Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Interview with Artist David Sandum, Part 1

Writing Through Illness Toward Recovery:
Interview with Artist David Sandum, Part 1

[With words,] you can state something concrete,
while painting most often leaves a lot to the imagination.
~ Painter David Sandum

If you dwell in the virtual worlds of art and Twitter, you may instantly recognize the name David Sandum; it belongs to the founder of #twitterartexhibit, which annually enlists artists all over the world to submit handmade postcard art that is then exhibited and sold to raise charitable funds. (The 2016 event, in New York City, benefits Foster Pride's "Handmade" program.) Established in 2010, the event has become a huge success. 

But success, even as often as it seems to come to David, now a full-time visual artist, doesn't begin to define the ever-expanding boundaries of his life, which has been marked by decades-long struggles with "self-love and acceptance", deep depression, and late-manifesting bipolar disorder that enveloped him in darkness and left him hospitalized for days or weeks at a time.

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 powerful memoir, with its vivid accountings of despair met with an iron-fisted hold on hope, I conducted an e-mail interview with David, both to learn more about how he came to write his book and to further examine how his life so affected by illness could be transformed through art-making. Part 1 of my interview follows. Part 2 of my interview appears tomorrow. 

Remarks have been edited. 

* * * * *

Maureen E. Doallas: On the one hand, going public about one's own mental illness is risky, no matter where one is living; often such an approach can leave one feeling isolated and stigmatized, even among friends. On the other hand, being open can aid others in overcoming fears and helping to raise awareness of what it is like to experience and live with mental illness. What, specifically, impelled you to write your story and make it available to others to read?

David Sandum: I've often thought about what motivated me to share such intimate details about myself—it was painful both to write and share some chapters. But I decided at the start that to render a full picture of how depression could evolve, I had to tell it all. 

At times, I could write only a few sentences before I became too emotional and had to stop, particularly when I was writing about self-harm, my mother's death, an incident involving a pedophile, the sexual side-effects of medications, and family issues. At other times, when describing my hospitalizations, for example, it felt wonderfully cathartic to write.

So, I paint and write, because anxiety can be unbearable if I keep all the difficult feelings bottled up inside.

I felt terribly lonely going through all those dark years. I longed to hear what others in a similar situation were experiencing, to know I wasn't alone. I wanted to reach out to others struggling with mental illness and explain to their families and friends what that struggle can feel like.

The book is also a family record; if my children and grandchildren ever wonder about what happened, they'll have my book to read. One of my sisters wrote and thanked me for including details about my grandparents that she had been unaware of—I'm amazed at what gets lost in a few generations. 

Finally, I see the writing process as a search for my personal identity: Who am I? How did this illness come to be? How am I defined as someone with mental illness?

MD: How did your family members react on learning that your book would be published?

DS: Almost everyone in my immediate family was supportive. I gave the manuscript to my father, stepmother, wife, and in-laws a year in advance and asked them for any changes or deletions. Based on their feedback, I made a few changes and, without altering the story, deleted some sentences they found sensitive.

My wife struggled the most. After reading the first few chapters, she had to stop. "I support your writing and trust you," she told me, "but it's simply too painful to go through everything again." She still hasn't read the book, and I respect her decision. I realize now that her reluctance to read I'll Run may stem from feeling that she could have done something different to help me.

David Sandum, Inspired by the Hudson, 2013-14
Oil on Canvas, 125 cm x 95 cm
© David Sandum
Used With Permission

MD: You mention in your book that you have long kept journals, and I found the journal excerpts that accompany the chapters often insightful. Did you keep a journal during any or all of the time you recount in I'll Run Till the Sun Goes Down?

DS: I have kept journals all my life. I have 24 journals, written before I got ill. [See the image below right, showing the cover of one of David's journals. Image provided courtesy of Sandra Jonas Publishing.]

Memory is fascinating. When I was attending the University of Utah, I read a very good book by Marita Sturken called Tangled Memories (University of California Press, 1997). The author made me realize that I had to write down things straightaway to prevent myself from altering my own memory over time. When I got severely depressed, I didn't have the energy to keep a regular journal and primarily jotted down short thoughts, conversations, and experiences on loose pieces of paper or on the back of my drawing pads. Gradually, I accumulated plenty of notes and, afraid I'd eventually lose them, I started entering them into my computer. From then on, I continued writing down things as they happened. Otherwise, I could never have remembered all the details I provide in the book. As Sturken said, I'd be in danger of altered memory.

Sometimes, I used my journal entries to augment my book's text.

MD: What are some of your thoughts when you re-read your entries?

DS: I am always right there, which, of course, can be painful.

To me, the whole book is like one big journal entry. I feel the same way when I look at some old paintings and drawings—my painting Depression Prayer, for example, or my drawing of my hospital bed.

Some parts of the book are funny. I still laugh contemplating the Larry King scene in Chapter 38 ["Larry and the Moron"; David imagines being interviewed by King], and the one at the end of Chapter 20 ["The Dolphin Spirit"], where I am listening to old men talking in a sauna at a local pool.

MD: Does your writing, and in particular your journal writing, serve a purpose for you that art-making cannot or does not?

DS: Yes. Painting is more about expressing what's inside me at a particular moment. It can be less tangible than writing—even if Munch's The Scream is anything but a statement. Yet, a picture can be interpreted in so many different ways. Words, if chosen correctly, are very direct—you can state something concrete—while painting most often leaves a lot to the imagination.

David Sandum, Love of My Life, 2015
Drypoint Etching from Copper Plates
Image Size 14 cm x 21 cm
© David Sandum
Used With Permission

MD: Once you decided to write your book, how did you set out to craft the narrative? For example, did you collect and re-read any journals you were keeping? Did you need to interview anyone involved in your care? How did you come to recollect so much dialogue?

DS: My notes and journal entries were very helpful in keeping the timeline accurate. The journal entries also often included dialogue. (After 2003, I began using a computer to record conversations immediately after they took place.)

At the hospital, I had access to a computer, which patients used mostly to play solitaire. The computer had Microsoft Word® software, so I used a floppy disk and wrote a lot in the file. At home, I often sat down at my PC, right after a therapy session, to record what happened when it happened, knowing I'd forget quickly otherwise.

Today, I use Notes, the built-in app on my iPhone, and date everything.

Also, I remember some things very well. (My wife often comments that this ability is both a blessing and a curse.) I don't know why but I remember conversations almost like I recall pictures.

For some parts of my book, like those about my grandparents, I had to do research. If I was unsure about anything, I called people and asked for details. For example, I called and asked questions several times about my grandmother on my father's side, who herself struggled with depression. My father provided many family-related details.

I also spent time researching artists and their artworks included in the book. All the references are from books I'd already read.

MD: Did you remove anything from your book that you wish had been retained?

DS: Hundreds of pages were edited out—ask my editor, Sandra Jonas, what a job that was!

When I was writing, everything seemed important, and sometimes I felt I had to sacrifice parts for the whole. But keeping all the details would have made the book too long and heavy. A lot of text, especially about bipolar disorder, was removed from the second half of the book; there simply wasn't space. Some of the discussions about different theories about the illness were deleted; although they were interesting to me, they read like an academic paper. Sandra's philosophy was that we should remove anything not directly connected to my personal story; I agreed, and I'm very pleased with the result.

David Sandum, The Artist (Series), 2015
Gouache, 14 cm x 21 cm
© David Sandum
Used With Permission

MD: Seeing your story into print was a long and fraught process for you. Remarkably, you seem never to have given up on bringing that process to fruition. Describe your first reactions on seeing a published copy of I'll Run Till the Sun Goes Down and holding it in your hands.

DS: I will never forget the day in Boulder, Colorado, in the summer of 2015, when Sandra came to my hotel room with the book fresh off the press. I felt a mix of emotions: relief that it was finally done, excitement that I'd reached my goal, and fear of how the book would be received.

On the plane home a few days later, I read the book in print for the first time. It was an amazing experience!

MD: Your particular mental illness went improperly diagnosed for many years, and you were averse to taking medications for a variety of reasons. What, finally, helped you to decide in favor of taking drugs, which, in your case, is lithium?

DS: It is not necessarily true that I was "improperly diagnosed". Bipolar disorder often manifests in the late twenties or early thirties, as in my case. I have always had bipolar traits but I didn't "cross the line" from deep depression to bipolar disorder until about 2003.

The book spans nearly eight years. One of the things I wanted it to show was the progression from burnout, to depression, to clinical depression, to bipolar disorder.

It is a myth that people with bipolar disorder are always "up" or "down". One can remain in the middle for years, and some may experience only one or two manic episodes in their lifetime.

As I mention in the book, I had to deal with different medical professionals' opinions: Doctors at the hospital took a primarily medical approach, while my psychoanalyst, Robert, never wanted to "go there," leaving me confused. I took lithium for many years because the doctors nearly demanded I do so. I was at rock-bottom then and figured I had no choice. I resisted medications at first but then decided to trust the doctors.

MD: Has your experience of taking medications to control your bipolar disorder shifted your thinking about use of such drugs?

DS: Yes, and in my next book, spanning 2008 to 2015, I will address this.

I took lithium until 2010 but now I believe I was on it too long. Then again, I can't say what would have happened if I hadn't been on it. Patients often get into trouble when they end medications too abruptly or too soon.

David Sandum, The City Road, 2015
Signed Drypoint Etching from Copper Plates
Image Size 14 cm x 21 cm
Made and Printed in Barcelona, Spain
at Estudi de Gravat Ignasi Aguirre Ruiz
© David Sandum
Used With Permission

MD: Having gone through so much pain and suffering and come so close, during your deepest depression, to taking your life, what matters most to you now?

DS: I know people expect me to answer, "Family." And, yes, my family is important. But understanding and managing my condition matter tenfold. Endurance is key—to not panic when the anxiety and depression return. This is an ongoing battle for me.

I also appreciate traveling and seeing my art evolve, not stagnating or giving in to fear.

MD: Your family has traveled a difficult path with you. What have been some of the general effects of your bipolar disorder on your family, and what do you think have been your wife's and sons' most effective coping mechanisms?

DS: I never see myself as ill. I am just me.

Sometimes, my kids especially will tell me that minor issues are not the end of the world—but they are always very empathetic. My wife has had to be very pragmatic to make things work. Having her family close by has been a huge help. The kids always have had their grandparents and my wife's younger siblings across the street. They have aways gone with them on family vacations and trips to their cabin in the Norwegian mountains. This has reduced the stress for them.

The fact that I was in treatment also has to have been a comfort to my family. I cannot imagine the stress loved ones must feel if those they love don't get professional help.

MD: What would be your message to a person who may be experiencing what you suffered?

DS: You are not so alone as you think. Many people suffer from what you do. If you are suicidal, or you feel that your world is falling apart, seek professional help. Communicate somehow. Find creative ways to deal with your difficult emotions. Start writing, pick up your guitar, make art. It does not matter that what you do is perfect. If you are too ill, endure. But do not endure alone.

MD: Your book comes to its conclusion around 2007, some eight years into the illness you describe. What have the years between 2007 and now been like for you?

DS: From 2007 to 2010, I was still caught up in my illness. Therapy with Robert, my psychoanalyst, continued but I was not hospitalized again. I kept working hard in my studio and exhibited yearly.

In 2010, I took my first trip back to the U.S. since breaking down in Portland, Oregon, in 2003. I painted in the desert at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, and felt the peace of being in Sedona, Arizona. Something about my experiences in these places made me want to fight back, end the medications, and reclaim my life. This period will be the focus of my second book.

MD: What do you do for self-care?

DS: I paint, write, and travel. (I am amazed at how some of my trips have come about. I have never had much money but always have managed to sell a painting and find kind people to stay with.) Exercise and a good diet are important, though I admit I sometimes don't exercise enough or eat only healthful food.

Painting is still my main means for venting. If I'm too tired to paint, I go for walks and take photos. When life feels overwhelming, I often go alone to the movies. It helps to disappear into the screen for a few hours while eating a bag of popcorn.

MD: What do you hope your readers take away from the book?

DS: Empathy, understanding, the power of conversation and love, the gift of art.

Join me tomorrow for Part 2, in which David addresses my questions about discovering art during his illness and the role of art-making in his recovery.


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 works at Estudi de Gravat Aguirre Ruiz in Barcelona, Spain. The print master is Ignacio Aguirre Ruiz.

David Sandum on FaceBook and Twitter

David Sandum Page at Jacqueline Brewer Gallery

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