seven artists’ explorations of their experiences of mental illness and the struggle for survival in an increasingly complex and mentally challenging world.

I was lucky enough to be invited as an artist alongside the temps, to take part in the Frames of Mind exhibition at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, curated by The Craftimation Factory as part of their year-long project in association with Recovery Partners. The project worked with adults with mental health issues creating stop-motion animations using hand-made sets and adorable knitted puppets as a means to exploring their experiences of mental illness.

© Amanda Jobson

Janey Moffat Laloë, who founded and runs the charity, invited seven artists including herself, with lived experience of mental illness, to create a life-sized animation set exploring their personal experiences of depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. As artists, we collaborated for two months in a warehouse space owned by Hastings Furniture Service in Bexhill, and came up with the idea of making a 1970s Day of the Dead-inspired set. We quickly found parallels in our ideas and themes of guilt, hope and redemption emerged in our work.

Janey’s piece, Feeling Wired, a life-sized puppet made of giant knitting, fairy lights and floral embellishments, depicts her experience of mania as part of her bipolar disorder. Initially conceived of as a playful puppet, the end result became a hauntingly disturbing figure depicting of the loss of control experienced by those in a state of mania or hypomania, characterised by racing thoughts, risky behaviour, excess energy and a decreased need for sleep.

© Xaverine Bates

My piece, Miss Mascha Havisham Cavendish, is a tribute to the multitude of women over the centuries, who have been vilified, incarcerated and executed due to mental illness and the myths surrounding it. Part auto-biographical, part historical, she represents the pain and hope I experience on a daily basis living with and learning to manage bipolar disorder. The black lace coat belonged to my great grandmother Mimi, and the bay leaves which make up the skirt represent bay’s many magical properties. 
Despire [1. to despise (Old French, Etymology: Latin dēspiciō) 2. to be aspiring and desiring 3. to desire and despise (urban slang)], my other piece, is a testament to the past eleven months of my life, from the nervous breakdown I experienced at the end of last year and my extensive contact with mental health services. The piece contains shredded blog-posts, written as a journalistic record of my journey, which were slashed and reddened to symbolise incidences of self-harm and suicidal ideations, sprinkled with drops of my own blood from one of these times. The white thread symbolises hope for recovery and acts as a shroud around my pain, while the gilt frame symbolises both guilt for the hurt I have caused and the glory of one day conquering and learning to manage the condition.

© Erin Marie Veness

Stuart Griffiths’ photographs, taken during his time serving as a young British paratrooper in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, show an image of a very ordinary reality in extraordinary circumstances. The young soldiers, some as young as 18 years old, were catapulted from normality into a hellish scenario with which many could not cope. Griffiths controversially depicted their lives off-duty, during which they indulged in illegal drugs and alcohol, as a natural means of dealing with mental trauma due to the events they witnessed in and around the streets of west Belfast in the 1980s. The photographs, drawings and letters written by Griffiths during this time, which are chronicled in his book Pigs’ Disco, were aired during his recent show at Sussex Coast College. He also included a playful drawing entitled The Black Dog of Depression, referencing Winston Churchill’s tender title for his chronic depression, now a commonly used term by those that suffer the condition.

© Erin Marie Veness

Amanda Jobson explored the now demolished Hellingly psychiatric hospital, built in 1898, which fell into disrepair after closure in 1994. Her photographs depict a haunting space populated by peeling wallpaper and abandoned hospital beds, hinting at the pain and despair of the patients who inhabited the space. Upon discovering that my great-aunt was admitted to Hellingly following a breakdown towards the end of her life, these photographs took on a particularly personal significance for me. Her smaller monochromatic photographs, Exeter Outer, including a ghostly winged figure, sit within silver frames and delicately question identity, reality and presence and/or absence of mind.

© Amanda Jobson
Susan Jean Lelliott wanted to explore her identity as a child, pathologised for her difference by her family, from a young age she was labelled as ‘mental’. The cage they made me is a poignantly delicate sculpture of a bird reflecting upon itself in a mirror within a vintage birdcage with a strewn joker playing card and sunflower seeds. By contrast, the paired piece, The cage I made myself, is an exuberant sculpture representing the strengths and limits of her adult self.  It is made of woven hydrangea flowers, vibrant yarns and a large wooden bird sits at the centre with a tiny bird headpiece bird fashioned out of wire and the artist’s hair.

© Stuart Griffiths
Rebecca Snotflower’s brains adorn one of the walls of the set. The first, an outline of a brain painted in garish neon pink, is contrasted with a meticulous monochrome drawing in her characteristically anarchic style of illustration which, on closer inspection, contains references to surveillance, Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, religion, censorship and sexual imagery.
Erin Marie Veness’ monoprints, reminiscent of the raw, immediate style of Tracey Emin, depict lonely figures with slogans such as ‘Keeping ghosts alive’ and ‘We used to be friends’, which are largely auto-biographical, exploring her own personal experience with mental illness and contact with mental health services.
We decided as a group to graffiti the back of the set using slogans typically used by the general public in describing those with mental health issues. Entitled The Lights are On [but nobody’s home], we scrawled mental, schizo, two sandwiches short of a picnic and other such derogatory terms frequently used in common parlance about those suffering from schizophrenia, psychosis, depression and mania in vibrant dayglow lettering. The panels reference such controversial depictions of mental illness as a Hallowe’en outfit, stocked by a large chain of supermarkets last year, of a ‘mental patient’ in a straitjacket, which was swiftly removed after a campaign led by mental health charities.

© Erin Marie Veness
As a group, collectively known as the temps, who formed earlier on this year and collaborated on a street art project on the theme of mental health and mental illness around the streets of St Leonards as part of Coastal Currents, we quickly bonded and supported each other in our treatment of our own personal experiences and enabled each other to portray our issues in a safe and secure environment. The temps intend to continue their work as a group and hope to exhibit in Hastings & St Leonards, London and New York in the New Year.

© Mike Laloë

An edited version of this article can soon be found on Hastings Independent

For more information, see:

Monday, November 17

I am 41 but feel 14

I recently rediscovered my portfolio of drawings & paintings from my Art A-level & was pleasantly surprised by its contents. Contrary to my internal dialogue of never being good enough & never living up to the perfectionist vision in my mind, as well as the strict, unerring adherence to observation, measuring & composition imposed by our wonderful teachers, these drawings show a critical eye and unflinching commitment to detail, with all its imperfections. I can remember the precise moment each work was made, where I was, how I felt drawing it, almost (but not quite) what I was wearing & the smells that surrounded me. It was indeed a journey into past memories and a history buried for many years under beliefs of myself as an utter failure, which are helping me to consolidate my identity as an artist and enmesh my present with my past. It seems I could draw after all...

© xmb 2014

Tuesday, November 11


mourning the lost years
the agitated angst
of trying, trying, trying
to find a place
some place
of self
believing me to be bad
when really
I was simply

Thursday, October 30


stamped ©xmb 2014

This Tuesday I was finally diagnosed by my psychiatrist as having Bipolar II Disorder. Or rather, he confirmed my self-diagnosis, thanks to my extensive research on the disorder, my descriptions of my erratic behaviour over the past few months, over my entire life, as well as a detailed document written by my husband detailing the impact all this has had both on him and our daughter.

So how does it feel to have finally been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder? Initially I was punching the air. For months I have fought to get the stamp, the confirmation that my behaviour is more than just me being deliberately difficult, that it was more than just recurrent depressive disorder coupled with anxiety and mere bipolar tendencies, as per my original diagnosis back in March this year. Then the reality set in. The realisation of the implications, for my life, my work, my driving license even, what I would have to or not have to disclose to employers, to friends, to family.

xmb aged six

My entire life I have been mercurial. Extreme rages and temper tantrums peppered my childhood. A perfectionist by nature, getting anything wrong would result in my flying into a wild rage. On making a mistake whilst practising the piano or cello aged 5 years and onwards, I would pummel the piano keys, thrash the score and hurl my cello bow across the room, screaming like a demon. To which my dad would yell at me to shut up, unsurprisingly. My moods would shift from elation to despair in a matter of minutes. I’d put intense effort into drawings for art exams, sobbing with despair when they amounted to nothing more than a perfect 1cm square of a shell, a plant, or whatever: when faced with the acres of pristine white paper, I panicked with the realisation that the paper would never be filled, that I had failed profoundly to live up to the beautiful ideal in my head. And these are just miniscule examples of my behaviour, which became wilder and more furious with age.

shrine, ©xmb 2014

Upon leaving school I went to pieces. An accomplished cellist destined to become a professional performer, I indulged my mercurial impulses to stop playing, to go travelling, to study Philosophy and Anthropology, to drink too much, smoke too much weed, put on three stone in weight, to enter into a seven-year abusive relationship. I yoyo-ed from one extreme to another – too fat, too thin, too drunk, too sober, too happy, too sad – always punctuated with the most intense self-loathing. Never good enough, never had been, never would be. Fluctuating from extreme self-hatred to arrogant self-love, depending on where I was on the spectrum, resulting in destructive behaviour at every turn. I was labelled as a moody cow, that’s just how she is, difficult, a pain in the arse…

I spent years looking for myself, reeling from the deepest darkest depressions to the conviction in moments of cyclical clarity, that I had found The Answer, that this project was the one I was destined for, that this was put on this earth to do, that this was who I was destined to be. But each time I saw others effortlessly walking the path they were destined for, expressing themselves with creativity, empathy, a profound understanding of life and the world with the utmost ease, I knew this was something I had never had and had no idea how to attain. After the safety, security and support of school, I flailed for twenty three years, swinging wildly from one personality costume to the next, to the befuddlement of my long-suffering and eternally supportive parents, sister, husband and friends. Were it not for them, I would surely have ended up on the streets, the wastage of my destructive, abusive self spilling out in pools around me.

shrine (detail), ©xmb 2014

So now I have a label. Although I have known in my heart of hearts for months that I have Bipolar disorder, it has taken the acknowledgement of a psychiatric professional for it to truly hit home. I still don’t quite believe it and won’t until I see the diagnosis written in black and white before me. I am in shock, in mourning for the years lost to self-destructive rage, wildly searching for a self that was right in front of me, within me, but whom I failed to recognise as I was looking for a discrete entity, not one of two halves. The bipolarity is me. The poles, the zero to the 100% on the scale are what I am, who I am, who I have always been. I just didn’t know. No-one knew. In the days when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, manic depression was a taboo subject. It wasn’t something that well-heeled, well-educated, middle class girls had. It wasn’t recognised, let alone discussed.

So that recognition, that validation is what is slowly seeping into my psyche, into my soul, into my history. It will take time, healing and forgiveness for the hatred I directed towards myself and others all those years, couched in ignorance as to my reality. I wasn’t bad, I was just unwell, a chemical imbalance in my brain causing me to veer drunkenly from one extreme to the next. Now I understand. I just have to learn to accept myself as someone of two extremes, not two separate personalities nor a person lacking an identity altogether. I will learn to mesh the extremities, with the help and support of my family, my counsellor, my doctor, my cocktail of medications. It will shape the rest of my life as it has shaped my history, but with positivity, creativity and love, and I will fight the inevitable relapses that are sure to hit as life steers its precarious course.

I am Xaverine, I have Bipolar disorder, and I am ok.

©xmb 2014

Saturday, October 11

the power of re:

One of the best things about mental illness, mental breakdowns, mental breakthroughs, mental experiences in general is the power of re:- re-examining, re-aligning, re-creating, re-living, re-purposing, although perhaps not re-peating if that is what got you into that state in the first place.

I am currently at a very raw place in my life. Having experienced all of the above, I am daily trying to re-place myself in the world. Having never really understood what my place is, this is kind of hard. I feel very lost. So I’ve been creating work that I feel reflects this feeling of disembodiment, of dislocation, of dismemberment. It’s similar to older work in that it’s autobiographical, that there’s an emphasis on process and repetition, but the difference is in its bloodied directness. 

I’ve never been in a place quite like this where I’ve been so flayed as to have no option other than to show my innards to the world. It’s not even unsettling to me as I’m so used to it. Perhaps it’s unsettling to others, I don’t know. I don’t actually care (all that much) what others make of it. It is work that simply has to be made as part of the cathartic act of healing. I feel so mired in lost-ness and unanchored-ness that it’s all I have right now that doesn’t jar, that doesn’t stir up seasickness and self-derision. So I will continue with it until it has finished with me, or finished me, whichever comes first...

triggered self (repeat)

Wednesday, October 8

states of mind - work in progress

[despire: 1. to despise (Old French, Etymology: Latin dēspiciō) 
2. to be aspiring and desiring 3. to desire and despise (urban slang)]

the falsity of facebook


headcase (detail)

triggered self

I'd give my eye teeth

I'd give my eye teeth (again)

I'd give my eye teeth (in passing)

día de los muertos

Monday, September 15

breakdown broken down

fluctuations of mood march-sept ©xmb 2014

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