The SuperWoman Community: Artist Beth Castiglione

As you know, The SuperWoman Chronicles is a witty series about one woman’s misadventures on the path to enlightenment, but there are so many superwomen in our midst. Enjoy this first interview of one superwoman who makes up part of The SuperWoman Community.

Introducing painter, mother, and good friend Beth Castiglione.

Seroquel

You have a gallery showing coming up in October. What would you say it’s primarily about?

I’ve been painting sunflowers, growing and decaying, in oil on canvas. The sunflowers reference Van Gogh, his creativity and his mental illness. I live with severe mental illness by relying upon psychiatric medications that enable me to maintain a solid work ethic in my studio practice. I do not rely upon flashes of creativity or sparks of genius.

Can you say something about your creative process?

Although a strong conceptual base underpins my paintings, my creative process does not begin with an abstract idea. Rather, it begins with me looking around and noticing what is interesting to me in what I am seeing. Then, the process begins to evolve as a back-and-forth dynamic between my observations and my thoughts.

Latuda

Why did you name this newest series, “Media vita in morte sumus,” and what does it mean?

This series of paintings began in the fall of 2016.  At that time, I was experiencing a period of artistic and personal transition.  I had finished up a body of work in which I had been enmeshed for about four years and I’d just transferred my painting practice into a new studio in an artists’ building in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. I had no idea what I was going to make in my new and wonderful studio.

Somewhere around this time, my friend’s father-in-law died.  He had reminded me a lot of my grandfather: they were both old, Italian-American men, sons of immigrants from the rural south of Italy. They both loved their gardens and growing tomatoes, especially.

I can’t remember if the following words were spoken at the funeral, but on my drive home afterwards, what kept cycling through my head were the words, “In the midst of life, we are in death.” I googled this phrase when I got home, and saw that it was originally from the eighth century or so Latin Mass. In Latin, it reads, Media vita in morte sumus.

This completely resonated with me in terms of how I see my sunflower paintings, with the dead and dying parts integrated and intertwined with the living parts. And it also reminded me of how I am when I am deeply depressed, in that I cannot see any life without being painfully aware of its imminent death.  I cannot see any light without its component shadow. That is how this series got its name.

Prozac

What inspired you to choose sunflowers as the focus of your recent paintings?

One day while eating lunch with a friend, I was bemoaning my lack of focus. She happens to be a gardener at the school where my husband teaches, and she suggested I wander around the school’s garden taking photographs, just to get my imagination moving.

So, over the next few months, while also showing up for my obligatory four days a week in my studio, I would take my iPhone and wander around the garden. I shot a lot of pictures looking down at the dirt. I also took pictures of the odd contraptions the students had made to support their tomato plants and bean plants and sunflowers. I shot close-ups of leaves and vegetables, and then, in late October, got engrossed in photographing some of the dead sunflower stalks that had been pulled up.

After returning home from each of my garden visits, I would upload my images to my laptop and print out photos on 4” x 6” photo paper on my cheapie HP office printer.  The next day when I went to the studio, I’d bring the latest photos and tack them to one wall.  The collection of posted photos grew larger and larger. I started arranging and re-arranging the photos on the wall.

This series of canvases, hung together, surround people in an immense sunflower field that explodes with life, death, hope and despair.  I want to demonstrate that it may be possible for an artist to take medication for mental illness without it destroying their creativity. Fear of losing creativity should not deter anyone from asking for help.

Celexa

Did you always intend to be a painter?

A teacher who helped and inspired me when I was in college was a man named Robert Reed, who understood my struggle to pay for my paints and canvasses. The message that I took from him was that he believed in me as a painter, and his faith in me gave me courage to believe in myself. I had been exposed to art for years by my grandmother, who was an art teacher, but I was told very directly by my grandfather that “art is an avocation, not a vocation,” and that I better study to be a lawyer or a teacher. Ever since Robert Reed’s class, I have had the utmost clarity that who I am is a painter. I have often doubted that this was a wise path to follow, and I frequently wonder how it is possible that I am somehow getting away with this utterly impractical notion of spending hours each day making paintings. But somehow, decades have gone by and I am still doing this work.

Can you say more about how mental illness is a theme in your work?

In the winter of 2018, I was talking with a friend who also has bipolar disorder, whose diagnosis came quite recently. Her first experiences with medication were deeply troubling to her because she is a writer, and she experienced some aspect of her medication regimen as stifling her creativity.  She asked me if this was a necessary part of being medically treated for mental illness.

I realized then that the reason my paintings look the way they do, bright instead of dark, but with the death interwoven into the life, is because I take medication for my illness, and it allows me to live well and to have a family and friends and to maintain a stable studio practice.

In one of his letters to his brother Theo, Vincent Van Gogh wrote, “I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep, dark well, utterly helpless.”

This is how I felt before I found a medication cocktail that worked for me. And I am constantly in process with this. Sometimes something changes, either with the medication effectiveness and my bio-chemistry, or in my life, and I have to work with my psychiatrist and therapist to get back to neutral ground.

But this roller-coaster ride of medical treatment for mental illness is worth it to me because it works. I am no longer “lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep, dark well, utterly helpless.”

I hold fast to another part of a sentence from one of Van Gogh’s letters. “Let us keep courage and try to be patient and gentle….”

Let us keep courage. Let us ask for help. And let us keep taking our meds.

 

Adderrall

 

Beth’s work will be showcased on October 7th from 12pm to 6 pm in the Germantown area as part of The Center for Emerging Visual Artist’s Philadelphia Open Studio Tours.

Have a superwoman you think should be interviewed for The SuperWoman Community? Email thesuperwomanchronicles@gmail.com.

SuperWoman and the Perils of Public Transit

It was a Monday, which always makes life doubly hard. SuperWoman had enjoyed a weekend with her progeny, eating delicious brick-oven pizza, sipping a delicious strawberry daiquiri, watching football, allowing her kids to rustle up the duvets in the showroom at Ikea (against her better judgment). Despite its bad reputation, however,  SuperWoman was handling this Monday very, very well. She made a decision to exercise on her lunch break for the first time ever, and she was very proud of herself for the ingenuity of packing her bag and watching Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce while working the intermediate level of the elliptical in her somewhat new sneakers. Then she changed and got back to work, like a…well, SuperWoman. She handled TalkMonster’s frantic phone call when he got home from school with ease (middle school math is very, very stressful), and then she left work, opened her magnificent book (Ordinary People by Diana Evans), read voraciously, got off the subway, waited impatiently for the bus, and read voraciously again until it was time for her stop.

She began walking home. Her apartment windows were in sight, the little jade plant, the air conditioner sticking out, the ivory curtains cascading to the side. A man was ingloriously mowing the lawn of her apartment building with a weedwacker. She hates weedwackers. And leaf blowers. She hates those things, too.

And it was then, suddenly, she realized.

Her car was not, as she had thought, parked in the lot at home. In fact, it was several miles away at another train stop, the one she had parked at that morning after dropping her kids at school.

SuperWoman’s transportation regimen is a little complicated. So complicated that when she started at her current job two-and-a-half years ago, she had dreams that trains kept coming and going, that she was missing them all.

Here’s what her public transit mornings look like. On the days SuperWoman has her kids, she drops BeautyQueen at preschool, then TalkMonster on the street near his middle school so he can walk part of the way, then WonderMess at her elementary school. Then she high tails it to the high speed line, where she parks two blocks away and walks to catch the train.

On the days she doesn’t have kids, she takes a bus directly outside her apartment—oh, the luxury!—to the subway and ends up only two blocks from the doors at work.

On this particular Monday, for some reason—perhaps because she was still in summer camp schedule zone, perhaps because she forgot what day it was, perhaps because she was so immersed in her very, very good book—she forgot where she had parked her car and ended up in quite a tickle.

The second tickle? She couldn’t even get Uber working on her phone to call for a ride, because there was not enough storage left to download the app. (SuperWoman often thinks she needs a techy boyfriend to help her with these things.)

How was she going to get those kids?

In walked Kerri Superior. Well, she didn’t walk in. SuperWoman called her, frantically, cursing about the lawnmower guy who kept weedwacking even though SuperWoman was in a bind and needed to explain the situation with relative silence so Kerri Superior would understand.

The reason you may not have heard of Kerri Superior is because she’s not flashy and doesn’t need a lot of fanfare. Without sitting in a room and saying “Om,” all day with a golden halo around her short brown hair, she projects an air as though she has sat in a room saying “Om” all day. (Maybe it’s her special secret? Maybe she does? Heck, SuperWoman doesn’t know what people do in the privacy of their homes.) In addition to being a fabulous dresser, a loyal, honest, and trustworthy friend who always knows what to do, one of the things SuperWoman likes most about Kerri Superior is she doesn’t have kids, which makes her able to get dinner on a whim, take the time to cook nice meals, go to yoga, plan book clubs. She is simply marvelous, and on this Monday, Kerri Superior dropped what she was doing so she could pick up SuperWoman and take her to her car.

SuperWoman felt regal, to be chauffeured by such a special woman, a fellow super woman who doesn’t need to write a blog about how special she is, but spreads love and wisdom to her many admirers—colleagues, students, friends, even neighbors, surely.

Once SuperWoman got her car her, however, her job was not done. She still needed to pick up her progeny and head home, listening to horrendous tales of math homework in middle school and head-banging in preschool. Going to the grocery store as SuperWoman had planned was off the table—the afternoon had become too stressful already. So she improvised. She used whatever little bit of food she had left—bagels and cream cheese, bagels and American cheese, macaroni-and-cheese (notice a theme?), chicken nuggets, to put together some sort of a meal to keep the sidekicks healthy or at least full. And then she helped TalkMonster with his homework (although “help” is a generous word), bathed the girls, and read with WonderMess until it was time for bed. To top it off? She wrote a bit and meditated in her bed.

Take that, Monday! Take that, public transit! You may have delayed SuperWoman, but you will not stop her.

Because…

Why?…

She’s, well, super.

 

 

Image: "train" by Yuya Tamai via Flickr

SuperWoman Ages

Yes, it’s true. Superheroes get older just like everybody else. Each year, in fact. (I know, crazy.)

This month, SuperWoman reaches the last year of her third decade on the planet. (Or is it technically her fourth decade? She doesn’t know. Math isn’t her thing.)

Turning 40, there’s a rough one. But turning 39? Sexy. She has one more year to do all the fun things thirty-something’s do that you can’t do anymore when you turn 40. Serve your kids grilled cheese and fries and pizza more nights than not. Visit an array of happy hour bars with Susa-Power and Cat-Eye. Get MotherBear to call someone to fix things when something isn’t going her way, like getting a non-refundable thing refunded. (MotherBear has a knack for that.)

Oh, but really, who’s SuperWoman kidding? Being 39 is not much different than being 40. She’ll do all the same things at 40 that she’s done at 39, that she’s done at 38, that she did at 24. Her eyes just hang a little lower now in her skin. Her hair just comes in a little more gray, and faster.

The problem is, there were certain things SuperWoman hoped to achieve by this point in her life, things she sees the other 39-almost-40-year-olds and even younger-year-olds doing and having. Getting promotions. That would be nice at some point. Or having a house, like she used to have. (Even though she has to admit, she likes the low-stakes living of an apartment. If only she had a dishwasher. Which brings her to…) Dishwashers.  Nicer cars with seat-warmers. (Okay, she really doesn’t care about those, but even the option to go into a car dealership and even consider them would be cool.) Nice hefty savings accounts. An office with a view.

She certainly didn’t expect to have endured near poverty, living in a second-floor walk-up on the outskirts of her nearby town, spending half of her days without her kids. She didn’t expect to be low on the totem pole at her cubicle job. What did she imagine?

Oh, you know. Oprah. J.K. Rowling. Being one of those sorts of women.

Was that shooting too high?

The thing is, despite all this sad-sacking SuperWoman is doing (she’ll admit, she was the kid who used to cry when family sang “Happy Birthday” at parties) she’s truly optimistic about her future. She knows she’ll live until at least 80, barring some fluke tragedy. She has an entire half of her life left to lead, her second act. And it’s going to be a good one. A big one. Positive and beautiful, filled with travel and adventure and warm-hearted conversations over tea and wine, or holding her children’s hands as they face a glowing sunset and travel to Venice. Truly, this is what she feels in her bones. There is so much goodness to come, so much to appreciate about the life she has already lived.

So it’s on, Birthday Blues. Come at her, Mortality. Wrinkles, you don’t scare SuperWoman. Age is just a number. And SuperWoman, despite all her flaws, has become a wizard at counting her blessings.

 

Image: "Birthday Cake Candles" by Nick Amoscato via Flickr.