Artists with Mood Disorders Ready to Unveil New Works

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Wednesday December 7, 2011

Daniel Sellers, The Torontoist

Touched by Fire
Coopers Fine Art Gallery (111 Bathurst Street)
Thursday December 8, 5 p.m.–9p.m.
$10/free for people of low income

As a child growing up in the Niagara region, Lorette C. Luzajic had designs on becoming a writer. Today, at 39, she is the author of eight books: an eclectic mixture of volumes of poetry, non-fiction, and short stories. Some four or five years ago, she decided that her lack of drawing ability wasn’t going to keep her from creating visual art, a decision that was the beginning of what is now a practical compulsion to work in collage. “It’s a constant. It’s like a storm inside. I can’t stop making stuff,” she says.

But as far back as she can remember, Luzajic has also contended with what was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder. So when asked about the relationship between creativity and mental illness, she has, understandably, a lot to say.

“Extreme creativity does often leave a person a little bit unhinged, maybe, and vice versa,” she says. “I’m not sure if being mentally ill and being creative are the same thing so much as I think that they are sometimes connected—and let me stress sometimes.”

This connection will be in focus at Coopers Fine Art Gallery tomorrow evening, when the annual Touched By Fire art show and sale gets underway for the fifth time. The event is run by the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario and features exclusively the work of artists who suffer from depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Those in attendance will be treated to hors d’oeuvres and live jazz as this year’s 86 show pieces—selected from more than 450 submissions—are unveiled.

More than 50 artists will have their work on display Thursday, and many of them will make sales. Historically, the event has been held at the Gladstone or the ROM, where 15 or 20 sales was considered a good number. This year, hopes are high that that total will increase; the size of the show’s new venue will allow 20 more pieces to be on display than in years past. What hasn’t changed is that the venue won’t be taking a cut.

“The intent, right from the beginning, was to ensure that the artists who are showing their work for sale, that they would be able to have 100 per cent of the proceeds go back to them,” says Colleen Cowman, executive director of the MDAO.

The event also gives artists for whom social interaction is often highly stressful an opportunity to show their work without having to cold-call art galleries.

“For someone who has depression, for example, or anxiety [...] there are a lot of different reasons why social situations can be fraught with difficulty,” Cowman explains. “It can be really, really hard for somebody, for example, who has bipolar [disorder], to actually phone and introduce themselves and say ‘I have some work that I’d like you to see.’”

For Luzajic—who has had multiple pieces selected for the third straight year—simply attendingTouched By Fire is stressful enough. Fortunately, she is not alone.

“I’m very intimidated by crowds,” she says. “There’s a whole pile of us (artists), so I guess that makes it a little bit easier knowing I’m not the only one going with that anxiety.”

Luzajic raises an important point. If Touched By Fire’s primary function is to help the careers of artists battling mood disorders, it is certainly not its sole function; it also facilitates communication and creates understanding amongst those artists. Although the participating artists suffer from a range of disorders—from agoraphobia to postpartum depression to seasonal affective disorder, and many in between—there are common themes that stretch across this wide spectrum of individual experience. Talking to someone else who can personally relate to what you’ve been through, Luzajic says, is different from trying to explain what’s going on in your head to someone who can only imagine the way you feel.

“With all the goodwill in the world, there’s still a disconnect there,” she says. “Some of the things that I’m saying or some of the ways I act won’t be understood.”