In Isaac’s Way Restaurant hangs a drawing full of words, numbers, and cartoonish faces. The faces spin, baring their teeth and glaring with wide eyes. The words weave between them. “NEEDLE,” they say. “FEED ME.” One face is violet with a blue beard, the title “BLUE BUDDHA DEAD” floating above. The phrase “all of my life all of my life” lies cradled between erratic hair and a severed head. The numbers count the days: “27th,” “29th,” “NOW.” The conglomeration circles itself, bursting against a background of purple, pink, orange, and blue.
This is Day 6 by artist John Gilmore, who draws schizophrenic states marked by hallucinations and paranoia. He finds clarity in these states by drawing, putting his “demons on paper so they’re not so scary”. Day 6 emerged from a time when Gilmore was unmedicated for three to four days, giving way to tormenting visions and voices. He hopes that his drawings will evoke curiosity and empathy for those with mental illness.
“I’m hearing, seeing very bad things at that time,” says Gilmore of Day 6. “I don’t want to leave the house, I don’t want to answer the phone, I don’t want anything. (Art) can help my feelings. It gets what I’m going through at that point on paper. And I’m trying to express how I feel… I would like (others) to talk amongst each other and discuss the drawings and wonder. I would like them to wonder how it would be (to live with this).”
Gilmore began drawing in the 1990s when he was in a treatment centre for his mental health. He initially kept his art to himself, uncomfortable with displaying what he endured and believing his work was “no good.” He sought to dispose of his pieces, burning many of them and taking a break from art. He restarted in the 2000s, drawn by how natural it felt. His wife encouraged him to show his pieces publicly.
“My wife had seen me drawing,” says Gilmore. “She’d seen some of the beauty and she’d seen some of the scary stuff that I was putting on paper, and she said people should see what I draw because I was good at what I do. I tried a couple of pieces, and Isaac’s Way said they would be very interested in showing my art. I’m very grateful to them for taking that opportunity.”
Gilmore also refashions antiques, creates clay statues of chefs, and does “bottle art” where he threads bottles with small lights and paints the glass. These have appeared in shops across Fredericton such as Whimsy and U Beautiful Creature. As an artist, he goes by “WolfChef0,” a name that commemorates his twenty-five year career as a chef and his wife’s pet name for him.
“She calls me ‘wolfie’,” says Gilmore. “I don’t shave for a while when I’m in a state and I get a long beard. It reminds her of me being a wolf.”
Gilmore was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder when he was 28. He wound up in a treatment center while navigating the court system; some legal trouble had lost him his children and everything he owned. His diagnosis came after he’d been seen by nine treatment centres.
”It’s been a battle. It’s been a battle for a long time.”
In a “regular state,” Gilmore delights in meeting new people, attentive to those around him and eager to make friendly conversation. When his hallucinations begin, he starts to withdraw. He ceases to care, overtaken by harsh visions and voices that plunge him into paranoia and an urge for isolation. With treatment, these states can repeat every eight to ten weeks, and can last about two.
“I can be as normal as the next person. I can have great days, everybody is my best friend. I’ll talk, I’ll talk, I’ll talk. How are you, I’ll say, what are you up to? I’m the nicest, kindest guy in the world. I would never harm anybody in my life if I could possibly help it,” says Gilmore. “Sometimes within weeks, I become fearful of everything and everyone. I see things, I hear things. And I don’t stop to talk like I usually do. I’ve got my voices telling me “don’t trust this one, don’t trust that one.” At that point, I just want to grab whatever I can and run into the woods, wherever I can, just not be found.”
Gilmore strives to humanize mental illness through his art. By offering a glimpse into his states, he hopes to nurture a culture of openness, sensitivity, and respect for those with mental illness that encourages others to check up on them. He acknowledges that schizophrenia is a “scary disease,” but emphasizes that this doesn’t mean all people with mental illness are “bad.”
“We all have hopes and dreams like anybody else. It would be nice for someone to say “hi, are you okay, are you having a good day, do you need to talk, do you need a way home.” Sometimes all we do is we need to talk,” says Gilmore. “I want people to be aware that mental illness isn’t something you have to be afraid of. All I’m trying to do is make awareness. Not everybody with mental illness is bad.”
Gilmore says mental illness can instill fear that drives away loved ones. He believes that older generations, like his family, find it especially difficult to understand.
“They want to lock us away in a room and throw away the key.”
Gilmore’s grandmother, at 93 years old, has always stood by him. His mother, at 74 years old, has just begun to learn about his experiences. His wife understands that his states are not a reflection of his heart.
“My mother is just starting to come around and trying to understand a little bit more and that means everything to me,” says Gilmore. “I can be a scary guy sometimes and I don’t mean to do that. (My wife) knows that, when I’m feeling better, I’m the best man in the world. I’m trying to fix it. I’m trying to fix it.”
Gilmore says New Brunswick’s health care is “not the best.” Large waiting lists delay timely care; one-on-one counseling is hard to access; some health care workers are insensitive, blind to how daily life can be for those with mental illness. Gilmore encourages people to donate to Canadian mental health services to improve the health care system. He will be donating proceeds from his drawings at Isaac’s Way to the Child and Youth Care Association of New Brunswick.
“I feel like I’m a nuisance,” says Gilmore. “Sometimes I have to go to the doctor everyday, and I see their eyes roll back in their heads. Maybe my crisis isn’t your crisis, but I’m still going through a crisis. Getting out of bed some days is very hard; they don’t realize that.”
Gilmore draws when his states begin to calm. Sometimes, his artwork is created in one burst; other times, he revisits a piece over years. He also ponders his pieces after they’re completed, reminding himself of the path of feelings that birthed them. These feelings escape words, but in art, they are vivid.
“I’m having a hard time to explain what’s going on. [The art] gives me some clarity at times.”
Though Gilmore creates drawings to bring himself peace, he rejoices when others respond. He shares that people interpret his pieces differently; that his mother and grandmother have gifted his drawings; that his nurse practitioner has a piece. In one place where his art was hung, a child became afraid, and the art was taken down.
“Everybody will interpret it in a different way. If people can see it and enjoy it, that makes me feel more meaning than people realize,” says Gilmore. “But I don’t do it for others. If they enjoy it, great; if they don’t, sorry.”
His art mediums span pens, colour pencils, and markers. Some pieces are colourful; others are in black and white. When money gets tight, he flocks to his wife’s makeup.
“Sometimes when we don’t have the money, I use my wife’s makeup. There’ve been times when I’ve needed to draw and I hadn’t had my needle and she said “take my makeup,”” says Gilmore, laughing.
Gilmore says that stability in mental illness comes from having daily essentials, like food, shelter, and family support. These enable focused self-care. He encourages others with mental illness to reach for their dreams, and is helping people on the street display their art. He knows a gentleman from the King’s Street Pharmacy who collects Hot Wheel cars, and introduced another artist to a woman who would like their work in her studio.
“I want to encourage other people who have the same problems to reach out for their goals, do their dreams. I encourage everybody to do art. If it helps them, however it helps them – please do it, do it.”
Incé Husain is a psychology student and student journalist who has written for The Aquinian, The Brunswickan, and The Atlantic Student Research Journal. She writes for the NB Media Co-op , and pursues local stories independently at https://theunprecedentedtimes.net/ . She is based in London, Ontario.