Jun 29th 2020

My Conversation with artist Ruth Poniarski

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.

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

May 19th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Thus experimental creativity could be witnessed, but not verbalized.  When five leading Abstract Expressionist painters founded an art school in New York in the late 1940s, they offered no formal courses, because, as Robert Motherwell explained, "in a basic sense art cannot be taught." ------ "Conceptual artists are ...... more inclined to use written texts to accompany their works in other genres.  In 1883, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, "One of these days I will write you a letter;  I shall write it carefully and try to make it short, but say everything I think necessary."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unfortunately, it’s common for dark triad personalities to become leaders. ..... their ruthlessness and ability to manipulate means they attain positions of power quite easily. When a “dark” leader attains power, conscientious, moral people rapidly fall away. A government operating under these conditions soon becomes what the Polish psychologist Andrzej Lobaczewski called a “pathocracy” – an administration made up of ruthless individuals devoid of integrity and morality. This happened with Donald Trump’s presidency, as the “adults in the room” gradually headed for the exit, leaving no one but staffers defined by their personal allegiance to Trump. A similar decay in standards has occurred in the UK."
May 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "The proportion of US electricity deriving from wind and solar in the month of April climbed to 20%. Thus, the renewables total was 26.5 if we add in hydro. This statistic is unprecedented."
Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Every year, around 12,000 men in the UK die from prostate cancer, but many more die with prostate cancer than from it. So knowing whether the disease is going to advance rapidly or not is important for knowing who to treat." ...... "For some years, we have known that pathogens (bacteria and viruses) can cause cancer. We know, for example, that Helicobacter pylori is associated with stomach cancer and that the human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer." ....... "....we have identified five types (genera) of bacteria linked to aggressive prostate cancer." ...... "We examined prostate tissue and urine samples from over 600 men with and without prostate cancer," ..... "....men who had one or more of the bacteria were nearly three times more likely to see their early stage cancer progress to advanced disease, compared with men who had none of the bacteria in their urine or prostate."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTARCTS: "Steve Jobs dreaded turning 30, because he knew it would be fatal to his creativity: "It's rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to contribute something amazing." ....... "When Ford introduced the Model T, he was 45 years old" ...... "Ford’s Model T arrived only after a series of earlier cars – Models A, B, C, K, N, R, and S." .... "Sam Walton opened Wal-Mart No. 1 in Rogers, Arkansas, at 44, and discovered “that there was much, much more business out there in small-town American than anybody, including me, had ever dreamed of.” At 53, Warren Buffett wrote in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that “your chairman, always a quick study, required only 20 years to recognize how important it was to buy good businesses.” "
Mar 29th 2022
EXTRACT: ".... Christie's web site calls Shot Sage Blue Marilyn [1964], to be auctioned in May, 'among the most iconic paintings in history', " ------ "Andy Warhol's annus mirabilis was not 1964, but 1962. This is recognized both by the market and by scholars. Thus in a paper published in the Journal of Applied Economics, Simone Lenzu and I found that in all auctions held during 1965-2015, the average price of Warhol's paintings executed in 1964 was significantly lower than the average price of those he made in 1962. And in a survey of 61 textbooks of art history published during 1991- 2015, whose authors included such eminent scholars as Martin Kemp and Rosalind Krauss, we found that fully 45% of the total of 137 illustrations of Warhol's paintings were of works from 1962, compared to only 12% of works from 1964. Thus not only do collectors value Warhol's works of 1962 more highly than those of 1964, but so do scholars of art history,.... "
Mar 29th 2022
EXTRACTS:".....there is plenty of space to scale. For internet-based businesses, the addressable total market is often large. In many areas, such as software, it spans the globe. Chinese estimates indicate that the average distance between seller and buyer on e-commerce platforms is roughly 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), compared to five kilometers for a traditional retail or service business." ------- "While the internet has removed many geographical barriers, high-growth companies cannot emerge just anywhere. In fact, though such firms can be found in more countries than ever, they remain concentrated in entrepreneurial hotspots. For example, of the 24 unicorns in Germany (as of March 2022), 17 are based in Berlin and five in Munich. Of France’s top 24 unicorns, 19 are based in Paris and one in a Paris suburb." ------ "Tech entrepreneurship has become global, but its beating heart remains local."
Mar 27th 2022
EXTRACTS: " We are supposed to be living in a post-ideological era, where everyone one is a cynic, not so gullible as to believe in anything anymore, least of all in the quaint notion of objective truth. This rejection of truth as such is among the great disasters to have befallen our relations with each other and between nations.  We appear to be beyond truth’s demise – we are now witnessing its unpleasant putrefaction and decay." ------ " If we want to grasp how ideology functions in America today, there is no better place to look than at the phenomenon of Trumpism. While he may be only a symptom, Trump himself is the quintessential embodiment of America’s moral and epistemic decline. " ------ "By its disavowal of truth and perpetuation of lies for the sake of self-aggrandizement, Trumpism represents an existential threat to this country and to the future of the Republic. It is a cancer that threatens whatever is good and decent in American life. " ----- "All they know is negative freedom – freedom from – but ignore the need for positive freedom, the freedom to… as in the freedom to flourish, to realize oneself in the world; to make and re-make oneself and the world through action."
Feb 14th 2022
EXTRACT: "In the decades since its inception, there has been heavy criticism directed towards the War on Drugs. These complaints include the increased incarceration rates, the increase in the number of prisoners in jail due to nonviolent offenses, uneven sentencing guidelines often based on the drug type and race, and suggestions of a racist component in terms of who was targeted by law enforcement. Various studies show that instead of reducing crime, the strict sentencing guidelines created more criminals and undermined many of the communities most strictly targeted by law enforcement. Long sentences for non-violent offenses made it difficult for those released to find work and weakened their bonds with family and their broader community."
Feb 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "......... there are countries that have had a relatively high number of infections but which have still managed to keep their death numbers low – countries like Japan. It’s had 17,612 infections per million people yet only 146 deaths per million. This is despite almost one in three people in Japan being over the age of 65 and so at greater risk of severe COVID (the average age of people dying from COVID is over 80). What has kept the death rate there down? A recent Japenese study has proposed an answer. It reports that the risk of people dying of COVID in Japan is related to the microbes present in their guts. "
Jan 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "Then there was a revolution. In 1964, Bob Dylan created a new kind of popular music. The simple, clear love songs ...... were replaced by complex and opaque lyrics, filled with literary allusions and symbolism. Dylan rejected the role of craftsman: "I'm an artist. I try to create art." Nor were his songs intended to be universal: "My songs were written with me in mind." "
Dec 13th 2021
EXTRACT: " We all know that Father Christmas would struggle to deliver presents to everyone around the world without the help of his magical reindeer. But why were they chosen to pull the sleigh rather than any other animal? It turns out that the biology of reindeer makes them ideal for the job. Here are five reasons why."
Dec 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Planting more forests is a potent tool for mitigating the climate crisis, but forests are like complex machines with millions of parts. Tree planting can cause ecological damage when carried out poorly, particularly if there is no commitment to diversity of planting. Following Darwin’s thinking, there is growing awareness that the best, healthiest forests are ones with the greatest variety of trees - and trees of various ages."
Nov 19th 2021
EXTRACTS: "At a time when the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy is so intense, if not fateful for the future of democracies, NATO and the EU must warn these countries [Editor's note: Poland and Hungary, EU and NATO, Turkey NATO] that they are on the precipice of being kicked out if they do not change their governing practice. They must be required to restore the principles of democracy by upholding universal human rights and abiding the rule of law, or else they will forfeit their membership and suffer from the consequences of their crimes." ------ "A narcissistic leader, such as Trump, whose hunger for power seems to know no limit, has happily sacrificed the good of the country on the altar of his twisted ego. America’s democracy cannot be repaired unless he and those who helped him are held accountable and face the weight of the law."
Nov 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many people who go through intense trauma, for example, become deeper and stronger than they were before. They may even undergo a sudden and radical transformation that makes life more meaningful and fulfilling. Indeed, research shows that between half and one-third of all people experience significant personal development after traumatic events, such as bereavement, serious illness, accidents or divorce. Over time, they may feel a new sense of inner strength and confidence and gratitude for life and other people. They may develop more intimate and authentic relationships and have a wider perspective, with a clear sense of what is important in life and what isn’t. In psychology, this is referred to as “post-traumatic growth”. "
Nov 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Notably, Murdoch thinks that really knowing or understanding another person is a difficult task: “It is a task to come to see the world as it is”. According to the Freudian psychology Murdoch subscribes to in The Sovereignty of Good, humans are prone to “fantasy” – refusing to face the truth because it can damage our fragile egos."
Nov 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "People do not believe false information because they are ignorant. There are many factors at work, but most researchers would agree that the belief in misinformation has little to do with the amount of knowledge a person possesses. Misinformation is a prime example of motivated reasoning. People tend to arrive at the conclusions they want to reach as long as they can construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these outcomes."
Oct 28th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Brood with me on the latest delay of the full release of the records pertaining to the murder of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. That was 58 years ago." -----"Mark my words: ...... No one who remembers 1963 will live to see the US government admit the full truth about Kennedy’s murder. And the American people’s faith in democracy will continue to fade. There is only one way to prevent this, and that is to release every record, withholding nothing – and to do it now."
Oct 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "..... we may defy the warnings of modern medicine, convinced of our own superiority. Researchers at the University of Chicago Divinity School reported half of their participants, all of whom indicated some religious affiliation, agreed with the statement “God will protect me from being infected”. To cope with our dread of death, we delude ourselves into thinking we are invincible: death might happen to other people, but not to me."
Oct 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch is about the final issue of a magazine that specialises in long-form articles about the goings-on in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The film is an anthology of shorts representing three of the articles. A piece by the magazine’s art critic (Tilda Swinton) explores the life and late success of the abstract artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). Talented from a young age, Rosenthaler pursued art with a dogged determination that drove him to slowly lose his mind." ---- "Like everything else, mental illness is understood within the context of its time. In their study of melancholy and genius Born Under Saturn, the art historians Margot and Rudolf Wittkower show how Renaissance artists embraced mental alienation. This was shown by a withdrawn, slothful gloom. Such heavy sadness was considered both the symptom and the price of divine inspiration." ---- "Today, the association of creativity and mental illness often implies regression from an adult and orderly state of mind to one that is primal, impulsive, or infantile. The artist in Anderson’s film is such an example: he is noisy, impetuous, and extravagantly mad. And it is while he is at his “maddest” that he paints his best work." ---- "Here I explore the work of four painters whose work has been shaped by various mental illnesses, highlighting how the idea of the “mad artist” need not be tied up with a loss of control but rather a bid to gain it."