Artist Statement on “Toxic”

Photo: Shawn Christopher

Artist Statement : Making Spaces – Annual Undergraduate Exhibition. Concordia University, Montréal.

The hypnotic seduction and melodic crescendo of the suicidal ideation.  This dear friend has walked with me for as long as I can remember and he has helped me endure many things, some of them otherwise unbearable.   But she is a greedy, jealous  and ravenous lover.  He sleeps with one eye open, waiting for that moment to slip into her deep violet velvet gown and seduce me with his sweetly romantic and melancholic serenade.  Pure in tone, completely inaudible to others, first she lulls me away with brief fantasies of peace and rapture, then as she senses a point of entry she quickly changes costume.   Suddenly, he is omnipresent.  I wince and the sharp chill reaches to my very bones.  Suddenly, in this moment, I am consumed, I know that I have lost again.  The chaos is deafening and the voices of loved ones become faint whispers and then gently fade to white noise.  She knows me well this ancient creature, oh he is very patient and lithe.  But what a pure, sweet song; I am lost.

How does one write about those things that are thought to be unspeakable, where does one begin?  I guess the same way one might attempt to eat an oversized Indian elephant- one small bite at a time.  Judaeo-Christianity claims that God created the universe, the heavens and the earth, the oceans and all the living creatures in a matter of a few days,  and then God made man from mud, and woman was made from man and all of this took place in one week, there was even a day of rest.  I have also read that the oldest known relic of human civilization is a small sculpture with female form, thought to be that of mother and also made out of mud.

I don’t know why I am drawn to making these figures out of clay with my bare hands, the idea of wearing latex gloves is repulsive and seems cold, not unlike like the idea of wearing a condom when I am in the ecstatic expression of love.   I know that this mud is in fact toxic through continuous exposure, but it is a risk I must take to maintain my humanness, this impulse is not so different from the allure of walking through sand in bare feet or removing ones glasses to feel the warm rays of the afternoon sun.  Perhaps it is an instinct or a memory passed through the generations; this desire to make sense of human subjectivity using the same natural elements that sustain us.  Somewhere, deep within my core I knew from the very beginning that my toxic figures were some deviant form of self-portraiture.  It seems that the impulse to make these creatures taps into some deep artesian vein but I didn’t quite know how to find the words to describe this impulse.   Either it was beyond the scope of my limited self awareness or perhaps this story needed to be told in a vernacular that I had not learned.  On the surface, Toxic refers to the heavy metals inherent in the black clay body, mixed from a recipe that evolved over time.  I had been using black clay for a while but it was my friend Keaven who took the time to perfect this recipe so that when the clay was fired it stayed strong.  Toxic  attempts to honour the silent pain and suffering of the socially excluded; those who know the burning sensation of “otherness,” even in the company of loved ones.   This Deeply guarded truth is the shameful secret of those who feel a little too much to function like the others.  This aptitude for self destruction, emotion, drama and suffering seems to be a trait that I have shared with other expressive and creative individuals over the ages.  Could it in fact be argued that madness, hypersensitivity, bipolar and borderlines are our societal beacons of emotive morality, that these individuals that suffer so much keep humanity human.  Rothko, Hemingway, Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Gorky, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allen Poe, Kurt Cobain, Basquiat, Beethoven, Edvard Munch, Georgia O’Keefe, Sylvia Plath, Isaac Newton, Robert Schumann et Michel-Ange all suffered from mental illness and most eventually killed themselves. It is a curious thing that our culture fails to provide proper care for the mentally ill and yet we cherish the artistic relics they leave behind as cultural icons.  

Photo: Guy L’Heureux

This installation creates a space for the individual with dark secrets of suicidal tendencies, and other socially-stigmatic conditions like Schizophrenia and HIV/AIDS.  Toxic is also a reference to the different attempts to cure and treat these illnesses and conditions, it is hard to reconcile the sobering fact that the treatments themselves are often eventually more destructive than the underlying medical or psychological condition.  Antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, SSRI’s, antiretrovirals, stimulants, benzo’s,  sleeping pills and opiate pain killers will each of them eventually harm the patient, either through direct toxicity or a life of slavery as an addict.   As mental illness has the ability to distort reality at times, so do the heavy metals in this ebony clay body.   Most obviously it distorts the colours of glazes and in  reduction firing it bubbles and cracks, weakening the structure of the vitrified clay.   Interestingly, the poisonous mood stabilizer, lithium, is also a key ingredient in ceramic glaze-making.  Lithium, and other elements like it belong to a class of substances we call a Flux in ceramics.  The toxic metal components in the clay alter the reaction that turns clay, glass, metal and flux into a glaze.  With this toxic clay the results seem to be very random, at times resulting in a change in texture, and other times the iron and manganese in the clay seem to dominate everything else so that everything becomes a dull metallic grey.  It could be argued that the rich surfaces of ceramics, with infinite variations in colour, opacity, texture, and sheen demonstrate that even in a sometimes ugly and toxic world,  meaning, beauty and joy can be discovered in the different shades and tints of grey that exist between black and white.  This artist attempted to make each figure almost in an automatic fashion,  an act of trusting in self and the potential of creative energy to shed light in places where darkness had lingered for too long.  Without reference to the whole because it did not yet exist, each figure captures an individual experience for both the maker and the viewer.  Just as this protagonist in his little story of life continues to attempt the act of living, trying to distract himself from that sleeping demon called suicidal ideation with pleasure, art, drama and consumption  and anything else available.   The mere possibility of a different ending is reason enough to keep trying, just as the ceramic sculptor applies a different glaze to the same piece of clay, firing it again and again, risking everything with each additional thermal shock.  Take a chance, and sooner or later perhaps Fortuna herself will gaze my way and pigs will fly and I will witness a spectacular moment of awareness, colour, texture or je ne sais quoi.  Maybe it will all be worth it, even for just one moment!

So, back to the thing of which I dare not speak, what is this thing, this creature, potion and burden called suicidal ideation? Is it codified in the structure of my DNA,  a complex case of synaesthesia, or perhaps even a dream – god forbid, it could even be Descartes Evil Genius?  Cogito Ergo SumI think therefore I am.  Nature or nurture?  Is Suicidal ideation or its logical extension, the act of self-harm, both passive and active, simply constructs of some sort of victim identity?  Or is it possible that this is the manifestation of grace, a divine gift, a remedy of sorts; the last barrier between intolerable suffering and complete insanity? This friend and ally, tempest and seer- ugly and also so deliciously sly and seductive.  Suicide, whether imagined, attempted or completed is a sobering, shameful and terrifying subject matter to many, but not necessarily all!  The option of committing suicide has the unique ability to give the powerless some control over their destiny.  The dichotomy inherent in suicidal ideation is that even as one is attempting to end ones life, the automatic systems of the body continue to fight for life.  Is this the the true nature of self?   The first act of the human creature, as it leaves the womb of its mother is to breathe.  It cannot be avoided or delayed, the instinct to take air, to consume and to claim life is the assertion of ones basic right to exist. The alternative is a failure to thrive. Toxic is an attempt by this artist to trust in this self, capture this energy which is every individual’s birthright, in three dimensional form.  Whether I knew it or not when I started this clumsy journey,  I now know that self was striving to claim a space for myself to exist as a whole, if only for a moment in dignity and prove to myself that I have a right to exist.  Though the stigma and shame have kept me silent and yes the pain has often brought me to my knees.   I would not, however,  be myself without this story and I would not exchange this bruised, tattered and wretched treasure for anything else on earth.  

Photo: FOFA Gallery, Dancer Jesse McRogers performs a choreography by Dana Dugan

Here, in this moment, I am happy to be alive, I am thankful for this instant of clarity and for a peaceful moment to catch my breath.  Though, I know too well the scarcity of such feelings, as these sentiments are so very fleeting and are subject to constant self-modification.  Perhaps it is possible that art is the natural remedy for a failure to thrive, that creative energy can magically negotiate the balance between life and sickness and beauty and poison and love and queer and death and perfect and ugly and human and divine.  Maybe this is why so many artists, writers and thinkers have killed themselves?  Not because dwelling on such matters is intrinsically dangerous, not because suicidal ideation is incurable,  I am inclined to believe that the remedy to madness is creative energy and its manifestation artistic expression.  However, by its its very nature Art is imperfect and that is why it has the potential to be so beautiful.  Toxic is my attempt to honour myself, because even when I have given up hope, self picks me up and carries me forward, continues to breath, to reach for truth, goodness and pleasure.  Even in the most intolerable situations self has sustained me!  

The choice to exist, however, will always be mine.  I argue that self determination is the fundamental right of all human beings, point final.  

Angel – God – Self  


I gaze downward. 


And for the first time ever, I nod my head in gratitude, in respectful awe of myself and my ability to carry-on.  


Eros and Thanatos.

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