Life and art, part three: Talking with Konii Burns

The exhibition was so unexpected that artist Konii Burns came to the gallery three times during its three-month run, sat alone in the space and cried. “Not so much of sadness, but of relief that this topic was being spoken about so beautifully and honestly,” she says.

This is the last of three interviews about “Inspired Lives,” the reactions to the groundbreaking Australian exhibition and the desire to take the message of suicide attempt survivors and suicidal thinking into mainstream life. (You can see the exhibition brochure here, at the final link.) The conversations with artist Mic Eales and psychologist Erminia Colucci were posted just before this one.

Konii speaks here about how her art and her young daughter help keep her open to the world. Being shy, she preferred to be interviewed vie e-mail. She was thrilled to see the encouraging response to the exhibition, including the media response, since the subject of suicide is so often quickly judged. “I found the work of all the artists involved deeply profound and at the same time uplifting, as they are all still here to tell their tales,” she says.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

I am Konii C. Burns, a 39-year-old sole parent, a contemporary visual artist and trained yoga teacher, although I do not teach at present. I have suffered clinical depression, anxiety and eating disorders for 25 years. I am Australian, located in a small town an hour out of Melbourne, Victoria.

How did you come to be participating in an exhibition related to surviving suicide attempts and suicidal thinking? What is your personal experience?

Organizers of the exhibition “Inspired Lives” put out a call three years ago for art to be submitted that had a relationship with suicide and suicide survival and bereavement. I have been a practicing artist for 20 years. When I saw this call, I knew I had to be involved. I submitted my 20-meter charcoal drawing entitled “Atrabilious: Depression of the Spirit” and, thankfully, it was accepted as part of the exhibition.

How did your experience become a part of your art even before this exhibition came about? And why did you want to explore it in this way?

“Atrabilious: Depression of the Spirit” was produced at a time in my life when a particular round of depression hit differently than other episodes I had experienced. I weighed less than 30 kilograms and was suffering extreme depression and anorexia, with several overdosing suicide attempts, and I had to leave a violent relationship with a
man who suffered bipolar disorder. It was a deadly relationship. One day, after a night of
abuse, I lay down and knew I was going to die. This time, I was starving myself to death. To me, it seemed more understandable from another’s perspective, especially my daughter. Easier to understand that mum got sick and had a heart attack than find me dead through violent ways.

The very next morning I took my child and ran away. I guess that’s how you would explain it. I left everything I owned, packed very quickly, as much of my girl’s belongings
as I could, as not to be caught by the man, and I landed on the doorstep of my parents’ place in rural New South Wales. My parents provided a large amount of child care and support, although they were at a loss to understand. They still loved me and provided my daughter enough cushioning from my reality that now, so many years later, my daughter barely remembers this time. Except for the pony at her 5th birthday party.

There was an endless round of doctors’ visits, weigh-ins, psychiatrists and dietician visits to my home, as I refused to go to a psych ward. I had tried six different antidepressants over the prior 14 years and none of them worked, including eight years on Prozac. I found they numbed my mind, and for an artist, that caused me more depression and is debilitating. I do not advocate antidepressants at all, so I gave this traditional, poor, Western vision of health care away. Much to the dismay and concern of my father, who is of the era that what the doctor says is right. I challenge that furiously. I found
them all too intrusive, expectant and infuriating. These services were apparently meant to heal me, yet all they did was make me more conscious of myself and my demons. I became worse within their care. So I did not attend any more appointments.

I began this drawing as one initial piece. I had no intention of it being so big. I completed one piece and felt an obligation to myself, to my environment, to keep going with the drawings. It was initiated by the dead and dying trees along a mammoth river here, the Murray River. At the time, Australia was also in severe drought. Ten years into it, and this country of mine seemed to be dying around me. The trees along the river were fallen and dry, and the farmers of this rural sector were suiciding at alarming rates. Over a 12-month period, I would take large panels of paper and lay them over the fallen trees, each chosen for their textures and hidden stories, I would wet the paper and use a very dense
charcoal and begin to make chaotic, spasmodic rubbings of the tree’s texture. I could hear the tree’s struggle for survival. I felt I was telling its story through the rubbings, which in return helped to tell my own tale of survival. Doing this work helped me survive, gave me a purpose to my being when all else, including being a parent, had failed to give me any self-worth. This work got me out of bed and, more importantly, helped to keep me breathing and alive.

Due to its size and overwhelming nature, I see it differently each time, and it evokes different emotions with each different installation. There are faces, skeletal forms, landscapes, mindscapes. The visuals are endless depending on lighting,
installation and where my mind is at in that particular moment.

What was it like working with other artists who have explored this topic openly? Is suicide usually an easy topic to discuss in the art world?

To exhibit with the Dax Centre and the other artists was a fantastic experience. I had not known there was a gallery specifically related to mental health issues, and as a suicide survivor it’s not something I generally talk about, due to the judgements and taboo and the fear I may lose my daughter. However, this environment created a kind of normality about the subject. It is deeply raw, truthful emotion that some people survive, and, unfortunately or fortunately, some succeed in their departure from the pain of their lives. I found the work of all the artists involved deeply profound and at the same time uplifting, as they are all still here to tell their tales.

All my art, not only this piece, is emotionally based on how the depression and mental illness creates havoc within my realm. Outside of this gallery, I find the word “suicide” can be a deterrent for gaining exhibition places, yet I then think if it’s too confronting for that particular gallery, there will be another that will embrace it.

I do not make any money from my art. The “Inspired Lives” exhibition was all volunteered, and with my other own exhibitions there is rarely monetary gain. Art is my nemesis and my saviour.

What surprised you about the process of putting the exhibition together and carrying it out? What did you learn about the way people respond to the subject of suicide?

I can’t say anything surprised me, as I have exhibited this work for this topic four times prior. I was also pretty removed from the exhibition once it was installed, which I do personally. I suffer anxiety and cannot speak at openings, nor do artist talks. I was pleased at the opportunity for university students to study the work, and I was very grateful to Mic Eales and the staff of the Dax Centre, who presented the artist talks for the exhibition. I have to remove myself from the work once it’s up, otherwise it can drag me through a huge emotional roller coaster. And being a depression sufferer, I am always on the
cusp of balance and decline.

What did you think of the public’s reaction to the exhibit? What comments stood out for you, and why?

I have been really happy with the exposure the topic and my work received. I was lucky enough to have peers in my local region recognize my work and identify it with mental illness awareness. I was included on the ABC website with a video of my work, and also many local newspaper interviews. I have also had some fantastic, heart-opening conversations with people who have opened up to me through social media and to me personally, where they haven’t spoken to anyone about their own struggle with suicidal thoughts and perhaps actions. For me, having one person not suicide and find
strength in my work to empower them to live is the best outcome I could hope for. Monetary gain, industry recognition, it is all secondary to the value in affecting another’s personal struggle.

What about the works by the other artists? Which ones affected you most strongly, and why?

The paper scroll that Mic Eales installed really rang out for me. The paper was made from the pulp of a futon mattress that his deceased brother owned. It was an incredibly delicate piece, huge in installation and, I imagine, a very emotional process to go through for Mic, as a bereaved brother, to make. I envisage a mountain of tears is entwined in the work. I visited the exhibition three times in the three months it was up. I sat alone in the space and cried each time. Not so much of sadness, but of relief that this topic was being spoken about so beautifully and honestly. Mic’s video work also stood out for me. I watched that three times. His advocacy work and study of this subject is very admirable. His art
is incredibly heartfelt and beautiful. I feel very privileged to be exhibiting alongside Mic’s work. Part of me doesn’t feel worthy. That’s the depression speaking.

What happens now? How do you build on the conversation that the exhibition might have started?

For me, now, this exhibition is over, and my work, “Atrabilious,” is packed away under the bed awaiting the next exhibition. There have been suggestions of touring this exhibition nationally, yet I have nothing confirmed. I will continue bringing awareness to mental health through exhibition of my other works.

Is it somehow easier to be open about your personal experience as an artist? What do you think is needed to help the average person talk more comfortably about their experience, whether publicly or with the people they know?

It is easier for me to express myself visually as opposed to verbally. Words escape me often. Emotions run so high within me that conversations about this subject usually turn to incoherent blubbering and tears. To convey emotions through a 2-D art format is the easiest way for me to communicate.

I think what is needed for people to speak of their experiences is not so much organisations or medical help, it’s having someone just to listen to you, to have someone you can cry wholeheartedly with, someone who just lets you experience the emotions and thoughts, without judgement, consequences or expectations. Whether that’s a friend, a counselor, a kind stranger on a help line. Society can be so very harsh and selfish. There also needs to be understanding on our side. The sufferers’ side, that there is no magic pill, no one can make you better, there needs to be a whole lot of self-initiated work, and that takes strength and belief in yourself. That in itself is the biggest hurdle for so many of us, for the base of our ill is our self-worth.

If you could change anything about the existing messaging about suicide prevention and mental health, how would you change it? What would you say or do instead?

Sometimes I feel the mainstream society doesn’t take it seriously enough. There is still a stigma of suicide, that “These people are weak and wanting attention.” This is just not the case. It’s sadly a case of “The illness cannot be seen, so therefore it doesn’t exist.” It does exist and is a silent killer. People need kindness and understanding, not stigma and alienation from family and friends. I have lost so many friends due to my depressive episodes. Family relationships become strained by these episodes, relationships are almost impossible to maintain and holding employment is a constant battleground. Depression and mental illness is so very isolating in so many ways, suicide
can sometimes feel as if it’s your only friend. Society is very quick to place judgement. It can make seeking help an embarrassing experience.

How are you doing? Is this something that seems to be firmly in your past, or do you think it will always be with you?

Right now, I am doing well. It has taken me six years to regain my health, including accepting the weight gain and self-image that comes with that. I am medication free. I continue to study yoga texts and practice yoga every day, as well as exercise regularly. I eat a predominately raw vegan diet and have stopped all caffeine, alcohol and stimulants. This is not to say I am cured. There are still days that I am debilitated by sadness, contemplate suicide and feel worthless. These days hit me physically. They are painful, and I can barely walk. The only way I know I will not hurt myself and survive is
to sleep. I have times where bed and darkness is the only safe place for me . I try not to fight it anymore and have faith that it will pass.

When it really is too dark, I have one friend that I know I can call at any time, who has lived with me through severe episodes, and his support, direction of thoughts and just the kindness in his voice has provided me with the strength to get up. Get up physically and mentally. I am so very grateful to him. As I have mentioned, friendships and relationships are very hard to maintain. Right now, I have very little friends, but that’s OK. I have my daughter, who is my best friend. She has seen far more than an 11-year-old should, although this has made her a very understanding, kind and considerate
person. She is amazing, and her pure being in many ways has also saved my life.

Depression is part of my makeup, a part of my art and a part of my life experience. Accepting it and not letting the demons win will always be a day-to-day fight, although I am pleased that now I feel far more in control than I ever have.

I like to ask this question last, since this experience isn’t the only one that defines you: Who else are you? What else should we know about you and the things you love?

I am a parent, of one beautiful girl. I have just begun to volunteer for an organisation called LifeLine, which is an emergency counseling hotline for people to call in time of severe distress. Producing art is what I spend the majority of my time on. It’s my life. My daughter and I are very close, and we create together in the studio. I dabble in my garden. We have a crazy dog and four guinea pigs. Like I mentioned, I study yoga, enjoy exercising and find it so very important for recovery.

I dream to be a successful artist, to get off the welfare roundabout and be able to self-support my daughter and myself through my art. I would love to be able to afford to travel internationally and explore my art options overseas. Australia is very limited in its opportunities and resources and respect of the arts. I would love to secure an artist residency in Spain and be sipping sangria in Barcelona for my 40th birthday in November.

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One thought on “Life and art, part three: Talking with Konii Burns

  1. It would be impossible for me to feel any prouder than I do for the way Koni has been able to trip over, fall down and climb back up a very steep bank, not once but many times. Koni is the very reason Koni will eventually overcome her chaos, She fights with no reliance on drugs and modern theory and treatment. Life has a destiny for Koni and it may have just opened that door, a door leading to her being able to help others in an extremely positive way and through the media available, that will extend all over the world.

    Koni’s Dad (75 and I have not taken prescription drugs for 50 years and believe totally in the power of the mind. We are our own masters, but have to learn how to achieve that ) .

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