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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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