Life and art, part one: Talking with Mic Eales

For the next three posts we’ll be hearing from Australia, where a collection of artists with lived experience came together last year for a groundbreaking exhibition on suicide. “Inspired Lives” was hosted by the Dax Centre, one of the world’s top art galleries related to mental health. Officials there took some convincing, but the exhibition became the first that had not come from the Dax’s own collection. (You can see the brochure here, at the final link.)

For that, the artists thank Dax development director and exhibition co-curator Amy Middleton, who pushed for the project. “Many of my assumptions and understanding of the phenomenon have changed,” she says. “I no longer associate suicide with depression or mental illness. I consider suicide to be a human condition _ a complex phenomenon that affects everyone, in different ways and to varying depths.” The media, she adds, was quite supportive in promoting the exhibition, “which was a welcome surprise.”

We speak first with artist Mic Eales, who talks about his reaction to losing his brother to suicide, why he makes an effort to make his works on suicide life-affirming and what his wife thinks of it all.

Who are you?

I’m old. I just turned 60. Who am I? I don’t know. I guess, you know, first and foremost, an artist. A sculptor, an installation artist, a printmaker, a ceramist. And I guess I’ve been working in making artwork about suicide since my brother took his own life in 2002 and just wanted to try and understand my own sense of suicidality. I became suicidal after Bryan died. So that’s how my artworks came into being, just trying to understand that. I’ve had lots of different jobs. I’ve been a potter, many years ago, and an adventure-based therapist. I worked in the States in drug and alcohol rehab in Montana, taking the lads into the wilderness for 21 days at a time. They got to the third step of the AA program, then we took them into the wilderness so they could do the fourth step. Then they’d go back to the ranch and do family counseling, then go to halfway houses. But I’d been working with street kids, the long-term unemployed, drug addicts, offenders for 12 to 15 years. Eventually, I just burned out.

One day, my doctor said to me, “Why not go to art school? It’s what you love!” We used to have long, intense conversations about art because he was a frustrated artist himself. So that’s what I did. I loved sculpture. My daughter was doing her honors in printmaking. The first day of university, she took me by the hand, went with me to classes. At the end of the week, she told me, “OK, Dad, you’re on your own now.” We’d meet for coffee, discuss art-type stuff. But I love sculpture. So that’s what got me into doing installation pieces, I guess. They are very abstract works, very conceptual, using lots of different materials (media). Though I do love bronze. I have a real passion for bronze. I don’t have a great deal of call for it. A lot of my pieces are created by using whatever materials will tell a particular story. I have two kids, two grandchildren, my wife and I have been married 39 years, and we live on a farm.

What should I ask next? About the exhibition? Or about your brother and how you got into this?

It doesn’t bother me anymore, talking about it. He took his own on May 18, 2002, but his partner didn’t tell me until the end of September of that year. For what reason, I have no idea, but when I received that phone call, as soon as I heard her voice, I knew he was dead. And as soon as she said he’d taken his own life, my immediate reaction was, “The bastard! He succeeded, and I failed.” When I was a teen, I twice tried, when I was 15 and 18, I think, and I’d suffered from suicidal ideation most of my life. I’d been through a couple more suicidal crises. And once I’d sort of gotten over it (the phone call), my wife’s reaction was, “Why did Margaret take four months to inform us of his death?” There was a six-year difference between us as well. I’d always looked up to him. I always thought he’d been the shining light in the family. All my teachers said, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” So all kinds of issues were going on.

And then, probably not until the next year, I started to spiral into a big black hole. I started making plans to take my own life. Then suddenly, we got a call out of the blue that our daughter was quite ill and suicidal herself. We brought her home, and her depression was so bad that she had to be carried at times, she couldn’t physically walk. So for the next few months, my wife and I nursed her back to health, and my plans were put on hold. Finally she was better, and we got her back to her sister in Melbourne. I started making plans again. For some reason, I rang a friend whose husband had taken his own life. I started talking, telling her what my plans were. She said, “Go ahead, I’m jealous.” For her, the death of her husband had taken away her opportunity (to take her own life). She saw the difficulty in their children in dealing with their father’s death, and she was jealous that I had that possibility of taking my own life. It was a strange reaction, but it made me think about her daughter and my daughter. Several years prior, this particular woman contacted me and said her daughter was really struggling with her father’s death and was blaming herself. I didn’t think much about it, although I was concerned for her. Then about three days later, I was sleeping and woke bolt upright. A voice said I have to write to this girl from her father’s perspective. I went downstairs and wrote to her. I sent it to her mother and said, “I don’t care what you do with it, give it to your daughter or not, do what you think.”  So she did, she gave it to her daughter. She read it, and it had a huge impact on her. She and I ended up going bushwalking a couple times. We had a good relationship. She’s now happily married with a bunch of kids. But I lost touch with that after Brian’s death. And it was this girl’s mother saying “Go ahead” that backed those feelings of, “OK, how’s my daughter going to react? My wife? My other daughter? What sort of impact will it have on their lives?”

When I reached out to help, seeing a counselor and psychologist, I found that what was happening was, I would avoid answering questions. As I said, I was an adventure-based therapist for a number of years, and the boys showed me how to avoid questions. So on my way home I’d think, “Why did I avoid that question?” I’d go through this process each day, putting those questions into my artwork. So I’d deal with my own issues through art. And that’s what I’ve been doing. And I started making artwork called “Rope tears then stone.” It was a big slab of black granite, and on that I created the Indian rope trick, made a bronze rope, curled it around on the base of this slab, and it went up about 4.2 meters. At the time, I thought it was about Bryan’s suicide and his escape from reality. And it wasn’t until a few years later that I realized that it was more about me and my desire to escape. I started working on another piece which at the time was more about me, a piece called “In the Blue Corner,” in which I created another piece of bronze rope, attached real rope to the ends and suspended it so it was like a tightrope for someone to cross. I pivoted a piece of stainless steel across it with a pair of boxing gloves. It was about my ongoing fight with depression and suicidality. I also did another piece called “DNA Spiral,” again, two pieces of cast bronze rope with sandstone, which stood on a blank canvas with a big industrial light projecting down from above. My mother was depressive, and it just seemed there must be some sort of family history of depression. Having nursed our daughter back to health, and with Bryan, and my own history. Something was going on within the family.

That’s how it started. And after that, I started wanting to do more. I was not looking so much at my own life but at how it affected the wider community. Again, using rope, two inches in diameter, I looked at statistics that for every person who takes their own life, at least another 30 people are attempting. “Forgotten field, 30 to 1 against” was created to draw attention to that statistic. After that, more and more artworks were created.

Do you say it that obviously, what each artwork means?

Yes and no. I think my artist’s statement read, “In May 18, 2002, my brother made the decision to take his own life, then I fought my own demons in my own.” That was it. A couple of people actually ran out of the room where “In the Blue Corner” was exhibited. One woman, her daughter had taken her own life. So they were quite powerful works. There wasn’t, like, a warning on the outside on the entrance. For the “Inspired Lives” exhibit, the Dax Centre had a warning on the outside saying the works were about suicide.

Before the exhibition, were you the only person you know who did artwork about suicide?

The only other person I know of was Seamus McGuinness in Ireland, working with a psychiatrist and looking at the bereaved. He did a couple of artworks looking at the increase in suicide among young males, but not from the lived experience perspective. Since then, I’ve heard of a number of artists who’ve explored the issue, who made maybe one artwork from their own perspective. I’m the only one I know of who just makes artwork about suicide, again from lived experience. And Jessica had done her own piece, I think “Suicide Silence, Suicide Spirits,” where she had projected images and text of the sorts of things that were going through her mind during her suicidal crisis onto her. She more or less was in the fetal position with these images and text projected onto her and a screen. It was pretty powerful, emotional work, incredibly so.

One thing I made a very conscious decision to do right from the beginning was, there needed to be a positive aspect to any of the artworks that I did. If I focused on just the negative aspects, the spiraling pain that being in suicidal crisis is, I wouldn’t have survived. It just would have made the spiral go quicker. So there had to be some sort of life-affirming quality to artworks, so it had to be a bit playful in a way. A few years ago, I looked at what is the opposite of suicide. After months of digesting that question, I came up with childhood innocence. That’s the opposite for me, not necessarily for anyone else. That’s the only time in my own life when I felt free of that pain. I’ve been happy in the meantime, but there have been times when that psychache overpowers. So my own daughters are artists, and they incorporate a real naivete in their work, real playfulness. I’ve tried to incorporate that within my own work. Again, some childhood aspect gets incorporated into each work.

What does your wife think?

We’ve had some interesting discussions! It bothers her at times. If I go into a space, which lately, I’m feeling exhausted at the moment, I become burnt-out.  Last year I had spinal surgery, plus months of recovery, and I had to finish the exhibition and get it down to Melbourne. So there’s a huge emotional cost. So now, I’m just working through my PhD, and I’m so incredibly tired. So my wife can pick up on those moods and wonder what she’s going to come home to, if I’m going to be here or if I’ve taken my own life or something. I try to reassure her that won’t happen, but underlying that is always that possibility. But we’ve had some frank and open discussions within the family, about suicide. And they’re quite happy in talking about those issues, and those issues their papa deals with, and they are incredibly supportive.

That seems rare. Do you know other families that talk that way?

I have, actually. I was at a forum recently, and talked about how my family discusses it. One woman came back and said her teenage children have had friends at school who have taken their own lives, and that has instigated a round of dinner table discussions that are quite open and frank. I think it’s a rare event, but it’s lovely to hear other people could go there. We are a fairly unique sort of family, and I guess most husbands and fathers don’t work on the issue of suicide day in and day out.

What have been some of the reactions to your work?

After I questioned the opposite of suicide, I decided to start my honours at Uni. I had a good idea of what the artwork was that I wanted to make. I ended up creating “too few ladders.”  I had already been in contact with a couple of suicidologists. I told them what I was doing, and they dismissed me out of hand. They loved the artwork, really good for the cover of a conference paper, something like that but very dismissive.

I just Googled “suicide,” “spirituality,” and Erminia’s name came up. I read her bio and thought, “I’ll write to her.” Within the first few e-mails, she had invited me to Italy to exhibit “too few ladders” the following year, because it was her passion as well. And it was from that association with Erminia that, once I had started my PhD, she invited me down to Melbourne to do workshops, and that’s where Jessica came to a seminar and then e-mailed me and told me a bit about her story. We got together and decided we would like to collaborate. And it just snowballed from there. That’s where the idea of the book came about, and the “Inspired Lives” project came into being. And then we got to find out about Amy. Jessica had put an ad in the paper, and Amy came on board. Yeah, it just snowballed. But there was lots of knocking on doors, applying for grants. We were just getting rejected the entire time until Dax said, “OK.” That was due, I am sure, to Amy really pushing from the inside to have the exhibition recognized, the issue recognized. Even though they deal with mental health issues, suicide is not on the priority list.

They deal with mental health issues?

It’s a mental health gallery, one of the top three in the world that deal with the particular issue. It has its own collection of about 15,000 artworks, I suppose. It’s huge. mainly paintings. But Cunningham Dax, who started the collection, worked in psych hospitals, came out from England and started doing art therapy with patients and collecting artworks as time went on. And making judgements, diagnosing people’s illnesses from those particular artworks. Now, you’d never do that today, but that’s how it started. I’m really glad that we were at the Dax, because it gave us some credibility. It was the first exhibition they had had outside their own collection, so we really were outsiders.

Was their hesitation because your work was outside the collection, or because it dealt with suicide?

Amy is better to answer that, but I think the issue of suicide was too difficult to handle, so we had to jump a lot of hoops right up front. I more or less had to explain what our artworks were about, what they would look like, so they could see it from my perspective, that I wasn’t focusing on on that darker, more negative aspect of suicide. That you could talk about suicide in art in a way that was meaningful. So yeah, I think they were just hesitant and didn’t know what the works were going to look like. It was a big leap of faith for them. Also, it’s an education gallery, so they had school groups going through and education staff talking about mental health issues. And again, it’s OK to talk about mental health issues, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty of suicide, it’s a whole new ball game. So it took a bit of convincing. As I understand it, we’ve broken huge new ground for the Dax Centre. Some of the work proposed for the future is even grittier than ours. That’s what Amy tells me.

What did you hear from people at the exhibition?

The overall comment was inecrdibly positive. It was like being part of an exhibition a couple of years prior when a group in Melbourne organized some community artists to work with the bereaved. They made artworks for this exhibition. Tony Gee (from the Life Is… Foundation) and I had met in Uruguay at a suicide prevention conference and had became good friends. He knew I was an artist and knew I was also bereaved, so he asked me to be part of the “Pieces” exhibition. I created “Paper Shadows,” which consists of two big sheets of suspended handmade paper. The response from the exhibition was absolutely amazing, no standing room in the gallery. Many had been bereaved or were attempt survivors, and the “Inspired Lives” exhibition was exactly the same. Maybe not quite as many people. I suppose there were about a hundred-odd people at the opening, then a fivefold increase in visitors, excluding the people who came for the education component or the art therapists who go there to study or the doctors and psychologists who go there.

I thought it was absolutely amazing, brilliant. We had 60 to 70 people at the forum. When Erminia and I had the workshop, we had 18 people in each one. We couldn’t have handled any more, but had two back to back. There was so much interest. It was made up of therapists, psychologists, people who had suffered from suicidal ideation. There was one guy who inspired the musical notes piece (“Be a right good pal”), he had tried to take his own life a month prior or two prior. There were people who worked with youth groups, in detention centers, a real variety, really very positive. We ended up making these Columbus cubes, we just got people to create their biography on six A4 sheets of paper and put those together. We could put things inside of them. So yeah, there was some pretty special, wonderful feedback. Out of that, I was invited to speak at a number of conferences.

In Australia?

All over. I’ve spoken a couple times at postvention conferences here in Australia and another one on narrative inquiry, original voice narratives. Then two IASP conferences in Uruguay and Beijing. Then Erminia invited me to the World Association of Cultural Psychiatry in Italy, where the Brussels version of “too few ladders” was exhibited, and then my video went to the conference in London last year. So yeah, the word’s been getting out. Again, it’s taken a lot of hard work, a lot of money. I don’t know where it comes from.

And how about coming to the U.S.?

It would be absolutely fantastic. I’ve thought about trying to get there and doing something with “too few ladders.” It’d probably be easier to transfer than half a ton of lead. I love the States. I spent time in Utah, Wyoming, Montana. I just love that part of the world.

How to make the public at large more comfortable with discussing the topic of suicide?

Slowly and sensitively. It’s not something you can rush. There was one artwork that was meant to go into the “Inspired Lives” exhibition, and I really wanted it to go in. It was a ladder with about 20 meters of 2-inch-diameter red rope that had come out of a Narnia movie. And it had black cord running around the rope and meeting in the middle and then that black cord would then form the word “yarning.” And that’s a term here, where you sit down and you yarn, or talk. And I wanted to talk about the conversations people have and can have about the issue of suicide. So this rope would weave its way through the suspended ladder, around the room and just be suspended there. But the education people within the Dax Centre opposed it because it contained rope. And also, I was going to take the Indian rope piece “Rope tears then stone” for outside the gallery, but they didn’t want that either because it represented rope. And because so many schoolchildren were going through, they felt uncomfortable with that, that they might get the idea to hang themselves. Hanging in Australia is the most prevalent way of taking one’s own life.

My initial reaction was one of, well, not anger, but I was pretty upset. But I had to look at it from their perspective. They hadn’t seen it, and we hadn’t talked about it a great deal. The piece was evolving as the exhibition was going along. So I thought, “OK, we have to move slowly. It’s really important these people feel comfortable with the artworks we’ve got and can explain them.” We compromised. Now I’ve said to the Dax that if the gallery does decide to tour the exhibition to regional galleries, one stipulation is that “Yarnings” goes in. They’re OK with that because they don’t have that education component in the exhibitions that go to regional centers.

Any of that sort of work, one has to respect people’s feelings and thoughts about suicide. It’s a really sensitive issue. People have been affected in ways that, well, in lots of different ways. And I don’t know how they’ll react. As I said, one women ran out, in fact, two women when they saw my exhibition in 2003. It’s a very raw subject for some people. A comment at the Dax Centre was a woman saying she was still dealing with the effects of the suicide 27 years after the death of her brother. She was still not able to describe how the artworks had effected her, but they had, positively. It’s a really difficult issue. Now Suicide Prevention Australia has invited me to be a member of its lived experience committee, and the first meeting was a few weeks ago. It’s a group of people who survived suicide attempts and those who have been bereaved by suicide. We’re advising them on policy. It’s a very emotive issue, even in that room. Some people have a variety of experiences with suicide.

How do you feel?

(So I tell him, and I end by saying I’ve never really been reproached for my work or for bringing up the subject.)

It’s not even a reproach, but there was one artwork I did with Baden Offord, “The end of statistics,” about statistics, and it has a trolley, a timber trolley with steel wheels, and it moved backward and forwards. I know it as a timber jinker. You put logs on it and roll it into the saw that cuts timber up. But I met a woman who was a third-generation Holocaust survivor, and she said it reminded her of the Holocaust. I’d never made that connection in any way, shape or form. It was interesting to hear.

Was she angry?

She wasn’t angry, she just made the observation. It was a cultural aspect of what I was doing that I hadn’t considered. It was an interesting observation.

The other thing I should point out, the other reason I really got into art was, I couldn’t write anymore. I used to be a big journal writer, every day. Until I worked at the jail. I worked in corrections for about three years, and one of my jobs in running this program was, I had to read inmates’ mail, incoming and outgoing. And I had to search their lockers and rooms periodically. I found that such an invasion of privacy. Maybe some people would say I’m too sensitive. I can’t even watch a documentary with animals in it. But I thought, “What if someone reads my journals? There’s nothing particular or offensive in them, but they’re my journals and my thoughts.” It was through making art that I found that I could express myself. It was a huge thing for me at that particular time.

You mentioned earlier becoming burnt out in that earlier work. Do you worry about being burnt out with what you’re doing now?

I just think that I need a rest. Once my PhD is finished, I promised myself that I’m going to go bushwalking. I love it. I loved teaching other people bushwalking and rock-climbing skills. Tthe Larapinta trail takes about 12 to 15 days to complete, or longer if you stretch it out, and that’s what I want to do at the end of the PhD. I need to do something completely away from just focusing on the issue of suicide and have another life, if you like, outside of that. It’s been almost 24 hours a day in my life, and you get tired and burnt out.

It sounds like you have a bird or a monkey in the background there.

Lots of birds. I should send you the video I made. In the background, there’s a rooster who crows every now and again, and the number of voiceovers that I had to redo or delete, but somehow, Roger the rooster still got in there. But no, I said we have 12 acres, so there’s lots and lots of bird life here.

Who else should I talk with?

I haven’t met anyone. I mean, conferences are incredibly boring! It’s the conversations outside the sessions that are the most enriching. I guess one reason I started doing my PhD is, I want a seat at the table. No one takes an artist for real. I don’t have much credence among suicidologists. I’m a bit of a joke. but if I have a PhD, I hope that will be taken a bit more seriously, I’ll have something to offer. I certainly do have a bit of a fan group, and they’re incredibly supportive, but they’re academics or running programs based on helping people bereaved by suicide. But there’s a lot of support in looking at suicide from different perspectives, examining it in a way people feel more comfortable with and giving them a sense of, maybe not of peace, but of … Yeah, just a different way of talking about it, from lots of different perspectives. I’d like to work with other artists, I mean the full spectrum, dancers, musicians, people in drama, visual artists, whatever, who have attempted to take their own lives and would like to create to express what the experience was like and how they moved on to live an inspired life, a meaningful life.

Baden’s a writer and academic, but his history of suicide, the number that have occurred in his family through the generations, is absolutely horrific. After his brother’s death a few years back, he approached me to talk about my artworks. Eventually we decided to collaborate. We’d sit down and have coffee and talk about suicide. And he and I would just talk. And it was incredibly healing for both of us, and a wonderful experience. I count him as a really close friend now. I really treasure those moments. I’d like to do that with other people. I’m working on a project at the moment about loneliness and its association with suicide and how we might look at that sense of loneliness and how to develop that into hope. I’m not sure how we’re going to do it. But that’s one aspect. One of my artworks was an umbrella and cast lotus pods. That was about suicide amongst women in rural China. I did a piece on suicide among women in Afghanistan. I’d really like to explore more at some stage with other people in addressing the issue, draw attention to sociocultural aspects of suicide that people may not have thought of.

And break away from the medical model, to show there’s so much more to it than having this or that.

Yeah. My niece is suicidal at present. Her mom’s had to hide the knives, all that sort of stuff. The issues are around us, all the time. But suicide prevention is a whole community problem, an all-of-the-community solution. We need to learn how to talk about the issue in ways that can help and support one another. Of putting our hands up and saying, “Hey, I need help.” That’s my fervent hope, that we can change the issues and get past this medical, mental illness persona. When you talk about mental illness, a shadow goes up. I don’t know about there in America. But you become a basket case. We need to move away from that. Mental illness is one great big label. We don’t do that with cancer or other diseases. There’s enough stigma with that.

And we have to change the perception. And if artworks can do that, that’s great. There’s an organization in Australia, Roses in the Ocean, and in that week around the suicide prevention day, they’re planning a number of events where they throw roses into some kind of watercourse, the ocean, a dam, a river, as some way of drawing attention to the issue. She’s on our lived experience committee. She’s trying to do that as a sort of worldwide symbol.

This is what I do. This is my calling. This is where my passion is. Life changes. That’s the one constant in life. Life changes. It might get worse, it might get better, but it never stays the same. That’s why I’m so open. Somebody’s got to talk about the damn issue.

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