An essay on art & medication by Karen Sorensen

“I am schizoaffective, badly disabled, and I have devoted my life to making oil paintings.  Two years ago I started lowering my antipsychotic medication for health reasons.  I believe that my art changed.  I believe that I am more creative on lower medication.  Seeing my art change has motivated me to stay on very little medication despite some serious mental discomfort from symptoms of my illness. I feel that I am closer to insanity, yet more creative.  I have shown you work to compare.

“Paradise” was created on a high dose of anti-psychotic medication.  Two anti-psychotic medications in fact.  The planning of this work was difficult.  I struggled to find images. I found the final product slightly unusual, but mostly bland.

‘Paradise’, Karen Sorensen

“Adam, Eve, and the Devil” and “Tea Time” were both created as my medication was cut drastically.  They both are at a point where I have dipped under therapeutic level of only one antipsychotic medication.   They are both twice the size of  “Paradise”.  As I planned these pieces the creative ideas came much more quickly to my mind.  Newness of form, newness of concept, appeared in my mind like magic.  I could “see” images in my imagination with clarity like never before.  I could paint twice as many hours a day.   Probably I like the highly detailed style in these low-dose medication artwork more because I sense a pulse of chaos in them.  I sense energy.  It is the chaos and energy of a mind that has been released to much more of the madness within.

I am now much more fascinated with my creation.  Pleased as an artist, this reinforced in the identity of being an artist and boosted self-esteem.  Freed from the foggy high dose of anti-psychotic medication my whole life, as I lived it day to day, was filled with more energy.  I felt sharper and smarter.  My husband noted that my ability to articulate ideas, and have critical thinking, drastically improved on low dose medication.

Socially I became more withdrawn and isolated as the medication was lowered, slowly, bit by bit.  My emotions became more volatile.  My husband had to adjust to a person who was in his words “less childlike”, who slept less, was more emotionally fragile, and who saw more reasons and causes to be distressed.  I no longer cared about attending social events in my town and there are days at a time that I never leave the apartment.  I lie in bed a lot, unable to stand other than to go to the bathroom.  Family interactions affected me negatively me more than ever and I obsess over emotional hurts in the past and the present.  However, I believe that isolation and obsessiveness are necessary to create works of art that are different and unique from mainstream subject matter.

‘Adam, Eve and The Devil’, Karen Sorensen

Often, in American review of Outsider Art, European schizophrenic artists who lived in insane asylums of the past are held up as examples of purity of vision and masters of creativity.  It has been noted by an New York University professor in a paper that she published on-line for her class, that the schizophrenic masters were not on medication.  Her thesis is that schizophrenic artists today who are on medication are incapable of creating work at the level of quality of past non-medicated schizophrenics.  Some schizophrenic artists who are put on anti-psychotic medication can’t create art at all.

I believe that a lot of American schizophrenics do create art, but I have noticed myself that it is often not with consistency or idiosyncratic vision.  Vision that is bizarre and obsessive don’t happen much to modern day schizophrenic artists.  I believe that they don’t labor long on their creations, their delusions are not fueling the subject matter of the art in a subliminal way. Modern schizophrenics will expend a lot of energy participating in the little happy moments and diversions of mainstream society because of the medication they take.  I believe that more happiness means less top quality art.  This is not true for a normal artist, but it probably is true for a person with a severe mental illness.

When I was young, I lived in a mental institution for two years.  I can testify that the conditions of life in the old style hospitals where humans were warehoused was so boring, that any mind that had the creative impulse would WANT to create, would be MOTIVATED to create, because LIFE WAS MONOTONOUS AND DULL.   What modern day medications give is a normalization of social interactions and connection to reality.  Now, to me as an artist, I find that these medical gifts of drug induced health divert my attention away from art making activities.  So I reject most gifts of medication and exist in a twilight state that parallels in condition, both mental and physical, of what I experienced being institutionalized young.  My life is simple.  It has to be moronically simple in order for me to have the concentration and motivation for what I make.

‘Tea Time’, Karen Sorensen

I don’t make art for fun.  I am not expecting life to be fun.  I make art for the sake of creating beauty.  Life for beauty.  Not life in the pursuit of happiness.  There’s a difference.

I feel I was freed when I drastically lowered my medication and gave up on having any semblance of a normal, well rounded life.  And then I became an artist to the bone and core of my being.  I have embraced that my insanity is both a creative gift and a tormenting burden.  That’s just a fact of my life, like my eyes are brown.  I have an off-kilter mentality and I’m not going to dull it down with medication.  I take just enough medication so that I’m not too tormented and try to kill myself.

Yes, making this choice is serious business.  But my life is my own to do with what I please.”


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