Thursday, January 14, 2016

Interview with Artist David Sandum, Part 2

The Life-Saving Power of Art:
Interview with Artist David Sandum, Part 2

I have always seen my work as a way to transfer emotion.
~ Painter David Sandum

David Sandum, a full-time painter and printmaker, has experienced decades-long struggles with a self-described "perfectionistic mind and self-view" that cause him to be "very hard" on himself. He also experiences depression and has bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depression. His mental illness especially has changed his life, in large ways and small.

David writes about his pain and suffering in his well-received memoir I'll Run Till the Sun Goes Down: A Memoir About Depression and Discovering Art (Sandra Jonas Publishing House, 2015). His book is striking, first and unusually, because David tells his story in his own voice, frankly and honestly; and, second, because in illness, he discovered that art can heal, not only be made.

After reading his memoir, with its vivid accountings of despair met with an iron-fisted hold on hope, I conducted an e-mail interview with David, who lives and works in Norway. In Part 1 ("Writing Through Illness Toward Recovery"), which I posted yesterday, David talks about how he came to write his book. In Part 2, following, he answers my questions about the role of art and art-making in saving and transforming his life.

Remarks have been edited.

* * * * *

Maureen Doallas: Do you believe in the notion that art is life-saving?

David Sandum: Yes. But I know that each artist looks at art in his or her own way.

Some artists see their work as craft, a job like any other, and want to be recognized for their skill and product. Artists also work differently. Some focus on anatomy and aesthetics, while others dance across the canvas like Pollock and focus on the moment. Some do both.

I have always seen my work as a way to transfer emotion. Color is very important to me in this regard. It is through color that I feel like a boxer landing his punch! 

Painting is also a form of escape for me. When I paint, time and place often disappear. Many times I have entered my studio full of despair, and then, a few hours later, I've regained some form of control. 

Artmaking, though, can be harmful, if one's perfectionism, fear of rejection, addiction(s), or depression takes hold. Van Gogh, Rothko, Basquiat, Bacon, and countless other artists got tangled up in what was destructive. Van Gogh wrote, "I put my heart and soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process."

David Sandum, Lovers in the Field, 2011-2015
Oil on Canvas, 73 cm by 92 cm
© David Sandum
Used With Permission

MD: Do you think your discovery of art would have happened had you not experienced your illness? Why or why not?

DS: I would not have become an artist had I not been ill. Nothing else would have triggered my strong need to express what was inside of me.

I had always loved to draw and make art before I suffered from depression, but I never would have just started painting or seen art as my calling. Nor would I have felt so strong a connection to other artists, living or dead. 

All people who struggle must do something with their pain. I could have started on heroin; instead, I started to paint.

David Sandum, Into the City, 2015
Hand-Colored Drypoint Etching
Image Size 14 cm x 21 cm
Printed at Estudi de Gravat Ignasi Aguirre Ruiz, Barcelona
© David Sandum
Used With Permission

MD: Once you began to get well, what influenced your decision to become an artist full-time?

DS: I made the decision to become an artist in 2003, when I was very ill. I got my studio that year, and I've worked hard to make a living as a painter ever since. I have exhibited in galleries every year.

I now am an artist by choice and by definition. I know I could never handle a regular 9-5 job, with all the stress that would entail.

MD: Considering the time that has passed since you began using the drug lithium for bipolar disorder, what, if any, changes have you noticed in your art-making or ways of thinking about art?

DS: I'm not sure if the medications I took ever affected my art, or if changes in color and style over time have just been part of a natural evolution. I did paint much darker in earlier years; lithium definitely "numbed" me but the depression itself probably had more to do with it.

MD: How does your art-making continue to play a role in your recovery and healing?

DS: It is my main vehicle to express emotion. Without a creative outlet, I'd feel like a leaf blowing in the wind.

David Sandum, from A Journey (Series), 2015
Oil on Canvas, 73 cm x 93 cm
© David Sandum
Used With Permission

MD: Are you involved in any public initiatives in Norway to promote mental health awareness, help foster support of those suffering, or help others become more open about living with their mental illness?

DS: Yes. Through my annual #TwitterArtExhibit social media project, for which artists send hand-painted postcards that are sold for charity, we [David and co-organizing board members and artists Nat George and Robin Maria Pedrero] have raised money for many organizations dealing with mental health issues, such as Moss Women's Crisis Center, a women's shelter in Moss, Norway; and The Center for Contemporary Dance in Orlando, Florida, which, through specialty dance classes, helps children with autism and Down syndrome. In 2015, I organized the event in my hometown for Home Start Moss, which helps struggling young families. [Ed. Note: See Past Exhibitions at #TwitterArtExhibit Website.] In 2013, on World Mental Health Day, I spoke about depression at Moss Public Library. In addition, I have written several blog posts about depression for Depression Alliance (a charity in the United Kingdom) and many others.

I hope that through my book, I continue to find opportunities to engage. I believe that the healing process begins by helping others who have the ailments I have.

MD: You told an interviewer at The Writing Piazza that your "second book will be about restoring my dignity." That implies that you feel you lost your dignity. Can you elaborate briefly on what you meant?

DS: Feeling a lack of self-worth is always a part of depression. I have never met a severely depressed person who feels good about himself. We can love other people but not ourselves.

Guilt also plays a role. Not being able to work or contribute constructively and emotionally to our families or society, we think that the world would be a better place without us. There is absolutely no self-dignity in feeling that way. 

Depression is nothing but a black hole. We can only begin to climb out of it if we believe we have something to offer, that we are loved and can love in return.

Overcoming depression can take a long time; patience from loved ones, along with professional help to change destructive patterns of thinking and behaving, are required.

David Sandum, Untitled, 2015
Gouache on Watercolor Paper 
9" x 12"
© David Sandum
Used With Permission

MD: How might you respond to this statement, "It's far more courageous to live than to take one's life"?

DS: That statement is made by healthy people who don't understand mental health.

The most powerful parts of my book involve the emotions around my attempted suicide. I am convinced that most people who take their own lives are playing a kind of Russian roulette, though I have met people determined to end it all. Both scenarios are real, and people must be brave enough to try to help save those in need, to dare to ask questions and encourage them to seek a professional's aid. Don't try to fix things alone, or think that they will sort themselves out, and don't try to carry your burden alone. Never dismiss as weak anyone who even hints at having suicidal thoughts; that person is ill and needs care and compassion.

I thank David for so generously giving thought and time to this interview, and for allowing me to include images of his art. Additional information about David follows.

David Sandum is a largely self-taught artist; he characterizes himself as a colorist and expressionist. A prolific painter (oil on canvas and gouache on paper) and printmaker, and a passionate advocate of art, David exhibited for the first time in Moss, Norway, in 2002; since then, he has participated in numerous solo and group shows. One of his paintings, from a series honoring his grandmother, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, is in the collection of the Mizel Museum, in Denver, Colorado.

Born in Gothenburg, Sweden, David lived several years in the United States, attending the University of Utah, which awarded him a bachelor's degree in speech communication in 1999. David currently resides in Moss, Norway, with his wife Kjerstie and their two sons. He maintains an active presence on social media.

David Sandum on FaceBook and Twitter

David Sandum Page at Jacqueline Brewer Gallery

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