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When Art and Mental Illness Collide: An Interview with Artist Derek Hess
April 25, 2018
By Jennifer Cheang, MHA Digital Marketing Manager
To honor Mental Health Awareness Month in May of 2017, artist Derek Hess posted a daily image to his social media outlets that showcased his ongoing battle with Dual Diagnosis, a term for those who live with both a mental illness and a substance use issue.
What started off as self-exploration quickly turned into a personal journey for many dealing with their own mental health and addiction issues. Topics such as loneliness, relationships, depression and suicide are beautifully and painfully depicted throughout the book, 31 Days in May: A Visual Journey, with the hope that it not only helps alleviate some of the stigma surrounding mental illness, but also helps to educate readers.
Last year, Derek donated his skills to design a shirt that embodied Mental Health America’s “fight in the open” motto from our founder, Clifford Beers. The $5,810 raised from the t-shirts went directly toward public education programs like Mental Health Month, Minority Mental Health Month, and Back-to-School to raise awareness about mental health conditions.
We asked Derek some questions about his art and what he thinks the role of art is in combating the stigma that continues to surround mental health conditions.
Why do you do what you do?
Well, basically I’m not much good at anything else. So I play to my strengths - which tends to be drawing.
How is your personality reflected in your work?
I think that I tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve and a chip on my shoulder. Both of these things probably come out in my artwork... emotional with an edge.
You’ve talked about being a music fan before - Who was your musical role model growing up? How do you think they influenced you?
In the mid to late 70s, when I was coming up, the big three were Aerosmith, Kiss, and Queen. I followed Thin Lizzy, UFO, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Judas Priest, and Angel. The music didn't really influence my work, but the imagery did. I remember the day I bought Black Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell.” The cover features angels smoking cigarettes and playing poker. I haven’t stopped drawing angels from that day forward.
What do you think the role of the artist is in society? How can artists raise awareness for mental health?
Artists reflect the times they live in; they are a mirror of society. As far as raising awareness for mental health goes, it seems like the curtain is beginning to be pulled back on mental illness in our current society. When creating pieces inspired by it, it is important for the artist to articulate the meaning behind it. The viewer may like it but may not “get” it. So, talking about your work is important regarding this subject.
You’ve been in the art world for more than 20 years, so I bet you have amassed a huge portfolio. What piece are you most proud of?
I tend to like the pieces that I do quickly. They can be the most emotionally honest. The hemorrhage print is one of my favorites (pictured left). I did the drawing for that in maybe 5 to 10 minutes. It’s about a break up and not having closure.
How do you cope with days that are overwhelming, frustrating, and otherwise tough? What helps you bounce back?
Taking my mind off the subject. I may have made a mountain out of a mole hill, so stepping back and reassessing the situation in a day or so often helps get things in better perspective. Watching TV tends to work for me also.
Many of the people who come to Mental Health America are between the ages of 18 to 24. What advice would you give to young aspiring artists – especially if they are living with mental health conditions?
Always strive to get the fundamentals of drawing down. Once you have that, you don’t have to worry about how you’ll make the drawing. It’ll free you up to worry about the content of the drawing.
The images Derek posted for Mental Health Month 2017 have been assembled into 31 Days In May: A Visual Journey and is a look at the link between creativity and mental health as told through Hess’ artwork. Learn more about the book and Derek’s tour here: https://www.gofundme.com/31daysinmay