Karen May Sorensen.

Karen May Sorensen is astounding. She is an artist, living with schizoaffective disorder for the past twenty years, and has produced an amazing body of work. I’ve got to say I’m a little bit biased when it comes to Karen’s work as it reminds me of all my favourite art – folk art, outsider art, frenetic, vivid and immediate. I personally love these pieces, especially ‘Monster Couple’, and would love to have some prints for my house!

If I was a shrink I’d probably say that there are certain paintings more than others where you can see Karen’s disorder speaking out from the canvas. Who knows if that is true. It seems that way, in the same way that Louis Wain’s cats became more schizophrenic as his health took a tumble. I read somewhere that Karen kept a record of paintings she did on different medications. The results would be very interesting. I haven’t found that yet but I’m only just getting through her website and blog so hopefully will stumble across it soon.

Karen does a fair bit of autobiographical writing on her website and shares her thoughts on her own life, medication and ‘normals’ (people unaffected by mental disorder) amongst other things. She also writes a blog which she frequently updates so please do have a read. I have lifted a bit of writing from Karen’s website for you to read as she can explain herself and her mind better than I ever could. I cannot stress how much I love this artist.

This I Believe by Karen May Sorensen

“I believe in the power of art. I once worked at an information desk in a world famous art museum. The kind lady who was my boss also happened to be an artist. On some days she wore a pin that peaked my curiosity. It said, “Art Saves Lives”. It seemed an extreme statement. I wondered if it were true.

I was young when I worked in the art museum and I had an enormous amount of enthusiasm. I was, I decided, going to be someone, someday. I certainly did not feel as though my life needed saving, not by art, not by anyone. I liked to write and I hoped that someday I would write a book. I practiced writing, knowing that practice was the best pathway to becoming a good writer. I also went to school. While I was in school I realized that I could not have a job, even a part time job, and go to classes at the same time. My life was filled with too much stress. So I quit my part time job (which I loved quite a bit) to concentrate on school.

At that time I also had a boyfriend who I liked to go dancing with. School was tough, and during final exams I became anxious and depressed. It wanted to be a good student, but it was so very difficult to get the assignments done. Eventually I realized that I could not go to school and have a boyfriend at the same time. Both seemed to take up all my attention and concentration. I thought to myself that I did not like feeling so divided between commitments. My boyfriend never made me feel anxious and depressed, so I decided to drop out of school and keep the boyfriend. I could still write, I went to the library every day to write.

My boyfriend was a nice young man. The one frustration in our relationship was that there were many activities that we could not do together. When he wanted to go dancing, he wanted to travel to other states, to visit the biggest parties. Long hours driving, long hours dancing, these things I found too adventurous for my taste. We would spend half a Saturday together, perhaps go bicycling in the morning, but then I needed a nap and wanted in the afternoon to do only quiet things. He wanted to do activities that filled the whole day, but I quickly sputtered out and lost steam. I was jolly and good company for a couple of hours but then my whole state of mind changed and I became fragile, remote, and unavailable. It seemed to me that my boyfriend had too much energy for me. So we parted ways amicably.

I had gone through a process of whittling down my life, making it more and more slender, until I arrived at a very simple life where the one thing that I would do was every morning go to the library and write. When I got to the library I would write for exactly half an hour. Sometimes, through tremendous effort, I could write for forty-five minutes. Often I had to rewrite the same sentence over and over again. Making a paragraph was a big deal. The rate of writing was very slow. But I was happy with what I produced. After rewriting every sentence many times, and rewriting paragraphs just as often, the words really began to flow. The imagery was special. The voice was unique. I had perhaps five pages of beautifully written writing when I finally gave up on that particular book project.

I tell you a story and some of the choices I made may seem strange. Many people have jobs and go to school at the same time. It is stressful but they handle the stress. Also many people date and take classes at the same time. People juggle the demands of home and work all the time. And if I choose having a boyfriend over the more serious, life building activity of school, it makes me seem frivolous and lazy. But there is a strong hint as to the core of the problem that existed. When I wrote, I could only write for half an hour at a time. And a college usually requires hours of study from their students. I remember one term paper due that turned out to be twenty-eight pages long. I loved school, I loved learning, but the reality was I found the demands that school placed upon me to be torture. I was an excellent student when I was in school. But in order to be excellent I had to endure mental conditions that stretched the boundaries of who I was. All the choices I made were made with the intention of preserving sanity.

There is an explanation for why I forged such a failure strewn path. My brain is not like most people’s. I had a normal brain up to the age of nineteen, and then my brain changed. It weakened, and then it broke. I lost many abilities. I stopped talking and I stared off into space. I had to be hospitalized for two years. The hospital would not release me because I could not stop thinking about killing myself. My brain is diseased. Scientists hypothesize that the chemical balance in it isn’t right. I take medication every day trying to correct the balance in my brain. The type of disease I have is a form of schizophrenia that is called a schizoaffective disorder.

In the twenty years I have lived with schizophrenia my brain has tried, in its own way, to heal. Making art has been very important in that healing process. I feel that when I write, or draw, or paint my brain is involved in something very much like playing a beautiful symphony. When I make art my brain is at its best, functioning in a balanced, coordinated effort, using the highest and most complicated of thought pathways. Creative thought is beautiful thought. Making art is entirely wholesome. When I have failed at doing so much in life, in making art, I have succeeded. And this success is due to the twin facts of perseverance and skill. I have molded through years of practice a skilled schizophrenic brain. In psychiatric jargon I am both low functioning and high functioning. To live so divided, to be both very weak and very strong feels at times odd and not real. Making good art is like watching a very sick woman rise out of bed and dance a jig. You are shocked at what, in her delicate state, she can accomplish. Making art and being mentally ill is like the case of the magical cow. All day long it stands in the field and moos and chews grass. But for one special hour, at the break of dawn when no one is looking, the cow grows arms and writes sonnets. I believe that in the midst of most mental illnesses there are moments of health, and I know for certain that these moments of health are present in the making of art.

I think I finally know the secret of that audacious claim “Art Saves Lives”. I feel that I have a purpose in life, and that purpose is making art. Without a driving purpose I am lost. I must have a reason for getting out of bed in the morning and starting my day. Before I shut my eyes at night I must be able to look back over my day and identify some small accomplishment. I don’t have very much pride, but what scraps of honor I own, all converge on the statement, “I am an artist”. Making art is my past, my present, and my future. How lucky I am that art is like a strong rope, binding me down and tying my soul to life on this earth. Art has saved my life.”

All work copyright of Karen May Sorensen. All images above can be found in Karen’s gallery.


11 Comments Add yours

  1. Natalie Dargham says:

    Hi Karen,

    My name is Natalie Dargham and I am a student studying Interior Architecture at James Madison University. I am currently in my thesis portion of my academic career (a project created solely by our thoughts and passions and curiosity in life).

    My project is in the beginning phase, as the semester just started Monday. I have a fascination with mental disabilities and I am trying to understand the mind of someone with schizophrenia through art to the best of my ability. I do not want to come across blunt, I know I will never understand, but your paintings and your blogs are truly and realistically expressive of your life and your work. They are raw and I appreciate the honestly and embracing your illness. My goal isn’t to offend you but pure curiosity. Did you produce the piece “Electricity Makes you Float?” I came across it but was not sure if you were the right Karen.

    Thank you for your time. I really appreciate your beautiful art and would love to learn more about you.

    Natalie Dargham

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