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.

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More Essays

Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "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."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."