Touched By Fire Artist Profile: Heather Fulton

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Over the next few months MDAO will be profiling Touched By Fire artists whose work has been included in an annual juried exhibition – the Touched By Fire Art Show and Sale. We recently caught up with Heather Fulton, who shares her thoughts around her work and the program. 

The first year I was involved with Touched by Fire was 2009, and I don’t remember how I first found out about it. I do, however, remember feeling a great sense of excitement in that I had found a community that celebrates the stories of artists and gives them a safe space to express themselves not just as people living with mental illness, but as professional creatives. That is precisely what drew me in.

The Touched by Fire show in 2009 was my first real exhibition experience, and to be given the opportunity to show my work for the first time, at the ROM, of all places, was incredible. I would liken it to nothing less than a spark that helped ignite a fire beneath my backside; after my first show, I knew I wanted nothing more than to come back the next year. 

I put of a lot of work into my practice, and the next year I was thrilled to show my work again at the ROM. At that show, I gratefully accepted the Bristol Myers Squibb award, best in show in the student category. That experience alone gave me, and continues to give me, confirmation in myself and what I am doing as an artist, and a sense of acknowledgement that I am valued among my peers.

I absolutely do consider myself a Touched by Fire artist now, but not exclusively. In fact, that is what I think is so special about Touched by Fire. Many other opportunities and initiatives that combine art and mental health take the “art brut” or “outsider art” approach, in that the work created by artists with mental illness is put into the category of “the other”, without necessarily acknowledging the work as important and meaningful on its own, exclusive to the connection to the artists’ mental health. The single most important thing about this program is the fact that artists are treated as artists, first and foremost. Touched By Fire creates a space where artists can break through the confines of a mood disorder and all its associated labels, and showcase the creativity and passion that is the forefront of their identity.

Touched by Fire facilitates the merging of art and mental illness within the same framework, but does so in such a way that the talents and merits of the artists take the forefront, and the artists are respected and treated as professionals. I am an artist AND a Touched by Fire artist, and I feel a great deal of pride in being able to identify as both.

I have shown work in three different Touched By Fire shows – 2009, 2010 and 2012 – at the Gladstone, the ROM and at Coopers Fine Art Gallery, which has given me experience and validation as an artist. Even just being able to put those shows on my CV has been invaluable, and has opened up other opportunities for me and my practice.

I think Touched by Fire celebrates the stories of artists and gives them a safe space to express themselves not just as people living with mental illness, but as professional creatives. On a more basic but equally important level, it gives artists something to work on, and motivation to improve and evolve their practice. For myself, I have had days where I was particularly symptomatic, and the only the reason I was able to get out of bed on those days were because I wanted to make sure my work was done in time to meet the jury deadline. That is pretty significant to me.

At the Touched by Fire show in 2009, I was given a lanyard with a tag that said I was a Touched by Fire Artist, thus confirming to those around me that I was in fact living with a mood disorder. I was reluctant to wear it at first, but after a minute or two I realized for the first time, I could be open about my experience with mental illness and I remember feeling my shoulders relax, as though a weight had lifted. It my first experience being in a room full of people who knew I had a mood disorder, and it felt safe and liberating.

I still tend to be somewhat private about having a mood disorder, but over the past few years I have been able to feel more “out” about it, and have even begun involving myself in mental health advocacy. 

All three shows I felt were curated and organized very well. I feel the shows have been so successful in their communication to viewers because of the diverse range of media and because the focus and spotlight seems to have always been on the artwork.

My art is inspired by inner experience and by the way I perceive the world around me. My experiences of living with a mood disorder bleed into that frequently; I cannot separate the two, I wouldn’t know how. I cannot turn it on and off, it’s involuntary, like breathing. I can hold my breath for about twenty seconds, but I inevitably must and will inhale. Traces of my experience with bipolar disorder, however grand or minute, must and will appear in my art.

Everyone is different in what they think about the whole idea of recovery. For me, “recovery” is a tricky word because it implies a re-establishment of normalcy, a return to some place of perfect health that you’ve fallen from. I don’t identify with that word, because I’m learning to recognize that things are always in flux, and that I must adapt to the waves. In that case, the Greek symbol of Ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail, is fitting. It symbolizes constant, cyclical rebirth. 

See the work Heather submitted to Touched By Fire in 2013 and read her statement 

Find out more about Heather’s body of work on Facebook

Or visit Heather's website