Art and Words by Robin Sierra
The family couch in the house where I grew up had cushions that were squashed flat by the weight of my father’s despair He lay down for days that turned into years. There were times when I would peer into his darkened bedroom, terrified that he might not be breathing. Once, in my desperation, I went into his room, grabbed his arm and tried to pull him out of bed. In addition to leaving a lasting indentation on the couch, his experience left a huge dent in my psyche. Through his depression, I learned that when life gets difficult, the only response is to give up and lie down and withdraw from those around you.
And although I was blessed that my mother loved me even before I was born, she also struggled with being overwhelmed by life. I have a memory of myself around 5 or 6 years old of my parents getting ready to leave the house and me running out to the car curling in a ball, trying to hide in the back seat. They had to drag me out of the car while I was sobbing, feeling a deep desperation. I had no words or understanding, only raw emotional panic.
It was only many years later I found out that at that time my mother was suicidal. She was seeing a psychiatrist in the 50’s, which was quite unusual back then, so obviously, she was teetering on an edge. She had migraine headaches everyday I can remember and life in general caring for my sister and I was just too much for her.
Before all of this entered my life I was basically a very happy, creative little girl. I got straight A’s and loved to be in front of the class leading the kids in song on my Autoharp and was always the teacher’s favorite. But when my father plummeted into severe depression, something deep shifted in me. My mental capacities diminished and my grades went way down and I couldn’t concentrate because I was full to the brim with psychological pain that was not being acknowledged in any way. I was skinny, skinny and unable to gain weight because there was a constant knot in my stomach and I continued to suck my thumb into my teen years. In other words, I was a wreck. I had incorporated the densely dark and anxiety-laden feeling in my home and took it on as my identity.
My first experience in realizing that I may be an artist was when I screwed up the courage to take a figure drawing course in my first year of college. I drew with one arm circling around the drawing so no one could see what I was doing because I took for granted that it would be awful. But when there was a break, I walked around the room and by looking at the other student’s drawings; I was astonished to recognize that I was making a beautifully executed drawing.
When I finally made the decision to leave home at 21, I was completely unprepared to deal with the world. I didn’t even know how to do my laundry or write a check. When you grow up with mentally ill parents they are so saturated in their own suffering that they cannot ‘see’ their children clearly. They believed, only because they needed to, that we were two happy little girls. They had no idea that I was being so deeply impacted by their anguish. And, because they were so flooded with their own pain they neglected to teach me the basics of how to function in life.
I left Los Angeles, which I was chomping at the bit to escape from, and went to the top of California, near the Oregon border to Humboldt County. (Yes, we all know what Humboldt is famous for) I felt like I had ‘come home’. Being a person for who nature was imperative, L.A. was not a match for me. There I began an inner journey of meditation and coming to terms with my childhood.
One day, I decided to peruse the University campus in Arcata. I walked into the art building and when I saw the art on the walls in the hallways, I again was astonished in seeing and knowing that I would be good at making art. So, I immediately enrolled in college as an art major. Here is one of the first watercolors I made. I had no idea what I was doing. Actually started from the left top corner and worked my way diagonally across the page with no planning ahead.
My gratitude for the gift, the talent I was given is tremendous because my head was still so clouded and overloaded with unresolved emotions that I couldn’t think clearly. But art was a different story. I had a razor sharp focus when I was making art and, I had something in my life I could actually ‘see’ that I was good at. This may have been the biggest turning point in my life because I can’t imagine what would have become of me if I had not made what I now call my ‘choiceless choice’ to be an artist. I truly believe art saved my life.
I was 22 at the time and now many decades later, although I spent years clearing the emotional trauma I inherited, and have a mind that works very well which I am grateful for beyond words. I am still making art and it is still saving me.