“Visceral Experience of Psychosis”: Why an Artist Painted a Bipolar Disorder for Three Years Books

All sorts of everyday things fall down the steep path to the top of the mountain.

Here, in the middle of the hills around NSW’s North River, there is a great danger of Mount Wollumbin – its forested slopes are covered with blue fog, and the peaks of the rocks glisten in the sun. Clean-tailed eagles roam the upper terraces, while tropical forests full of wildlife run in all directions.

This is where, in the tweed sweet Uki, Matt Ottley retreated more than 10 years ago. The musician, artist and author of the children’s book lives in a bird choir. In this house, his refuge, he found peace from his past sufferings.

Ottly was always sensitive to the wounds and beauty of the world. This is something he shared with the young protagonist in his latest release, “The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sorrow.” This is a monumental project, which includes not only the book, but also a symphonic score on CDs performed by the Czech orchestra and 50 animations from 74 paintings and illustrations of the book.

“If the tree came from one of my psychic experiences, then I thought something was growing inside me.” Illustration: Matt Ottley

The story is about a boy who takes a different view of things like Ottley. “Her gift showed her so many beautiful things that made her cry. But it also tormented him and made him unaware of it, ”it said. The story unfolds around the metaphor of a tree growing in it: its flower is ecstasy, its fruit is sorrow. He was diagnosed with Ottley’s bipolar disorder, which was diagnosed at the age of 40.

“If the tree really came from one of my psychic experiences, then I thought something was growing inside me,” he says. “It was a flowering plant by nature. That’s what I wanted to say. “

In the book, the tree turns into a flying cow, a reptile, and then a blue bird flying through the mountains and oceans, transforming it into a world of “beauty and wonder.” All stages of the journey represent stages of psychosis – for example, in the ancient city, when he encountered an egocentric sovereign with a large nightingale body of an insect.

Matt Ottley was released in 2022
Photo from Ottley’s 2022 book, The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sorrow.

“It’s the kind of baby that’s at the heart of psychosis,” Ottley says. “There is no other when you are in this situation. The world is so corrupt that you are trying to control it. ”

Flying over the valleys and hills, the child goes through the stages of fragility and revelation until darkness and storm – until he returns to the world and to himself with “peace” and hope.

When we look at the natural scenery on her terrace, Ottley’s partner, Tina Wilson, is putting freshly baked buns on the table. Ottley is a beautiful man with delicate, delicate and long white hair. One of the country’s most popular author-illustrators, Meg McKinley has authored more than 40 titles, including last year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Prize-winning children’s book.

Matt Ottley poses in his studio in Uki, New South Wales
Ottley at his studio in Uki, New South Wales.

But he says the scale of his work has become too expensive. It was not until the mid-40s that Ottlee was correctly diagnosed and treated for type 1 bipolar disorder. Prior to that, he had experienced countless horrific periods of mania and depression, psychotic episodes in psychiatric wards, and two suicide attempts.

“I have a very high level of creativity that results from being bipolar – but it’s a great price to pay,” Ottley said. “If you have a magic button that can put an end to this disease, most people will say no because of creativity. But I would say yes.

“If I could start my life again without any creativity, if I could get rid of this disease and live a quiet, peaceful life, I would be.”

He lived in secret, in shame, and hid his illness. As a teenager, he “would just go to the ground or go to my room and ride it. I felt lonely with him until I was 40.”

Ottley spent the first 11 years of his life in Papua New Guinea at a time when the country was in danger for Australians. She was sexually assaulted by a man at the age of nine, and she believes the trauma created a genetic predisposition to bipolar disorder.

“As I was told, you basically inherit a few genes, and when they’re turned on, you start to feel pain. It could be a trauma that activates these genes. ”

For the next few decades, no matter how hard he tried, his illness would hold him and wait for him to drag him down. He would get sick, fall, burn, and run away. He missed school – “I just couldn’t do it” – and followed his father and brother to work as a herdsman in the bushes, but says he wasn’t good at it. He attended Julian Ashton Art School, fell ill, and returned to the bush. Returning to the bush became a “model.” He studied music at the University of Wollongong, but did not graduate. “I don’t really have any knowledge,” he said.

Picture from the Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sorrow, Matt Ottley, 2022
“If I could start my life again without any creativity, I would get rid of this disease and live in peace, quiet, sanity.”

Ottle also has synesthesia and a neurological condition. “The sound is starting to be very colorful and I’ve started to see a lot of shapes and become very sensitive to sound and light.” In a rehearsal with the musicians, he could tell that someone wasn’t a little key because “it’s the wrong color.”

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

“The sound I heard was 97 instruments. I want a string family of 50 players, a bass clarinet and a bassoon. ” It would be an overture to the book’s symphonic soundtrack, and the noisy crescent would fall to the point of weeping; The sound of this psychosis was recorded by the orchestra of the Brno Philharmonic and the choir of the 40-voiced Czech Philharmonic in Brno.

Matt Ottley
Ottly, who has synesthesia, tells him that music “sees many forms.”

“If you start having an orchestral sound in your head and your health deteriorates and you suffer from psychosis, you can hear it as if you were outside. This 68-part fugue is a noise in a person’s head, whether it’s a few sounds or any other auditory hallucinations, and it just becomes unbearable and you want it to stop.

A couple of years later, after another serious episode, he kept a recovery journal and wrote a poem that would be the text of the “Tree of Ecstasy”. “It’s just out of the universe.”

It took two years to write the music and three years to take the 74 pictures. Together it is high work for adults and children; Bright, intense and ultimately beautiful journey through the stages of psychosis and the other side. “I wanted to create a metaphorical experience that goes directly to emotional centers, and I wanted to share with people the visceral experience of how it feels,” Ottley says.

“I think that art goes beyond logical, superficial thinking, and goes directly to our deepest emotional thinking, which corresponds to the depths of our feelings about something.”

Ottley’s goal is to eradicate mental illness, shed light on the experiences of those who do not live with bipolar disorder, and advocate for them. “Maybe the message can’t be about the court,” he says. “I think everything can be achieved through empathy. I urge people not to discriminate against those aspects of their lives or their thoughts of harming themselves or others. Being really open about these things from the very first stage. Because of the deep shame that surrounds these things, people remain closed until it is too late.

A picture of a child sitting on the edge of a large waterfall in a tree of ecstasy and unbearable grief, Matt Ottley
“I wanted to create a metaphorical experience that goes directly to emotional centers. I wanted to give people a visceral experience.”

“You can be diagnosed and treated. Go out into the world, find people to talk to, apologize for their behavior, and forgive yourself. It will not go away, but you can live and find peace. ”

Creativity has always been a lifeline for Ottley – “I could always turn to him” – but the love of his partner and friends has brought him relative peace.

Similarly, his book ends with the protagonist listening to the voices of lovers calling him back.

“I’m here,” he called. So he came back into the world. And there was still a tree of ecstasy and unbearable sorrow in it. Then he planted more flowers. Then it bore fruit again.

  • The tree of ecstasy and unbearable grief has now emerged through the Dirt Lane Press. The animation will be shown on June 23 at the University of Sydney, on August 18 and 21 at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and on September 21 and 22 at the State Library in Perth.

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