An Artist’s Craft for Self-Healing
Painter, writer and photographer Carrie Hilgert has found the most meaningful inspiration for her work in herself. Like many artists, she faces mental health challenges. Instead of allowing herself to be hindered by her diagnosis of bipolar disorder, Hilgert picks up a brush or a camera. Creating art is one of her greatest joys — and quite simply, it’s good medicine.
One of Hilgert’s most memorable characters is Myrtle — a gutsy, galvanizing ostrich woman often depicted holding a lit cigarette in her vibrantly manicured hand. I recently caught up with Carrie, and she shared her views of the roles of art and mental health — not to mention Myrtle — in her identity.
Q: As a creative soul, you have so many personae. Who is Carrie?
A: Who I am today’s very much who I was as a child: creative, empathic, very odd. I had a long period during early adulthood until my mid-30s when I was foreign to myself. I struggled. I tried to fit myself into a box with clearly defined labels, and it was the worst. Who I am is someone who wants to take everything around me and put it together into something beautiful, magical. My creativity’s just an extension of that, of wanting to show people a little or a lot of the magic that I’ve seen every day of my life, even when it was dark. In practical terms, I’m a visual artist who writes. I’ve done a lot of creative things, but art and painting are my first loves.
Q: You mention on your website that bipolar disorder is a part of who you are. How do you keep from seeing it as your identity as so many people with the condition do?
A: It’s not my identity. I really believe it’s just something that happened to my brain as a result of the trauma in life. I also believe that I’m deeply sensitive and prone to mood swings. It just happens to be severe enough at times that I get a diagnosis. It’s just a scientific label. And sometimes I think it’s more a result of not accepting who I was for so many years. Not that I’m minimizing my mental illness, but everything is so connected, and I think science just hasn’t gotten to the point where we can see it yet. Bipolar is just a small part of my brain compared to what else I have to offer. I try to see myself as a soul passing through this life with a bigger purpose. Some days that’s easier than others.
Q: What’s your view of art?
A: For me, art’s my communication. It’s the only way I can accurately show people what I feel. When I leave this earth, I want my art to have expanded people just a bit more, if not healed them in some way. I know it’s a lofty goal, and practically speaking, I make art that I love for myself. The biggest surprise has been that others have connected with it so deeply. So, a win-win.
Q: Do you have favorite ways of scattering beauty into the world?
A: Everything’s so beautiful to me. The darkness, the light. The in-betweens. I’m deeply moved by the smallest things. If I scatter anything, it’s just to share those little moments; whether it’s Instagram, painting, or photography. Showing people the magic in the everyday is my passion. Even the darkest parts of our life have a kind of beauty. If we can see it differently, I think it’d remove a lot of the shame we feel for things we can’t help. That process is beautiful.
Q: Introduce Myrtle to us, please.
A: Myrtle’s an ostrich woman who came partly from a dream and partly from just an idea I had. I was drawing in my sketchbook one night, and there she was. She was powerful from the start. I recognized her as the person I’ve been trying to be for a while now. She’d been coming out bit by bit, and when I took a trip to Oregon with 11 other badass women, I came home feeling so confident with myself as a person that I think Myrtle finally just came out. She just does her thing. She’s like that eccentric old lady down the block who’s so herself that people have to respect that. Not that she cares. She knows it’s her life to live, and while she loves very deeply, she also just doesn’t have time for nonsense.
Q: Is she your alter ego?
A: I think that yes, she’s my alter ego. For years, I described myself as an ostrich with my head in the sand. Life was too much for me. I couldn’t deal with anything. But as I learned to love who I am, I gained confidence and was able to hold my head up a bit higher as time went on. Myrtle came out in a very subconscious way, and I didn’t put two and two together about the ostrich thing until much later. Such is how all my art works.
Q: Why’s the word “no” so challenging but empowering?
A: For me, “no” is a challenging word because rocking the boat means conflict. I’ve had so much conflict already — from abuse and from difficult, toxic people — that to say “no” was to invite stress. I just couldn’t handle it. I’m still working on it. But I’m getting better. Coupling it with kindness has been really helpful.
Q: You mention in your blog that fear has been a worthy adversary and that Myrtle helps you to confront it. Would you share about that?
A: Fear crippled me for so many years. Myrtle is some kind of magic for me, and I’m learning others. Her voice and attitude are so strong that I feel she’s just that strong reminder that we can just be who we are, and that’s OK. And when we own our lives, all things start to click into place. There’s less fear when we remember that this is it. Life’s short, and I don’t want to be on my deathbed having memories of how much I cared about other people’s thoughts of me. It makes me angry that I did for so long. No more.
Q: Although I know it impacts men too, why do you think women in particular have a difficult time releasing attachment to what people think about them?
A: Women crave connection. We assume we have to be acceptable to deserve that connection. So we mold ourselves into beings that fit in easier to make friends that don’t end up being the ones we need. They end up being toxic or unhealthy because we’re not being authentic. Authenticity scares us because we fear we’ll be outcast and never find love. But the more authentic we are, the more we give others permission and strength to let go of that exhausting baggage. Only then can we have real connection.
Q: Can we channel our inner Myrtle in different ways? I’m against smoking, but I see her cigarette as beaming an assertive “don’t mess with me” attitude rather than as advocating for smoking.
A: Myrtle’s Myrtle. Yes, she’s an illustration, so I think she’ll speak truth that each person needs. That’s the beauty of art. But as a character, Myrtle does what she does. She doesn’t actually smoke these days, but she lights up the cigarette and holds it for comfort. That’s her journey. And that’s the point. We might not always agree with each other’s choices, but they’re not our choices. Each person deserves that power to decide.
By Edie Weinstein, LSW
Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1