‘A Visceral Experience of Psychosis’: Why an Artist Spent Three Years Painting Bipolar Disorder

Up a steep road to the top of a ridge, all the mundane falls away.

From here, between the surrounding hills of NSW’s North Rivers region, the great weight of Wollumbin Mt Warning is revealed – its forested flanks a blue mist, its rock face summit glistening in the sun. Wedge-tailed eagles ride the thermals above and wildlife-evoking rainforest runs in every direction.

It was to this place, Uki in County Tweed, that Matt Ottley retired over 10 years ago. The musician, artist and author of children’s books lives surrounded by a raucous chorus of birds. In this house – his refuge – he found peace from the pain of his past.

Ottley has always had a heightened sensitivity to pain and the beauty of the world. It’s something he shares with the young protagonist of his latest release, The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness. This is a monumental project including not only the book, but also a symphonic score on CD, which was performed by a Czech orchestra, and a 50-minute animation created from the 74 paintings and illustrations in the book which is screened in small theaters across the country.

Illustration of a baby and two people holding it from the book by Matt Ottley
“The tree grew out of one of my own psychotic experiences where I thought something was growing inside me.” Illustration: Matt Ottley

The story follows a boy who, like Ottley, sees things differently. “His gift showed him things so beautiful that they made him cry. But it also tormented him with the pain of others that numbed him,” it reads. The story unfolds around the metaphor of a tree growing within him: its flower is ecstasy, its fruit is sadness.He was inspired by Ottley’s bipolar disorder, which he was diagnosed with in his 40s.

“The tree really came out of one of my own psychotic experiences where I thought something was growing inside me,” he says. “It was a plant of a floral nature. That’s what I wanted to express.

In the book, the tree transforms into a flying cow, a reptile, and then a blue bird, which flies across mountains and oceans into a world of “beauty and wonder”. All the stages of the journey represent the stages of psychosis – like in an ancient city, when she encounters a self-centered ruler with the enormous, bulbous body of an insect.

A painting from Matt Ottley's 2022 book The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness, the illustration depicts elephants traveling up a rainforest-lined river
A painting from Ottley’s 2022 book, The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness.

“She’s the kind of infantile self at the heart of psychosis,” Ottley says. “When you are in this state, the other does not exist. The world has become so twisted and you’re trying to make your way through it.

Flying over valleys and hills, the boy travels through stages of frailty and revelation in darkness and storm – until he returns to the world and himself with “quiet” and hope.

As we sit on her patio overlooking nature, freshly baked muffins are placed on the table by Ottley’s partner, Tina Wilson. Ottley is a gentle, delicate, and rather blissful man with long white hair. One of the country’s most popular author-illustrators, he has worked on more than 40 titles, including last year’s Prime Minister’s Award-winning children’s book, How To Make A Bird, written by Meg McKinlay.

Matt Ottley painting in his studio in Uki, New South Wales
Ottley in his studio in Uki, New South Wales.

But he says the scope of his creativity came at a terrible price. It wasn’t until his mid-40s that Ottley was properly diagnosed and treated for bipolar 1 disorder. By then, he had suffered countless frightening periods of mania and depression, psychotic episodes that would end in psychiatric wards and two suicide attempts.

“I’ve had some really high creative abilities that are a result of being bipolar — but it’s a huge price to pay for that,” Ottley said. “If you could have access to a magic button that would turn off this disease, most people would say no because of the creativity. But I would say yes.

“If I could relive my life without any creativity, if I could turn off this disease and live a quiet life, with a quiet mind, I would.”

He used to hide his illness, living a life of secrecy and shame. As a teenager, he “just went to the floor or went to my room and got away with it. Until I was 40, I felt so alone with it.

Ottley spent the first 11 years of his life in Papua New Guinea at a time when the country was becoming increasingly dangerous for Australians. When he was nine years old, he was sexually assaulted by a man, a trauma he believes may have triggered a genetic predisposition to bipolar disorder.

“The way it was explained to me is that you basically inherit a number of genes that – when activated – you start feeling the disease. It may be trauma that activates these genes.

In the decades that followed, no matter what he tried, his disease would be waiting to catch him and drag him down. He was getting sick, collapsing, burning and running. He failed school – ‘I just couldn’t do it’ – and followed his father and brother into the bush to work as a herder, but says he ‘wasn’t good at that kind of work. work “. He studied at the Julian Ashton art school, got sick, went back to the bush. Returning to the bush has become “a model”. He studied music at the University of Wollongong, but was unable to complete that either. “Actually, I don’t have any school qualifications,” he says.

Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness image by Matt Ottley, 2022
“If I could relive my life without any creativity, if I could turn off this disease and live a quiet life, with a quiet mind, I would.”

Ottley also suffers from synesthesia, a neurological condition. “The sound is starting to get very colorful and I’m seeing a lot of shapes, and I’m starting to get hypersensitive to sound and light.” When rehearsing with musicians, he can tell if someone is a little off, “because it’s the wrong color.”

The tree of ecstasy and unbearable sadness has its genesis in two periods of illness. During a severe episode in 2010, Ottley lost the ability to understand speech. But the music was “clear”, he says, “so I started writing music.”

“The sound I heard was made up of 97 instruments. I wanted a string family of 50 players, a bass clarinet, a bassoon. It would become the opening of the book’s symphonic soundtrack, with tumultuous crescendos falling over lamentations; recorded by the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra and the 40-voice Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, it is the sound of psychosis.

An illustration of a tree and flowers on a black background from Matt Ottley's book The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness
Ottley, who suffers from synesthesia, says music makes him “see a lot of shapes”.

“If you start creating an orchestral sound in your head and you feel bad and go into psychosis, you can actually hear it as if it’s there. It’s a 68-part fugue which is meant to represent the clamor of noise in a person’s head, whether it’s multiple voices or some other kind of auditory hallucination that’s happening, and it just gets unbearable and you just want it to be ‘stopped.

A few years later, keeping a diary of recovery after another serious episode, he wrote the poem which would become the text of The Tree of Ecstasy. “He just kind of gave up on the universe.”

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The music took two years to compose and the 74 works took three years to paint. Together it is an imposing work for adults and children; a bright, intense, and ultimately beautiful journey through the stages of psychosis, and out the other side. “I wanted to create a metaphorical experience that goes straight to the emotional centers, to give people a visceral experience of what it feels like,” Ottley says.

“I think the arts are a direct conduit to our deeper emotional thinking that bypasses logical, superficial thinking and can get right to the heart of how we feel about something.”

Ottley’s goal is to destigmatize mental illness, illuminate the experience of those who do not live with bipolar disorder, and advocate for those who do. “The message is probably that it can’t be judgmental,” he says. “I think anything can be achieved through empathy. I encourage people not to feel humiliated about these aspects of their lives, or the thoughts they have around self-harm or doing harm. hurting others. Being really, really open about these things from the start. Because of the deep shame that surrounds these things, people stay closed off until it’s too late.

Illustration of a Boy Sitting at the Edge of a Vast Waterfall from the Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness by Matt Ottley
“I wanted to create a metaphorical experience that goes straight to the emotional centers, to give people a visceral experience.”

“You can get a diagnosis, you can get a treatment. Go out into the world and find the people you need to talk to, ask them for forgiveness for your behaviors and forgive yourself too. The condition does not go away, but life goes on and you can find peace.

Creativity has always been Ottley’s salvation — “I could always turn to that” — but it’s the love of his partner and friends that has brought him to relative peace.

Likewise, his book ends with his protagonist hearing the distant voices of those who loved him calling him back.

“I’m here,” he shouted. And that’s how he came back into the world. And the Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness was still within him. And it was still growing flowers. And it still paid off.

  • The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness are available now via Dirt Lane Press. The animation will be screened on June 23 at the University of Sydney, August 18 and 21 at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and September 21 and 22 at the State Library in Perth.

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