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

Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "“The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy” – this is how Jacob Lawrence described his project in 1954. Over sixty-five years later his proposal has, if anything, become only more urgent. Two days after this exhibition closes, Americans will vote in what is arguably the most significant election in a generation, an election that will measure our commitment to preserving that democracy, the struggle for which was Lawrence’s mighty theme."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "There are also other ways our life stories can be passed down through generations, besides being inscribed in our DNA...... One 2014 study looked at epigenetic changes in mice. Mice love the sweet smell of cherries, so when a waft reaches their nose, a pleasure zone in the brain lights up, motivating them to scurry around and hunt out the treat.... The researchers decided to pair this smell with a mild electric shock, and the mice quickly learned to freeze in anticipation....... The study found this new memory was transmitted across the generations. The mice’s grandchildren were fearful of cherries, despite not having experienced the electric shocks themselves. The grandfather’s sperm DNA changed its shape, leaving a blueprint of the experience entwined in the genes."
Oct 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "As we Americans face the potential loss of a peaceful transition of power after the election and the possible end of democracy as we know it, we are reminded that discourse matters, that words matter and that the one who quotes poetry is a man who reads—and that matters."
Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
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."