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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Life and art, part two: Talking with Erminia Colucci

“I’m always surprised at how willing people are to share if they see a purpose for it and they’re not going to be judged.”

Erminia Colucci was going about her work in academia when an unusual e-mail arrived from a stranger. Australian artist Mic Eales had come across her work on spirituality and suicide and took a chance, telling her about the pieces he’d created in trying to understand his suicidal thinking. He assumed he’d hear nothing, but Erminia was intrigued.

Their collaboration led to a groundbreaking art exhibition on suicide last year in Australia. This is the second of three interviews about “Inspired Lives,” the reactions to the 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.)

Suicide shouldn’t be mistaken as being always tied to mental illness, Erminia says, echoing Mic and some others interviewed here. She thinks of China and India, for example: “Suicide is one result of violations of the basic human rights of females,” she says. “Mental health organizations don’t focus much on human rights, but this work is very important to me. … We can’t just work in a traditional way, with the medical model of suicide. A lot of women die because they just can’t be human beings. No freedom. No respect. Where we also need to be able to act.”

She would love to bring the exhibition to other countries and continue the conversation with local artists, and the United States is in her sights.

Who are you?

I’m still trying to work it out! Officially, I am a psychologist by background, but I’ve always been interested particularly around suicide. I did my honors thesis and PhD on suicide, youth suicide. Because of this interest, when I was working as a clinical psychologist I went back to academia and for my PhD did a cross-cultural study on youth suicide in Italy, India and Australia. I wanted to understand what it actually meant, the cultural meanings of suicide. I work at the University of Melbourne, though I just came back. I was in the UK for the last year, doing a master’s in visual anthropology. At the moment, I’m doing a documentary on mental illness and human rights. I’ve been filming people who are working around protecting the rights of people with mental illness in Indonesia.

Who am I? I’m in academia, but I’m really interested in giving a voice to people who are not usually heard, like suicide survivors, the mentally ill, people whose rights are violated. That’s kind of in a nutshell who I am. My interests are not always really mainstream. With suicide, I’m looking at the culture, and I’m also looking at arts as a way of understanding and communicating. I’ve been using theater, and now I’m using film and photography. That’s how all of this came about, through my contact with Mic Eales and this interest in arts and in spirituality, which some in mental health feel uncomfortable dealing with. So I like to sit in those spots where academic people and others usually don’t like to sit.

How did you come across Mic, and how did that lead to the exhibition?

It’s a long story and a lovely journey. It’s been very important to knowing who I am, actually. Mic was doing his honor thesis on suicide, and he was finding it hard in engaging people in this kind of work. He wrote me an e-mail about spirituality and his work, “I do this and that.” He expected to not, you know, find much interest. But for me, I went like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” And we started working together. We did some seminars and workshops at the University of Melbourne about art and suicide. Quite a few people attended, and some of them had themselves dealt with suicide. Some knew someone who had attempted suicide. We wanted to work with people to share their experiences using a more creative way, and share as much as they wanted to share.

For me, it’s always been important that we as advocates, policy makers, academics and services have to have more space for people with lived experience, to have their voices, and in the way they want to express their voice. For some, it’s in a more creative way. We can’t expect everyone to be writing academic papers, you know what I mean? So the exhibition came about. We did a workshop at the university, and all the seats were taken. So people wanted to talk about it.

Mic and I take a non-medical approach. We don’t see it from a diagnosis and mental illness framework. Some people think in that way, but not everybody. For some, suicide is a much more existential problem, how they see life. It’s a much more personal way of looking at suicide. At the same time, it’s cultural. It’s not about imposing a way of looking at suicide. And so, when I saw there was a great response of people about the way we wanted to talk about suicide, in a creative and nonthreatening and nonjudgmental way, for us it meant we were on the right path.

Basically, shortly after, I contacted the Dax Centre. They run some very nice initiatives. I spoke to the director: “Look, I have this idea, around suicide attempts, a creative approach.” They were interested, but it was so new, it wasn’t immediately accepted. But I persisted. Mic and I decided to go ahead. And Jessica. We put out a kind of call to get people together who used artistic means to express their feelings. More than 30 people contacted us in one month, so again, we had quite a big response. We were lucky, we got on board Amy as curator, and she went to work at the Dax Centre. And that’s how it came about. So it’s been an interesting experience, and challenging.

There were fears about having a damaging effect, that people would go and jump off a bridge. That feeling was extremely strong. It is a very simplistic and widespread way of thinking about an issue. If you talk about it, what if people say, “I’m not the only one”? If they know they can get out of that, that others have come out at the other end, they can learn to cope with that, so what about talking about it? And using an artistic, creative way?

I read that the exhibition was rejected by other galleries.

Honestly, it’s been a journey. I want us to write a book about this, how society reacts to the issue. I wanted it to be something for the public. A lot of projects like this target, how should I say, the converted. We wanted to reach out to the general public. I wanted to be in a mainstream gallery, not a small place in the middle of nowhere. These guys are very skilled artists, and their work is at the same level  with any other artist featured in these galleries. But people were really concerned. They thought the public would not be interested. They were concerned about having the word “suicide” there, about potentially increasing the risk of suicide. I’m not going to say the name, but one of the main organizations in Australia looking after depression, when we started the conversation, they said it was a good idea, but it needed to fit their agenda, something fitting with depression. But the artists, they don’t want to identify as people who are suicidal because they’re depressed. That’s not their experience of it, so why should we fit inside this box because it fits the funder? Why fit inside a model that we feel doesn’t really represent the issue? So we said “No,” so no funding.

The Dax Centre hosted us. When we had kind of a panel about this, they said this was the first time they had done something like this, but they decided to go ahead. I’m very honored. We knew it was going to be good. From the point of view of people like Mic and Jessica and Konii, the work could inspire others. From my part, it was how to get academics, policy makers and others to listen, those who make decisions, you know? So it was very tricky.

This project also represents how society reacts to suicide. In Australia, suicide is seen as a very individual problem, about the person, but our project is about society as well. The way people responded is that there’s much fear, that the problem is also with them. I honestly think people don’t want to talk about suicide because it’s too uncomfortable, that somebody they love, or too many people in society, are thinking about it. And so we need to have a project of this kind. Artistically, it was a beautiful project curated beautifully. I think we need to have more of this initiative, make a statement about “This is who I am, and this is what it is for me. And listen to me.”

What were the reactions?

I was there a few times, and it was always very hard to see what people were thinking. I think they had a fourfold increase of viewers over past exhibitions. So there was a big response. And it’s very, very important. There are fears, but there are people in society who want to go and know what it’s about. People came to the panel, and quite a few of them were suicide survivors, so we know there were people themselves dealing with the same issues.

I don’t know, I guess the feeling when we went to see this exhibition was … people thought it was a challenging issue. Some of the comments were, “It was quite confronting.” It really got you, a strong emotional impact. But it was not, like, overwhelming. It was not to make you feel sad or frightened. There was something very positive about it. The show was called “Inspired Lives.” It was not about people feeling dark or, like, being overwhelmed. Actually, it was about these people who in the end have chosen to live. Like Jessica, who just had her second baby two weeks ago. Mic continues his career. So they’ve chosen to live. And that can be inspiring. So the comments were very positive.

Were there any questions asked that surprised you?

Not really, no. I’ve been in this field quite a bit, so nothing surprises me. I’m always pleasantly surprised at how open people are about sharing their experiences. One man who came to the panel was a PhD student. I knew him, but he actually had never said that he himself had tried to take his life. Then, in this public discussion, he said it. I was really touched. I didn’t know. I felt it was a positive experience for him to share with the people he knew would understand him. I’m always surprised at how willing people are to share if they see a purpose for it and they’re not going to be judged.

Did you run into the thinking that, “Well, they’re artists, it’s OK for them to talk about that experience.”

At the workshop, of the people who came there, none were artists. Some of them had never done anything creative. I think in general it might be a bit easier for artists to present intimate experiences, sexual or whatever. It’s seen as more acceptable, but I don’t think it’s all about that. It’s more about using arts as an idiom for people to express and share. I think we haven’t used that enough to explain people’s experiences. As a researcher, that’s where I want to go. I find Australia’s not easy to do that, using more creative ways. The academic structure, like everywhere in the world, is like a business, a way to bring in money. As soon as you get out of what everyone else is already thinking, how to survive? These things I do out of my passion. It’s very sad to have no funding for such things. It’s about getting those kinds of voices out there and learning from them.

What did you learn from this experience?

I’m still learning from it. From the e-mail Mic sent me, he does know: Mic, how thankful I am to you. I’ve read so much and go to conferences, but this has been a different perspective.

Also, this experience made me reflect about “Where do I sit? When thinking about it, who do I want to work with? Do I sit with the people who make decisions? Or do I sit with the people we’re talking about, the ones we make decisions for?” I want to be with the people. That’s my place. I try to use whatever I can to help others to have this voice. It’s a risk I’m willing to take. It’s something I want to pursue further.

Now Mic and I are thinking about where we can take the exhibition. There’s been a very good response in Australia, very good media coverage. We want to inspire others to do similar work. I’m very keen to go to the U.S., to New York, to go to other countries. The way in which Mic and I work, it’s about collaborations with other artists. We see the exhibitions with a selection of the pieces but traveling to other places and then, in collaboration with local artists, putting a show together. It’s building up a kind of conversation, instead of being something static. It’s what I want to see happening. My next dream is bigger, and I know we need support.

I’m interested in people’s experiences, the so-called consumers. Sitting on panels, in working groups, what is that really doing, other than making you feel good about it? What about doing something like this? I have really stepped back. I wanted this to be their show. We have tried to make this their show. It should be where we are sitting in the corner and they have something out about them. It’s not easy, especially in academia, where a lot of big egos are involved.

There’s always some exposure when talking about a hot topic. But I want to take this kind of risk in some way, talk about what really matters. Sometimes the decision makers walk away from things that really matter because it’s something that’s too difficult to deal with. Like spirituality. I think the only way to make sure that things that really matter are on the agenda is having the people affected as part of the agenda, being really involved. I think to have the things that really matter “in” is really important to people with lived experience. In whatever means they choose, which can be the arts.

Do you have a favorite piece or pieces from the exhibition?

That’s an interesting question. I didn’t think about it! It’s like having kids, which one is your favorite kid? I’m very proud of what the guys have done. So it’s difficult for me to say. One piece is a documentary that Mic put together about some of the work done together. And there was one piece, the white lotus.

The one with the umbrella?

Yes. It started when Mic and I were at a conference two years ago, at an IASP conference. I must acknowledge that Lanny Berman and Mort Silverman have been very supportive of our work. They supported us to organize a workshop in China. One of my interests is domestic violence and women’s rights. Suicide is one result of violations of the basic human rights of females. Mental health organizations don’t focus much on human rights, but this work is very important to me.

Mic and I had conversations about the topic. He’s amazing, he came up with the concept, the symbolism of the lotus in China. So I feel very close to the piece, which is also a memory of Mic and I in China and our adventure together. I really care about the issue of domestic violence against women and suicide, so it was touching to see it visually represented by Mic. Also, Konii’s piece was powerful. Being in the space was a very strong response, and I’ve seen people reacting to it. I don’t know if Konii realized the powerful impact of her work. I hope she does.

How would you describe the piece?

The panels are all around the wall, a room with panels of charcoal, from the bush fire. You needed to walk in, and once in the space you are surrounded by these panels. It’s the cover of the catalog, a panel from Konii’s work.

Can you think of other countries that would welcome this exhibition?

I think of countries like America, with the means to support this kind of work, and using it as a way to continue the conversation. New York is a great place, a great place to talk to people from all over the world, and I expect a country like America to take this project on board, to continue this conversation with local artists. But I’d also like to go to countries like Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, where actually it is difficult, where we need to make a lot of changes and need to respond to this. I mean “we” as a global “we.” We started in China, and China has the highest rate of suicide among women. So many lives every single second. Or India, where I’ve done a majority of my work. Suicide among women is increasing. There’s a lot to be done.

We can’t just work in a traditional way, with the medical model of suicide. A lot of women die because they just can’t be human beings. No freedom. No respect. Where we also need to be able to act. So this exhibition, to me, is part of my being an activist, using the scholarly ability to be an activist. We need to get together and make some important social changes.

Who else are you?

This kind of work, for me, is who I am. It is who I am. I am also an ethnographic documentary filmmaker and photographer. I love the outdoors. Like this morning, I went very early on the beach for a run and a swim. Though I’m a very bad runner. But I love the outdoors. Encounters with nature really make me feel good. And I love animals. And I love sports. And I love food. A very typical Italian. Food and good wine and cheese. And I love my niece. I was thinking about the things I love, and she came to me.

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.