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Out of Darkness

By Mary Summerbell

I tend to be especially drawn to books and movies about art and artists and the deep, sometimes dark, psychological side of creativity. This year Beloit International Film Festival offered one such movie that proved to be, for me, an almost dangerous invitation into that world. Quickly captivated by the intense visual stimulation of The Art of Darkness, I watched, in rapt attention, the mesmerizing images, bright and fast, that flashed before me. These, alternating with long, almost rambling but interesting interviews of the artist who created them, made this film a visceral yet intellectual trip for my psyche.

How I wish I could show you this movie! Never have I felt more hindered by the limitations of language in trying to share a movie with you as I do now about this one. A picture truly is worth a thousand words. And there are hundreds of pictures here to be seen. Words just can’t convey the full effect of visual experience. You have to see things for yourself. So my words can’t give you the experience of seeing this movie. I can’t show you the pictures. But, still, I gotta tell you about this film.

It’s about Bryon Lewis Saunders, an artist who has done at least one self-portrait a day since March of 1995, when, as a sophomore in college, he decided on this as his life’s work, his purpose. Most notorious for gaining world-wide attention for a series of self-portraits intentionally done under the influence of various drugs and substances in 2001, he displays a vast talent for many wildly varied techniques. I found the intensity and complexity of his artistic style and his psychological profile – both quirky, odd, unique – to be irresistibly appealing. With slight brain damage and a list of symptoms that don’t clearly fit any currently defined categories, psychiatrists deem him “undiagnosable.” My kind of guy!

I was so intrigued that I spent hours online looking at his work and reading about him and his life. The movie told of a troubled childhood and painful medical issues, including multiple serious surgeries. It only discreetly hinted at other disturbing factors. The director of the movie said that Bryon didn’t reveal all the particulars of his history in their interactions, and he didn’t ask. The website revealed more details.

Bryon says that “the original thought” was for his portraits “to be a personal art journal, a workbook for teaching myself to illustrate, using every single style and technique. But right away it became a therapeutic place where I was purging myself every day of anxiety, stress and self-loathing.” He also says that he is “trying to grow feelings….I’m using art to try to become a feeling human being … to hopefully one day love myself and others in the process.”

The paradox is obvious – that he is both trying to have feelings and to purge them. And it is resolved if it is bad feelings he wants to purge, and good feelings he wants to grow. But life isn’t that simple, and he doesn’t seem able to make enough sense of it. He seems lost in his beautiful, colorful, skillfully rendered confusion, “looking for experiences that profoundly affect my perception of self.” His art on drugs was done “to see how drugs changed my self-perception.” He is clearly a tortured individual – figuratively and literally, participating in extreme public rituals and self-inflicted pain. But he is also clearly intelligent, searching for something….

He believes that “too many people are alone and hiding in their suffering” and feels “practically driven to tell others my experience with pain and my perceived relationship between pain and spirituality.” Hmmm. That’s something to think about, as are other questions this film evoked in me, like, “What is the difference between pain and suffering? Does suffering have value or meaning? If so, what? And isn’t there enough natural pain and suffering in life without intentionally creating more?

The reason I am so fascinated by this film and this artist is because I see a lot of myself in them. They explore the border where genius and insanity meet – a most intriguing place for me for as long as I can remember. My mother was bipolar. Growing up, and well into my twenties, my greatest fear was that I would go insane – that I would just leave reality one day, never to return. It hasn’t happened – at least, not that I know of – but I’ve struggled much with mental health issues. I’ve hurt myself. Once, over four and a half years, I took twenty-two different medications, for help with Attention Deficit and Mood Disorders, before I finally submitted to shock therapy. So I can identify with Bryon’s suffering and his creative desire to express it, ego-centric and narcissistic, as it may be.

Seeing this movie and processing what came up from it for me made me realize that I don’t want to stay in the pain and suffering of my life. There is darkness, but I don’t want to dwell in it. I don’t want to go to those pulling down places so much, any more. I’m grateful to Bryon for sharing his story and his art. I’m no judge of his journey; he’s doing what he needs to do to make his way in his life. But going a bit too far into his reality, and feeling sick and depressed from it, helped me see that I need to be more discerning about what is psychologically dangerous, or risky, for me. I know now that I value my health and balance over any emotional experience.

There is no clear boundary between insanity and creative genius. There are many ways a mind can be twisted, and I don’t need to know them all, or continue to explore the details of the process. I’ve done enough research on that. I only need to know where the point of balance is for me. I can’t define it, can’t give you a list of characteristics, but I know it when I see it, when I feel it. And I can choose to keep my balance.

I know I am still in the dark about many things. The scope of humanity is limited by many unknowns. And conscious evolution is a long, gradual process. But we can speed it up by giving ourselves lots of opportunities to grow. And Art is an opportunity to grow. So – go see a movie at Beloit International Film Fest in February. It might just be a fun time, or a sad one, or mediocre. Or it might change your life.

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