'It isn't common to tell everyone you are an artist who hallucinates': Kate Fenner
Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Kate Fenner decided to create a talking point around mental health by drawing her visions and giving them a voice on Instagram
The world, for 18-year-old Kate Fenner, has been a lonely planet. Primarily because she has spent a considerable part of her teenage years struggling to find her place in it. Sounds like a typical teenage ordeal? It is anything but that. At the age of 13, when she drew an invisible man and the 'ghosts' who followed her, Kate's parents attributed her creations to the workings of a juvenile imagination. Little did they know that these images weren't mute; they spoke to their daughter. In her head.
"It was around the age of 17 when I received the diagnosis," recalls the Los-Angeles based artist and illustrator. "Everything lined up and began to make sense. I think I realised that I wasn't okay when my depression, anxiety and paranoia gradually worsened." With the doctors confirming that she suffered from schizophrenia, art was not only her refuge, it became her battleground. Coming to terms with her condition, she began to draw her visions, giving a face to the voices in her head and putting them out on Instagram for the world to see.
With the dialogue on mental health gaining momentum in the West, partly thanks to the World Health Organisation's recently launched, year-long global campaign called Depression: Let's Talk, Kate's small endeavour began to be extensively reported as an example of breaking free from the stigma usually associated with mental illness. While "an artist with schizophrenia illustrates what it's like to experience hallucinations" may have made for catchy headlines on the Internet, Kate's real triumph has been turning what is a deeply personal struggle into an artistic expression that is emotionally and aesthetically accessible.
Today, she may command a following of 50,000 people on Instagram, but the impact of her works goes farther. Mostly, she says, it evokes an emotional response from people who suffer from similar conditions. "They tell me my art and honesty are comforting to them; they feel a sense of validation," says Kate. "That means I am succeeding because I am giving people something they can see themselves in and relate to. What I realised is how uncommon it is for people with any type of mental illness to be open. It isn't common practice to tell everyone you're an artist who hallucinates. But there is no reason people shouldn't be open. No one should have to feel ashamed for having anxiety or hearing voices. I want them to be able to look into my art and see a part of themselves in it, and definitely read about what I am living with."
The visual representation of what Kate is "living with" is both haunting and captivating in equal measure. A recurring image in her works is that of a bug, followed by a single line caption, that is evocative and gives a peek into her mind. To cite an example, in one of her drawings, you can see the bug plucking the flowers with a caption that reads, "Perhaps if I steal their beauty, I will then have my own." But why bugs? "For me, bugs are a representation of my own mental illness and who I am beyond that. The point I am trying to make is that we are more than our illnesses. Terence the Snail is more than his anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder: he is a strong-willed snail, who is capable of overcoming his fears. The idea is to take something so universally taboo and then turn it into endearing and relatable characters." By no means, though, does it sugarcoat the suffering. "I wanted to create something that everyone can relate to. I do this in an attempt to show people that those who live with mental illnesses are just as human as the next person. We're all bugs, even if we're different types of bugs."
Art has not only been a creative refuge but also a personal one. As a young Kate found herself feeling increasingly disconnected from the world around her, she began to isolate herself and sought her own happiness in drawing, writing, reading and movies - activities that allowed her to escape into another world. "My isolation and illness caused me to seek familiarity in all of those things, so that's presumably why I am so passionate about them today. I felt utterly alone, but watching a Tim Burton film and drawing his characters made me feel alright. Reading books about angsty vampires, and writing my own stories gave me a sense of control when I otherwise felt lost. I'm still trying to embrace art and allow it to be a comfort to me. I think every artist can relate to that. We have a tendency to second-guess ourselves and lose self-esteem over the most minute details. Drawing my hallucinations, and incorporating my feelings into my artwork, has certainly been cathartic."
Yet, there are moments when she shies away from picking up her pencil. "Perhaps due to my fear of failure? I always want to be better than my last drawing, so it's always an attempt to outdo myself. Sometimes I need to tell myself to just enjoy the process, and remind myself why I create art to begin with. When I do that, I feel confident."
As self-assured as she sounds now, Kate admits to feeling disappointed at the way her own family dealt with her condition in her formative years. "Though they did support me by taking me to doctors and encouraging my love for art, they didn't understand what I was dealing with. Truthfully, I am still letting go of my resentment towards them for not knowing how to help me more productively. Their lack of understanding resulted in me being punished for some of my symptoms, like my depression. My room was always messy, so I was grounded for that. This, in turn, made me even more depressed. What they didn't know was that my messy room was a result of me becoming so detached from my sense of self and the outside world. I forgot how to function." Things have changed now with her mother (a painter by profession) and father (a commercial development designer) having developed a better grasp of Kate's condition. "I am an adult now and I think they both have a clearer picture than they did before. They are still very supportive of me and despite any misguided efforts on their part, I wouldn't be the artist I am without them."
In the near future, Kate says she would want to continue to draw and publish her stories as a graphic novel. "As far as college goes, I've always wanted to study ancient history and archaeology. Hopefully, I will continue to grow and improve as an artist and a writer, because I still haven't figured out how to draw hands yet," she says. Today, even as the voices in her head continue to speak to her, Kate is certain that she will take them down one sketch at a time.