By Elliot J. Nitkin
“An artist must have the stamina to conquer himself and his weakness”.
ow does one conquer a life with depression?
This quote was taken from a documentary about Marina Abramovic, but it was particularly impactful for me. A few days earlier I had been allowed to learn about the very personal struggle of an artist I have gotten to know over two years.
That artist is Erika Koenig-Workman.
I only met her recently, but because we had maintained a two year dialogue I earned her trust. When we met to discuss the topic of this blog, she was interested in discussing her battle with depression. If there was any reluctance on my part to write about it, it is not from a lack of empathy, quite the opposite.
It is a “hot button" topic. Famous Hollywood types from all walks of life are rushing to tell their story and show how “open” and “progressive” we have become as a society (or promote their latest movie, never certain as to which) which I find a little crass.
I found Erika genuine because I did not speak with her to write about this struggle. I wanted to introduce her as an artist. She brought it up and wanted to high-light how she lives with the challenge. When I inquired as to why she would feel strong enough to make a public confession, she said that while it may or may not sound new, in her estimation, those with the challenge must “Fully disclose the problem to themselves”.
Allowing one’s self to feel shame is to hide.
So yes, admitting to yourself that you have a problem is the beginning, but her words were that the person must “fully disclose” the problem, not simply admit that there is one. Acknowledging the full measure of the problem means understanding the full story arc of the problem. It also means being able to actually see it as a story arc.
There is a beginning, middle and an end.
Even more surprising to me is that she is not a believer in new age cures. She is not a proponent of ephemeral attachments to self-love, which she eschews for realistic, proven techniques.
Erika believes that a strong spiritual foundation forms a strong creative spirit. A strong emotional spirit is strength. Emotional strength is power, depression is debilitating and frightening, it humbles us. A strong sense of spirituality is a connection to a powerful battery, an emotional reserve we did not know we posses or is available.
Finding that reserve provides opportunity for hidden gifts to emerge. The individual will experience transformational hope.
However, Erika also acknowledges that spirituality can be where both the problem and the solution coincide. Creative people trust easily and sometimes give too much and open themselves to pain.
So how is this represented in her art? It is her expression of escape, her opportunity to enter into an invisible world.
Art for Erika is the way to express all of life’s experiences, not just angst. She enters into an invisible world like a child and is subject to the power of creative force and energy. It guides her and she gives into that guidance.
These are her words:
I have reluctantly and finally embraced that I am an artist. My parents did not name me as such; no school conferred a certificate to me, because I met their standards.
I can tell you without reserve that every step of the way for me has been a discovery.
In high school all of my highest marks were in music, visual art, English and theatre. I was shy, introverted and had few friends. I spent a lot of my time alone or at the library. My life was overshadowed by my parents divorce, my mother’s alcoholism and our fragmented family.
When one experiences an absent birth family, one seeks for belonging sometimes without knowing it. This searching extends outward to those who are most like you. For me it is artists, individuals who are in that particular ‘tribe’. Many times I was not particularly choosing artists to be with yet time and again I would be in the midst of artists, dancers, poets and musicians. In 1985, I began to follow Jesus. This led to wildly varied occupations in various denominational communities in Vancouver. I think ‘faith’ families can also be included in the search for identity. The church is like a hospital, Christ came to call sinners not saints. Catholicism is on both sides of my family and I am exploring this. Other communities I feel strongly drawn to explore are the Jewish community and First Nations community.
I'd like to say that usually my paintings are created around a topic that I am thinking deeply about. Yes, I allow the work to take me where it will, in that sense experimentation is important to me, as far as discipline goes the best one to practice is that of listening. To hear yourself, and be honest and authentic takes time, patience and maturity.
I've tried so hard not to be an artist. I’ve been like the biblical character Jonah, who ran away from God, when he was called to go to Nineveh. This resistance testifies to the fact that I have been reluctant to accept my own identity, because I did not understand or know who I am.
It seems our life's work is to come to terms with who we really are and live without fear. Intimidation and depression can get the better of us which is really confusion masked as depression and anxiety. It’s main mission is to tell us lies and make us believe them. It is a battle, yet I can say with full conviction that it is not my battle, and I am not in it alone. I have learned that many people suffer from depression for all kinds of reasons. As I embrace my own status and share my story with others, I am strengthened because we are designed and born for community and relationship. I know my life depends on making pictures, writing words and being heard.
When I make art, I express my essential self, I am stronger, able to go on for another day, regardless of what people think about me or the kind of art I make.
If you would like to experience Erika’s art in your space, please send me a picture along with the dimensions and Erika will be happy to showcase her work for you.