Pain in the Brain, Salve to the Soul

Artist Marylou Evans probes her own bouts with depression and anxiety, and finds catharsis with 'It’s All in Your Head'

“Artistic temperament sometimes seems a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling.” — Late author Madeleine L’Engle

Psychic pain. Born in the brain. Funneled through the soul. Escapes through the fingers. Rests on the canvas.

Snapshots of sadness, fear, anxiety … and recovery.

“A lot of people try to hide it,” says courageous local artist Marylou Evans, who applied her skills to the cranial chaos arising from depression and anxiety—specifically her own wrestling with psychic demons—in a 17-piece exhibit at the Charleston Heights Arts Center through September 28.

Being a fellow traveler through the dark tunnels of the mind and soul, I walk into the gallery reminded of William Styron’s absorbing and harrowing memoir, Darkness Visible, widely considered the definitive expression of depression by a writer. Here, I am similarly struck by Evans’ approach in a different medium, portraying something so amorphous yet excruciatingly real in an abstract style.

“People don’t want everybody to know they’ve been through this, like something is wrong with you,” says Evans, who is also director of the Left of Center Gallery. “That’s what the title is about.”

That would be It’s All in Your Head.

Read that title as addressing those clueless clods who think depression isn’t serious because it’s a wound you can’t see or detect on medical scanners, effectively zapped by glib self-help books, a buffet of prescription pills, a Tony Robbins lecture stocked with exhilarating adjectives describing your own special wonderfulness, or just getting drunk and getting laid.

It’s All in Your Head—what the ignorant sometimes claim, and a sarcastic rebuke of their ignorance.

Or read it as probing the complexities of our most enigmatic and ultimately unknowable organ, the brain, attempting to untangle the cross-wired synapses that send us into spasms of hopelessness, then just as suddenly scoop us up and into the psychic light, often leaving us forever changed.

It’s All in Your Head—literally.

“I was always this scientist wannabe, from the age of 10,” Evans says. “I studied the science of the brain and how the neurons connect.”

Like many sufferers, Evans’ tendency toward depressive episodes was deepened by life’s challenges and tragedies. Recently, she lost her brother, Edward Miller, to cancer; a close family friend was killed in a car wreck; and she went through a divorce, all within six months.

“I had panic attacks and night terrors, and a lot of them got really bad. Sometimes it got to the point of, ‘Well, OK, if I die, then …,’ she says, leaving the rest unspoken. “My therapist said, ‘I think you’ve had post-traumatic stress with all you’ve been through.’ I went to counseling for a while, and my counselor showed me ways to make your brain reconnect. Because of experiences you have, they connect in a certain way. And then when you go through all that, you retrain your brain, and it will literally, physically change who you are.”

Both the soul and the brain are depicted in It’s All In Your Head, just as patients with depression are ideally treated with both psychotherapy that delves into the psyche and pharmacology that targets those misfiring neurons and knotted-up synapses.

Several paintings revealing the latter are intriguing for putting an aesthetic and impressionistic spin on images that recall slide-show photos of microscopic bodily cells from high school science class. Clinical artistry, if you will.

On a more charged, visceral level, however, Evans explores what she terms “hidden layers of consciousness” through “emotional excavation,” approximating that by layering her artwork via paper, paint and graphite. Set against bold colors—some foreboding and bleak, in shades of black, gray and deep purple; others rebounding into cheerier oranges and yellows, reflective of depressives regaining emotional balance—her diverse materials are collaged together. Disparate cutout images—an eye here, a heart there, a pair of shoes somewhere else—float through the tableaus as they would in enigmatic dreams we can’t quite interpret, but suggest the layers of ourselves.

Layers as psychic symbolism. Layers as the complexities of personality. Layers of … Alfred Hitchcock?

“I started watching a lot of Alfred Hitchcock films, like Strangers on a Train and Vertigo,” she says, then explains her fascination with the latter film, which replaced Citizen Kane as the best film of all time in a 2012 critics’ poll in Sight & Sound, a magazine published by the British Film Institute. “[Jimmy Stewart plays] a really great guy who turns into this psycho, and you think, ‘Where did that come from? Do we all have a side like that, and where are those layers?” she says.

“We all have things happen to us. People have repressed memories that cause anxiety. There’s panic, but there’s also greatness inside of people and it gets hidden by the anxiety. My work is about that as well, looking at the crap the world has put on you and discovering yourself, who you really are inside, recognizing your own strength and abilities. I had to go through that, too. I had to reach deep down inside of me, because there were mornings I didn’t want to get up.”

Some Evans pieces are portraits of turbulence (“Night Terrors,” “Calm Before the Storm,” “My Secret Self”); others are the psyche on the mend (“Discovering Happiness,” “Beyond the Fear,” “Clearing Vision”); still others are simply abstract depictions of the subconscious at work when the body is at rest (“Lucid Dreams,” “Worries and Wishes”).

Duality is a hallmark of “Night Terrors,” its nearly blood-red backdrop dotted with odd, lighthearted counterpoints. “You wake up and there’s this intensity to what you’re feeling, but then there are happy things, like the roses in there,” she says. “You’re trying to make sense of things.”

In “My Secret Self,” Evans takes the Vertigo theme to its painterly conclusion, as what appears to be a predatory animal looks toward potential prey. “This is my crazy bipolar,” she says. “You see the angel wings there? That’s your angelic self, but you have this darker side that maybe you don’t want everybody to see or even admit is there.”

Conversely, “My Wildest Dreams” embraces the psyche on an exultant upswing, its title inspired by the 1986 Moody Blues song, “Your Wildest Dreams.” Connecting the piece to her love of the Moodies, she notes that many fans of the progressive rockers who see them in concert report having supernatural experiences, or at the very least feel spiritually airborne.

“I love flying in my dreams, these wild, crazy dreams,” she says. “In one I flew back to the house where I grew up in Georgia. I had painful childhood experiences, as we all have. I was taking pine cones off the trees and throwing them like bombs at my house. But I’ve also dreamed entire musicals. I don’t know how to write music, but the songs were there. Barry Manilow has said he’s written songs in dreams, and Billy Joel.”

Can artistry of any sort exist without the demons—and the victories over them—that are attendant to artists of all kinds?

Addressing the link between depression and creativity, both clinically and anecdotally, a Psychology Today article published in November cited psychotherapist Eric Maisel’s claims that virtually 100 percent of creative people suffer from bouts of depression. Theorizing about the causes, the article noted:

“Some say that—like many therapists—artists and writers engage in their special line of work as a kind of self-therapy for depression. Others claim that the experience of depression provides a valuable subject matter for artistic creations, as witnessed by Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ and Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘There’s a Certain Slant of Light.’ Finally, some claim that artists cannot truly understand and artistically express the human condition unless they have experienced the lowest of emotional lows.”

Those of us who have fought this mental/emotional fog that often envelopes us and sometimes threatens to swallow us will immediately feel kinship with both the artist and her art in It’s All in Your Head, in which Evans uses both talent and honesty to combat anxiety and depression.

“A lot of who you are comes out in your art, even when you’re not trying to,” she says. “There’s a line from [Adventures of] Huckleberry Finn where he says, ‘You can’t pray a lie,’ and you can’t paint a lie either—if you’re painting from the heart.”

Souls that create are often souls that suffer, and the yin-yang between them is eternal. Renowned acting coach Stella Adler explained it thus:

“Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.”

It’s All In Your Head by Marylou Evans

12:30-9 p.m. Wed-Fri, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat through September 28, Charleston Heights Arts Center, 800 S. Brush St., free, 229-6383,

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