Paint it black

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Saturday January 14, 2012

Amy Kenny

Hamilton Spectator

April Mansilla used to paint all hours of the day and night. The ideas kept coming. She couldn’t settle down. She couldn’t stop. Many artists might envy her this, but Mansilla says it was false inspiration.

Mansilla, like 3 to 5 per cent of adult Canadians, is bipolar. Her disorder is marked by dramatic changes in mood, energy and behaviour, and characterized by extreme highs (mania) and lows (depression) that can last anywhere from a few hours to a few months.

“When you’re manic,” she says, “you don’t take the time to do things properly.” Productivity might be high, but the quality of the work often suffers for it.

When she was initially diagnosed, Mansilla, 34, was in denial. A 17-day stay at St. Joseph’s Hospital (her husband, Miguel, admitted her in November 2009) did nothing to change her mind. While other patients on the psychiatric ward shuffled through the halls wearing robes, Mansilla got dressed and did her makeup every morning. She was sad, she knew, but nothing like them.

Still, when she returned to her Hamilton home after the stay, she stripped its walls of her artwork including the 2005 series, Silent Masquerade — a collection featuring black-cloaked bodies done in dripping oils, their sad-eyed faces downcast.

“It was like having mirrors everywhere,” she says. “I couldn’t look at them.” Today, Mansilla says it’s impossible to deny what she was trying to tell herself with the work, but in 2009, it was impossible to accept.

It wasn’t until July 2011, after a five-month stay at St. Joseph’s Mental Health and Wellness Resource Centre, that she acknowledged her diagnosis. Participating in her recovery and showing improvement was the only way she could spend time with Miguel and her children, Alix, 15, and Johnny, 12.

It hasn’t been easy. Mansilla works with an outpatient team including a doctor and nurse. They’ve been testing medications to find something that works for her (because she also has temporal lobe epilepsy, antidepressants trigger seizures). To keep her highs and lows in check, she must actively manage her lifestyle and thought patterns. This means eating well, getting proper sleep, maintaining scheduled daytime studio hours and looking to her work for answers.

Jennifer Foulds, manager of communications and marketing for the Mood Disorder Association of Ontario, says this is typical of artists with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. Most of the artists who participate in Touched by Fire, MDAO’s annual art exhibition and sale, mention this in their biographies.

“Some practice art as a way of helping to manage mental illness,” Foulds says. “Others speak to the way they feel the art is fuelled by the experience of the illness.”

Though Mansilla has been painting for 15 years, 2011 marked her first appearance at Touched by Fire. Two of her self-portraits were chosen for inclusion in the December exhibition. They’re part of a collection that shows Mansilla, dressed in a white tank top, in various poses against a black background — clawing her shoulders in an angry embrace, pointing her hand, like a gun, to her temple, crying and raising her hands to the viewer.

“I just didn’t want to feel that way anymore and I thought if I painted it all out ….” she says of the portraits. “When I finished, I realized I was worse off than I thought.” She hid the paintings until she heard about Touched by Fire and knew they were the only option for her submission.

Her instincts were right. Organizers found the portraits so impactful, each got its own full wall at Coopers Fine Art Gallery in Toronto, where Touched by Fire was held. She was also chosen from her fellow 40 exhibitors (whittled down from 450 submissions) as best emerging artist.

Today, Mansilla’s townhouse is once again decorated with her work. Newer pieces show embracing figures rendered in shades of teal, fuchsia, orange and gold (“I want my life to be bright,” she says of her conscious decision to use vibrant colour), but her self-portraits are also displayed.

Mansilla says Touched by Fire released her from what scared her about the paintings.

“A lot of people came up at the exhibition and said it was the first time they’d been able to see what they felt. That was good for me,” she says. She has stopped denying that she’s bipolar because to do so would perpetuate the stereotype that mood disorders are something to be ashamed of. She wants to shed light on the issue, erase the stigmas surrounding mental illness and give back to those who have helped her.

To this end, a portion of proceeds from her work currently goes to St. Joseph’s and other mental health organizations. Mansilla’s work can be viewed and purchased online at

Special to The Hamilton Spectator