This is one of the most frequently asked questions I get. But even when it isn’t asked out loud, I can feel what the person thinks upon seeing my art for the first time. People I’ve known for a while get creeped out when they see there are things about me they did not know. It’s always a bit uncomfortable for both parties, so I try not to be present when people look at my art if I can help it.
I wrote this article in 2012. In 2022 I created a new video explaining the topic of dark art from a more experienced and researched standpoint, so I recommend that you check it out: The truth about dark art
(Full transcript is available if you prefer reading.)
Once my mother asked me the same thing. “But you didn’t have a bad childhood, did you?” she continued. The unspoken accusation lingered above us: “People will think you did, they’ll think we’re bad parents.” And people around you thinking you’re a bad parent is almost as bad as actually being a bad parent…
“Sharp Tongue”, acrylics on canvas, 2009 (detail).
This painting hanging on my old bedroom wall was what inspired the conversation
So, why do I do it, really? A very simple and short truth is that… I am a hypersensitive individual.
I’ve been like that since I can remember — crying for the silliest reasons, hurting almost physically because of something insensitive or cruel someone said, and feeling very, very lonely for most of my childhood because it was difficult for me to connect to my peers.
At that time, my mom’s only advice was “It’s been like that for me as well. It will get easier when you grow up.” And she was right, it did get easier. I didn’t cry anymore, and I didn’t allow the hurtful things to get to me. I grew a thicker skin, and put on my shiny armor made of cynicism and intellectual superiority.
But you know… the crybaby never really went away. That aspect of me could not change — and it wasn’t meant to be changed. Hypersensitivity was my gift, not a flaw.
I get elated and euphoric for the smallest things. I get captivated by details, and I can find amazement in so many mundane moments. I get moved by so many things it’s crazy. Sometimes all it takes is a sunbeam and a comforting breeze on my walk to work to bring a tear of joy to my eye. As one of my best friends would say: “Life is magical!”
But in this world it is dangerous to be so open.
Everyone is broken, and broken people hurt others, because it makes them feel more alive. I know how it feels, I’ve been cruel to others as well. I thought it was OK because “they deserved it”. But I was no better than those that have hurt me.
People have different coping mechanisms. My mom’s is to bottle up all the anxiety and hurt, and get physically ill when it becomes too much to bear.
I try not to get sick from stress and negative emotions, so I draw and paint. I don’t hide the fact that my art is my therapy. My spiritual work, if you will. I don’t hide the fact that I’m broken, just like everyone else is.
Compared to a lot of people, I really didn’t have a “bad” childhood, but still it was far from easy. A few years ago I was reading some of my old diaries for the last time before shredding them to pieces. I’ve lived through my 12 year old self again, and let me tell you, it was horrible. No one was aware of this at the time, but that was the most depressed period of my life. (Though I did have quite a share of depressive episodes as an adult, as well.)
You look at 12 year olds and think “What do they have to be depressed about? They’re having the easiest time they will ever have. They have no idea about real problems yet.” And to this I say — it’s bullshit.
Kids know very well what real problems are.
Real problem is when you feel so lonely, like there isn’t a single person in the world who understands you and knows how you feel.
Real problem is when you don’t have anyone to share your secrets with, for fear that you will be laughed at.
Real problem is when you feel like the world would be a better place without you, and that everyone would be happier if you weren’t even born.
It’s damn real when you feel like the love that is given to you is conditional, and that only a certain type of behavior is rewarded and accepted in the Real World, but sadly you don’t fit in that type well. So you want to disappear from the face of the Earth, but not really kill yourself because that would hurt your family, and you don’t want to make other people hurt.
You’re left in a limbo of neither being dead, nor truly alive. At the time you’re not aware yet that the majority of people spend their entire lives in that same limbo.
Reading that diary made me relive all that, and cry my poor soul out over again. Writing about it now still makes my eyes water a little. I don’t know how long it will take me to heal all that hurt that is still lingering under layers and layers of emotional crap that came later in life.
Don’t dismiss the hurt of other people. And don’t dismiss your own, either.
I know I’ve had a better childhood than many people who lost their parents too early, or had serious health problems, or were born disabled, etc. I’m not trying to equate my own suffering to theirs. But we have to allow ourselves to admit that we are broken, and decide that we don’t want to be held hostage by those feelings of inadequacy anymore — we have to decide that we want to heal.
I say out loud what a lot of people can’t, or don’t want to out of shame. My art shows the hurt and frustration that most people cover up with denial or medication.
Don’t tell me you’re “normal”, I don’t believe in “normal”. Life leaves a mark on us, and no one had a perfect life. Our society doesn’t support perfect childhood, perfect education, perfect growth. Even for individuals with a healthy and progressive outlook on life from a very early age (ie. any kid whose parents raised him to be polite, loving and honest), it’s far from easy — our views are constantly challenged, and we’re constantly reminded that we don’t belong.
I decided to channel my pain, frustration, fear and anxiety into my art. I decided to peer into the darkness that is my subconscious mind, pull those monsters out by their tail and slam them onto the canvas for the world to see.
I’m not afraid of being seen. I want you to see me, and in my work the reflection of your own soul pleading for help, for acceptance, for healing. I want you to face those monsters too, and realize they’re not so scary — to notice that there’s actually something strangely beautiful about them.
Invite them for a cup of tea and ask them, what’s the deal? What do they want from you? What do they need in order to heal, to stop being the monsters that torture you?
People who understand my art never ask me that question. Instead, they say they know the feeling, they relate to the image, and they can guess where it came from without me spelling it out. Their support is what encourages me to keep going, and keeps me aware that I’m doing the right thing after all.
My question to you is, what do you do with your own pain? Are you brave enough to peer into the darkness?
EDIT: After getting a lot of comments and questions, I decided to write a followup post Who are you really creating your art for? so go ahead and read it if you’re interested. Also be sure to check out my newer video: The truth about dark art.
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
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