Jun 29th 2020

My Conversation with artist Ruth Poniarski

by Sam Ben-Meir


Sam Ben-Meir is an assistant adjunct professor of philosophy at City University of New York, College of Technology.

Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons.

Transformation
"Transformation by Ruth Poniarski"

Your mental health woes began as you tell it when you unwittingly ate a brownie laced with PCP. You had the first of many breakdowns that night in 1977. Do you believe the PCP was the direct cause of your illness?

What happened was in my sophomore year in college I began to indulge too much in marijuana. One night I blacked out. After that I eliminated pot entirely from my life. The paranoia and depression lingered on even though I stopped marijuana cold. During my senior year my boyfriend was away and I was at a loss for a friend. At the end of a party I was given this brownie. I had a predisposition to the affects of the PCP. That set me off. I spiraled into a pattern of psychosis. It was very frightening. You need to remember that back in 1977 psychiatry was not as developed as it is today. Sophisticated medicines were not there.

Is there anything you would like to share about your childhood and upbringing? Were you exposed to art early on?

My mother was a little bit eccentric. She took me to a life-drawing class with a nude model. I rendered this woman. I was able to get the torso very well and then I lost my concentration, and it look like a Picasso drawing. Very advanced for my age. After that it kind of was in me to be an artist. It really influenced me inadvertently in taking up painting later on in my life.

Your story emphasizes the importance of having a proper support group. Undoubtedly many people suffering with mental health issues are dealing with the same issue. Can you speak to that? How did your life change when you found the right support? What did it take to put that support in place?

For the first seven years of my illness I was seen by a psychiatrist, Dr. Samuel. He always told me to find friendships outside of my parents. But I wasn’t open about my mental problems with friends because I thought they would shun me. That caused me to be very alone. In 1984 I found George, another psychiatrist. From the beginning he included my parents in therapy. My brother was in the army. When he was around he also met with George. Right away the tone of the therapy with George consciously developed support with my family and subsequently I was able to find friendships that were healthier.

You’ve written a memoir, an account of your struggle with mental illness, and with apparently incompetent doctors, and how you finally recovered your life. Did the process of writing itself change your outlook at all? Did it have an effect on the way you understood your story?

When I initially started writing the book it was to be the personal story behind the paintings – but as I developed writing this it was very therapeutic. I had the opportunity to look back at myself, to disengage myself from myself. I was able to actually show myself the cyclic pattern I had fallen into. I was able to look. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of keeping a journal, especially in stressful times.

RT R
"Rousseau's World" by Ruth Poniarski

 

What have you learned from your personal struggles with mental illness? If you could share one thing with those who may be dealing with similar challenges what it would be?

First, you have to identify the problem. Talk to somebody: when I felt my demons coming on I would talk about it. Never give up. It took me thirty years to find the right dosage of medication. Thirty years. But I never gave up. I always went on and on and on. Research as much as you can. Read about it – including autobiographies, which helped me to see that I was not alone. Cling to something higher than yourself. Imagine it. And keep a journal. In my book I inadvertently deal with the issue of suicide. And my theory on suicide is that you could lose your sense for a half an hour and be unlucky and able to kill yourself. But if you don’t kill yourself you have the chance to redeem yourself and get better. You have to have someone to talk to.

How do you see the relationship between art and mental health? Generally speaking, but also in terms of your own life. Do you view art as essentially therapeutic? Can it restore us to health and wholeness? Is that part of what you want to achieve?

Yes, on a couple of different levels. I am able to channel my very active imagination. I mean you could tell when I was breaking down and having a psychosis and I was imagining that a revolution was happening. My mind was unchecked. I did not really start making art until 1987. In 1988 I really started to develop art as a profession. I was able to channel my imagination. It gave me a sense of creative purpose. I was able to focus on being very disciplined. The painting made me grounded a little bit more, to take it a day at a time. It gave me the avenue to channel my imagination. George would say ‘don’t put bunions in your head’ – in other words, don’t put obstacles in your way. Take things an hour at a time. Don’t think thirty years ahead. Set small goals. The paintings were small goals – each day I would do a little part of a painting. And I would build it up to a full picture. I would develop the story as I went along. I started a painting with several images and then I would develop the story.    

Your art involves a kind of personal mythology one might say. You draw on certain motifs that appear and reappear in your paintings. What draws you to these motifs? How did you develop your personal vocabulary?

It took a period of time. The image on the cover of the book was one that I painted in 1990. That painting was the mother of all my surrealist paintings that followed. Originally, it was a picture of me holding my infant son. The infant is modelled on Rembrandt’s mother’s face. My face is modelled on da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. You are holding your old self. She is embracing is her older self. We carry our old selves with us, our old experiences.

One notices that there are certain artists you like to quote as it were, including Rodin, but perhaps none more than Rembrandt. What is it about a Rembrandt’s Woman Bathing in a Stream from 1654 that you keep coming back to this figure?

I was influenced by Rembrandt and his biblical storytelling. That influenced me in portraying contemporary storytelling. That bathing figure first appeared in my painting The Milking of Spring (1994). I really adored that figure – I don’t know how else to put it. By the way all my paintings have poems. There is a poem called Transformation and that is about a painting of a Rodin sculpture, the Thinker, in a forest and he is touched by a fox. His foot becomes flesh. He is painted in bronze, but his foot becomes flesh from the moment that fox sniffed his foot. I use animals as part of my language.

Certain animals – lions, for example – reoccur in your paintings. In one painting (Rousseau’s World) a woman finds her reflection as a lion in a pool of water.

The lion is very regal. After a while I developed a language with the animal. I love animals so much. Bringing up my children we had five dogs at one time.

You come from a Jewish background. What role has Judaism played in your art and your development as an artist?

Biblical stories – especially from the book of Genesis – left an indelible imprint on me. When I was sixteen years old I made a trip to Israel. That was in 1972. One of the best summers I ever had. I spent half a week on a kibbutz – that also left an imprint on me. My husband’s parents were holocaust survivors. They lost their entire families. They met in an Italian concentration camp; and were the last to be filmed by the Shoah Foundation. My in-laws’ experience and story had a major impact on me.   

Sleep seems to be a reoccurring theme for you. Rest, repose, and also dreams — I know part of your struggle was with insomnia. Staying up for days on end. So sleep is an understandably important theme for you. Would you care to comment on this?

Sleep to me is the most important element of living. When you go to sleep you’re able to dream. Even if you don’t remember your dreams you’re able to work out the illogical, irrational thinking in your sleep. There are a lot of people who get four hours of sleep. I don’t think that is enough. I think a human being needs between seven and nine hours of sleep. Sleep is like food. Insomnia is a big problem in the United States.  When I lose my sleep that is when my demons come. I go to bed at the same time every night religiously. I try not to have any caffeinated beverages from three o’clock on. I try not to stimulate myself too much before I sleep. When I go to sleep I do say a prayer – I lean on something that is higher than myself.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT: "Health disparity is a powerful weapon in the savage class warfare otherwise known as neoliberalism. (In 2020, the RAND Corporation did a study of the transfer of wealth over the last several decades from the working-class and the middle-class to the top one percent. Their estimate is a staggering $47 trillion – that is how much the “upward redistribution of income” cost American workers between 1975 and 2018.) Neoliberalism is a brutal form of labor suppression, which uses health as a means of maintaining and reproducing a condition in which wealth is constantly being redistributed upwards, and the middle-class is kept in a constant state of fear of sinking into the ranks of the poor. Medical expenses are the leading cause of bankruptcies in America – and that’s according to the American Bankruptcy Institute. The ballooning costs of healthcare serve to maintain a system marked by morally unacceptable health inequity and injustice."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT. "But living longer has also come at a price. We’re now seeing higher rates of chronic and degenerative diseases – with heart disease consistently topping the list. So while we’re fascinated by what may help us live longer, maybe we should be more interested in being healthier for longer. Improving our “healthy life expectancy” remains a global challenge. Interestingly, certain locations around the world have been discovered where there are a high proportion of centenarians who display remarkable physical and mental health. The AKEA study of Sardinia, Italy, as example, identified a “blue zone” (named because it was marked with blue pen),....."
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACT: ""Tresors en Noir et Blanc" presents 180 prints from the collection of the Musee des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, also known as the Petit Palais.  The basis of the museum's print collection is 20,000 engravings amassed by a 19th-century collector, Eugene Dutuit, " ----- "This wonderful exhibition, the tip of a great iceberg, serves to emphasize how unfortunate it is that the tens of thousands of prints owned by the Petit Palais are almost never seen by more than a handful of scholars who visit them by appointment.  Nor is the Petit Palais the only offender in this regard,....."
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACTS: "And that is the clue to Manet’s work. He paints painting, regardless of his subject: he paints the medium itself, it as if he is constantly reminding us that this is a painting," ..........."This is a new conception of painterly truth at play here, a new fidelity to truth. Manet is the Kant of painting because he initiates a similar kind of “Copernican revolution” – we do not see the world as it is but as we are. " -------- " Among the most remarkable but unfamiliar of Manet’s work on display are those depicting the bloody aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871.There is no question regarding Manet’s condemnation of the Versailles government’s actions following the defeat of the Commune, when some 25,000 Parisians were gunned down, including women and children."
Dec 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "Think of our brain like a map. When we’re young, we explore all corners of this map, sending out connections in every direction to make sense of our environment. Before long, we figure out basic truths – such as how to secure food, or where we live – and the neurological paths that make up these connections strengthen. Over time, a network emerges that reflects our unique experiences. Regions we re-visit often will develop established paths, whereas under-used connections will fade away. ---- Conditions such as addiction, chronic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are characterised by processes such as repetitive negative thinking or rumination, where patients focus on negative thoughts in a counterproductive way. Unfortunately, these strengthen brain connections that perpetuate the unfavourable mental state."
Dec 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "While no one was looking, France has become a melting pot of European peoples. Its neighbors have traditionally been welcomed, and France progressively turned them into French boys and girls in the next generation."
Dec 4th 2023
EXTRACTS: "Being rich is essentially about having more stuff in general, including bigger houses." "..... if SUVs had not become widely adopted largely as a status symbol for the global middle classes, emissions from transport would have fallen by 30% over the past ten years. For the largest class of SUVs, six of the ten areas of the UK registering the most sales were affluent London boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "By using these “biomarkers”, researchers have discovered that when a person’s biological age surpasses their chronological age, it often signifies accelerated cell ageing and a higher susceptibility to age-related diseases." ----- "Imagine two 60-year-olds enrolled in our study. One had a biological age of 65, the other 60. The one with the more accelerated biological age had a 20% higher risk of dementia and a 40% higher risk of stroke."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACT: "We are working on a completely new approach to 'machine intelligence'. Instead of using ..... software, we have developed .... hardware that operates much more efficiently."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "When people think of foods related to type 2 diabetes, they often think of sugar (even though the evidence for that is still not clear). Now, a new study from the US points the finger at salt." ...... ".... this type of study, called an observational study, cannot prove that one thing causes another, only that one thing is related to another. (There could be other factors at play.) So it is not appropriate to say removing the saltshaker 'can help prevent'." ..... "Normal salt intake in countries like the UK is about 8g or two teaspoons a day. But about three-quarters of this comes from processed foods. Most of the rest is added during cooking with very little added at the table."
Oct 26th 2023

 

In 1904, Emile Bernard visited Paul Cezanne in Aix.  He wrote of a conversation at dinner:

Sep 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "Many people have dipped their toe into the lazy gardener’s life through “no mow May” – a national campaign to encourage people not to mow their lawns until the end of May. But you could opt to extend this practice until much later in the summer for even greater benefits. Allowing your grass to grow longer, and interspersing it with pollen-rich flowers, can benefit many insects – especially bees. Research finds that reducing mowing in urban and suburban environments has a positive effect on the amount and diversity of insects. Your untamed lawn won’t only benefit insects. It will also encourage more birds, such as goldfinches, to use your garden to feed on the seeds of common wildflower species such as dandelions."
Aug 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "Eliot remarked that Shakespeare's greatness not only grew as the writer aged, but that his development became more apparent to the reader as he himself aged: 'No reader of Shakespeare... can fail to recognize, increasingly as he himself grows up, the gradual ripening of Shakespeare's mind.' "
Aug 25th 2023
EXTRACTS: "I moved here 15 years ago from London because it was so safe. Bordeaux was then known as La Belle au Bois Dormant (The Sleeping Beauty). It's the wine capital of France and the site of beautiful 18th century architecture arrayed along the Garonne river." ---- "What’s new is that today lawlessness is spreading into the more comfortable neighborhoods. The favorite technique is to defraud elderly retirees by dressing up as policemen, waterworks inspectors or gas meter readers. False badges including a photo ID are easy to fabricate on a computer printer. Once inside, they scoop up most anything shiny as they tip-toe through the house."
Aug 20th 2023
EXTRACT: "The 1953 coup d'etat in Iran ushered in a period of exploitation and oppression that has continued – despite a subsequent revolution that led to huge changes – for 70 years. Each year on August 19, the anniversary of the coup, millions of Iranians ask themselves what would have happened if the US and UK had not conspired all those years ago to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected leader."
Aug 18th 2023
EXTRACT: "Edmundo Bacci: Energy and Light, curated by Chiara Bertola, and currently on view at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, is the first retrospective of the artist in several decades. Bacci was a native of Venice, a city with a long and illustrious history of painting, going back to Giorgione and Titian, Veronese and Tiepolo. As a painter, he was thoroughly immersed in this great past – as an artist he was determined to transform and remake that tradition in the face of modernity and its vicissitudes, what he called “the expressive crisis of our time.” That he has slipped into obscurity affords us, at the very least, an opportunity to see Bacci’s work essentially for the first time, without the burden of over-determined interpretations or categories."
Aug 12th 2023
EXTRACT: "Is Oppenheimer a movie for our time, reminding us of the tensions, dangers and conflicts of the old Cold War while a new one threatens to break out? The film certainly chimes with today’s big power conflicts (the US and China), renewed concern about nuclear weapons (Russia’s threats over Ukraine), and current ideological tensions between democratic and autocratic systems. But the Cold War did not just rest on the threat of the bomb. Behind the scientists and generals were many other players, among them the economists, who clashed just as vigorously in their views about how to run postwar economies."
Aug 5th 2023
EXTRACT: "I have a modest claim to make: we need Bruno today more than ever. This is because he represents an intellectual antidote to the prevailing ideology of today which tells us that we are doomed to finitude, which comes down politically to the assertion that there is no alternative to the reign of global capitalism. Of course, Bruno did not know about capitalism, globalization or neoliberalism. What he did know however is that humanity is infinite. That we are limited only by our own narrowness of vision."
Jul 26th 2023
EXTRACT: "We studied 55,000 people’s dietary data and linked what they ate or drank to five key measures: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, water pollution and biodiversity loss. Our results are now published in Nature Food. We found that vegans have just 30% of the dietary environmental impact of high-meat eaters. The dietary data came from a major study into cancer and nutrition that has been tracking the same people (about 57,000 in total across the UK) for more than two decades."
Jul 26th 2023
EXTRACT: "Art historians have never understood economics, and as a result they believe they can ignore markets: in their view, the production of art can be treated in isolation from its sale.  This is of course disastrously wrong.  But their ignorance has led to a neglect of the economic history of art. "