It’s ok not to be ok: how to use art to protect yourself and your happiness {featuring Brianne Burnell}

Work by Brianne Burnell

{Work by Brianne Burnell}

In today’s crazy complicated world it’s really no surprise that one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness.* (I, myself, have struggled with anxiety and depression, and know many others struggling, too.) We live in a busy time with a lot of stuff happening and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get the hang of this thing called life. A lot of emphasis is placed on the idea of happiness, but even that often becomes confusing and misinterpreted. 

You can read more of my own thoughts of what happiness is/means here,  but the biggest thing to note for today’s context is this:

Being happy doesn’t mean you’re never sad (or anxious or depressed or angry or upset or overwhelmed or any other range of complicated, negative emotions). And that’s ok. What matters most is that you hold onto the hope that things will get better — that you still choose to pursue happiness despite any temporary sad stuff you might be feeling. And doing this requires protecting yourself from any bad vibes trying to take control of you, your happiness, and your life.

While there are a plethora of ways we can learn to protect our individual sense of joy amidst a world that often feels overwhelming, art is perhaps the most healing and profound because of the personal, creative freedom it nurtures.

Art appeals to a variety of senses — it can be written or visual, with nuances in between. It can be interpreted in many ways, and it can hold different meanings. It’s personal, yet universal. It inspires and it heals.

Brianne Burnell logo

Brianne Burnell

Among the many artists I admire, Brianne Burnell‘s work particularly resonates with me when I think about using art as a type of therapy or recovery when it comes to mental illness. She’s an accomplished digital artist/designer who melds her experiences with anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder with colorful & magical textures.

{Work by Brianne Burnell}

I’m someone who has always been an artist. Since I was very small I spent my time drawing, crafting, and collecting sparkly candy wrappers and scraps of paper with the intention of turning them into something. I grew up in a small town in Ontario and eventually moved to Toronto to study Fashion at Ryerson University. I struggled for the whole 4 years with anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder, but I did some meaningful work, I interned at an amazing independent fashion magazine called WORN Fashion Journal, and I learned that my true passion was art. After university I took time off to develop myself as an artist, with the goal of becoming a professional freelancer. For 3 years I drew every day, studied what other artists were doing, learned the ins and outs of freelancing through podcasts and online research, and took out a million books from the library. Now I have been a full-time freelancer for two and a half years, working mainly on children’s toys, while refining my personal work and venturing into the fine art side of things. Through this journey I have realized that I want to create work that explores difficult feelings in a soft, vulnerable way, and create environments where people can be open and share their experiences, even if they’re not things we always feel good sharing. I want to pass along the healing I have found through creating art. – Brianne Burnell

{Work by Brianne Burnell}

What I love about Brianne’s personal work is that she doesn’t shy away from laying out her feelings, and the intricacies of her creations seem to illustrate the inner workings of a human mind. Having a lot of feelings and thoughts is something we can all relate to, so Brianne’s work is a brilliant example of how to create meaningful magic through art.

Work by Brianne Burnell

{Work by Brianne Burnell}

Her “Protect Yourself” piece especially resonates with me, because I think it’s something we often forget or don’t know how to do. It’s easy to get caught up in putting other people first, or looking outward for comparison and/or validation. While having a sense of community and shared experience is important for our development, we also have to remember that nobody will ever truly know what’s best for us — as unique, individual beings — but ourselves. We are responsible for our own happiness, therefore it’s also our responsibility to protect it.

In chatting with Brianne I got to thinking about how we can intentionally use art as a way to protect ourselves, and through our conversation cultivated a few tips:

8 Ways to Protect Yourself (& Your Happiness) Through Art

Work by Brianne Burnell

1. Discover your art (your calling)

German artist Joseph Beuys once said, “Everyone is an artist.”  As humans, we have an intrinsic desire to create all sorts of things — food to eat, new life to sustain our species, structures to live in, books to read, gadgets to make our lives easier, written or visual pieces of content that are meant to be appreciated for their meaning and/or aesthetic…the list goes on. But the point is “art”  in this context will be used to encompass anything that sets your heart on fire; whatever message or feeling you’re compelled to share with the world. Whether you’re a painter, a writer, a chef, a photographer, a poet, a designer, a sculptor, a storyteller, or any combination thereof, your art is whatever medium you choose to express yourself through.

Art is funny because you don’t really decide where it takes you; it forms out of your experiences, your preferences, and your materials, and the only way to get there is by making a lot of it. The style of my work comes from “honouring my materials” (photoshop/digital) – really experimenting with what can be made through digital art: what kind of textures can I create, how can I collage and reflect and rotate things to make crystals and orbs… I spend a lot of time playing in Photoshop, getting to know it, and doing all sorts of failed experiments. And it’s influenced by my own aesthetic preferences. I consume a lot of art online and in real life, and I try to narrow in on what makes me really excited, and surround myself with that stuff. I have recently started incorporating typography into my work because my message wasn’t always getting across in the more abstract pieces. A lot of my crystal work is about recovering from Anorexia and finding tremendous strength through that process, but that isn’t super obvious when you look at the pieces, so I wanted to create work with typography that just said how it was feeling right away.  But my favourite one right now is “I don’t feel good” because every time I feel sad for no reason, or just antisocial, or anxious, I think of that piece. Even though it is so simple it feels like such an honest piece – no explanation, no metaphors, no making it sound nicer than it is, just exactly what I would tell my partner: I don’t feel good.  – Brianne Burnell

(Psst…Feeling a bit lost or like you need some structured guidance to figure out what you truly love? ^Let That Sh*t Go: A Journal for Leaving Your Bullsh*t Behind and Creating a Happy Life or ^Made Out of Stars: A Journal for Self-Realization are two of my favorites. {^Amazon Affiliate links} My own Designing Happiness Workbook can also be a good place to start. 🙂)

Work by Brianne Burnell

{Photo by Yuli Schedit}

2. Embrace your super powers

Rather than view anxiety, depression, strange feelings, or any form of mental illness as a weakness, recognize it as part of what makes you special. What makes you, YOU. Your super power. (That’s not to say negative feelings should be either glamorized or dismissed, but they also don’t have to forever be a burden.)

I don’t want to glamourize mental illness because it’s horrible, truly so painful and horrible, but if I was functioning differently in society I would not be the same artist. I know my work has been created out of suffering and isolation, that my process has been built out of compulsive behaviour, that the hundreds of hours I have spent developing were because I couldn’t bring myself to leave my house, and that a fear of not being good enough continues to push my work forward. It has also held me back in so many ways. I have been limited in my networking and life experience because of it, there are so many things I have not been able to do. It’s strange how it shapes you – you recognize that a lot of it isn’t good but at the end of the day if you like who you are, you can’t be that mad at it because it formed you. And there’s not much I can do about it except keep striving for balance. My experiences with mental illness have shaped the way I move through and examine the world, and have left me with a huge interest in other human beings and our brains and our feelings, and that kind of stuff feeds my work. – Brianne Burnell

Work by Brianne Burnell

3. Make stuff

Creation is the true sign of an artist — if you’re not creating anything, you have nothing to share — with yourself or anybody else. There are no rules here other than simply get inspired and make stuff

If you make art, you’re an artist. It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to bring you money or fame, but the only way you fail at being an artist is by not making the art. For me there are so many things I would like to eventually make. I’ve been dreaming up a mental health related installation lately that involves huge hanging crystals and rocks, and I’m hoping to secure funding and see that come to life in the next year. I would love to one day become an Art Therapist, and learn more about art and healing by going back to school. And I’d love to work with children (I have been hoarding magazines, craft supplies, and ideas for this…one day it will happen!) I want to learn new mediums, combining my digital work with more traditional materials. I’d love to create more sculptural pieces, murals, or some type of immersive environment that people can come into and feel safe and inspired in, where we can discuss mental health and healing. The short answer is, everything, I want to make everything I possibly can. – Brianne Burnell

Work by Brianne Burnell

{Photo by Yuli Schedit}

4. Find your happy place

Having a place that makes you happy (or even having a few of these sacred spaces) is important not only to inspire your art, but also so you can feel safe, relax, and recharge. 

The bath is definitely one of my happy places. I just redecorated my bathroom and it is very vibrant and dreamy, and I spend a lot of time planning my ideas in the bath with candles lit, listening to music. It soothes my sore body and calms my brain enough that I can really let my mind wander. I also love my backyard, it is my little oasis. I probably spend more time there than anyone else in my house, and it’s especially nice when my two cats are out there with me. Like a lot of artists in the very expensive city of Toronto, we have to make what we can afford work for us, so instead of having a big studio with natural light and endless storage, my desk that I work at full-time is right in the middle of my kitchen with no windows. But I’ve set it up so that when I am sitting there, everything I see around me is beautiful, and it doesn’t hurt that the espresso machine is two feet away from me. – Brianne Burnell

(Psst…Want more ideas for finding your physical happy place? Check out this post!)

Work by Brianne Burnell

{Photo by Yuli Schedit}

5. Define your own version of success

The idea of success is a tricky one, because even if something is a supposed “failure,” it teaches you something which is in fact, a success. (*brain_hurts*) But for real, rather than focus on success as an overall goal or “final” measurement, think instead about how to cultivate your own versions of successful moments that continuously grow upon each other. Maybe your version of success has a number attached to it, or maybe it has a feeling attached. Either is just as valid, as long as it means something valuable to you.

When you are successful in ways that other people understand – like winning a competition or working on a product they’ve heard of – it is such a high, reassuring feeling. But most of the valuable lessons I have learned as an artist have not been from success. I think a lot of artists (and entrepreneurs) talk about this, you learn from every mistake, you grow from every failure. Instead of focusing on one piece until it is perfect, do 30 pieces. In each piece you might hate something, but in your next piece you will work through that, and that is growth and success. There are things I have achieved so far in my career that make me feel successful. Working with the toy company, seeing my work on the shelves at Toys R Us and Walmart, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. Being able to support myself solely through art is success to me and I think about that quite a bit, how grateful I am for that. Lately I feel successful when I like the work I create. When I make a piece that reflects me and I see growth in it and I see myself pushing my art to a new area, I feel like I am winning. Success for me also means balance in my life, being happy (which despite occasional mental health woes I AM truly happy, in a way that I hadn’t experienced in a long time, which is the result of a lot of hard work). – Brianne Burnell

Work by Brianne Burnell

6. Trust the process

Things might not always seem clear or easy or fair, but trust that if you’re staying true to what you feel in your heart, everything will work out. Art, like life, can be messy and take work sometimes, but it’s all part of the process.

One year ago I was just celebrating my first year of eating disorder recovery, and had the most unbelievable joint pain. I could barely walk, and I had to wear wrist guards pretty much all day including while I slept. I was still very much struggling through that process. I had to learn to be patient, take it one day at a time, and trust that if I just fed it properly my body would heal. It was frustrating because I had so many feelings I needed to work out through art, but my hands could barely hold a pen and I was so fatigued that I was just barely getting through my client work. I have had some really profound moments lately that have made me reflect on how far I have come, for example I was carrying a full coffee to the fabric store the other day and I thought “Wow, I remember when I couldn’t carry my own coffee home.” So I have a lot of small, satisfied moments where I compare how shit my life was during eating disorder recovery (or during my eating disorder) with how much easier it feels these days… simple things like going for a walk and not being in pain, those things just keep hitting me. In art, the whole thing is a process. In the process you develop the technical skills, and you learn about yourself and what you want to say, and you grow. My process starts with gathering inspiration – nearly every moment before I sit down to actually do the work I’m researching art and fashion. Once I sit down and begin in photoshop I start each piece with some brush strokes or a photo I’ve taken, and I think of it as an experiment. I never sit down and think “today we’re making a purple crystal” – I just go through the motions and think about what is going on with me lately. I don’t even bother naming my files anything special, just something like “experiment1” because this helps me not feel too precious about each piece. They are all a stepping stone in a larger exploration, and some of them are going to go in the garbage. I experiment by layering different pieces, slicing out rectangles, rotating them, slicing them again, reflecting… it’s not a very linear process, and I could never recreate the same piece twice. I rotate and layer and change colours and reflect hundreds of times, I’m almost in a trance when I’m doing it, it is a lot like a meditative process.  And some days I leave my computer and I’m not excited about anything I’ve done. And sometimes I have a breakthrough and the work pours out of me and it’s all really good. I just sit down, and trust the process, and see where it leads me – Brianne Burnell

Work by Brianne Burnell

7. Forge your own path

You are you and I am I. What works for me or others might not work for you. It’s your life, therefore your path. You can’t control the world around you, but you can decide to make your own way in it.

Anorexia is an exercise in control, and one thing I have had to come to terms with in recovery is recognizing I can’t control some things, and I need to focus on the things I can control. I’d laugh if it wasn’t so sad to look back and realize that all this “control” I thought I had over my life and my body as an anorexic person was bullshit. I was BEING controlled, by an illness, and every part of my life was hard to control as a result. In my art I find a lot of freedom, and I am able to let go of some of that need for control. I’m very much what you’d call a “maximalist” – I often need others to rein me in, but in my own art there really is no one to rein me in so I just go with it full force and ignore the voice in my head that is telling me to tone it down. Rainbow, glitter, craziness: be free. If I want the world to understand me, and I want to create art that is truly reflective of me, I can’t hold back. – Brianne Burnell

Work by Brianne Burnell

{Photo by Yuli Schedit}

8. Listen to yourself

Everything you need to know is already inside you. Learning to listen to that inner voice — and understand what it’s truly trying to tell you — is perhaps the hardest, yet most important lesson.

The hardest lesson I have learned is to believe and trust yourself. And to ask for help. I had to learn both of those lessons through eating disorder recovery, feeling like if other people don’t think it’s that bad, maybe it isn’t. But at some point I had to believe myself and trust that I knew my own brain and my own body, and it was all telling me I needed help. I have learned a lot in the last two years about my personal boundaries, enforcing them, protecting myself. I have also learned that asking for help is brave, and scary, and sometimes the only way you can get through something. It doesn’t help to pretend everything is okay and not let your friends in, it doesn’t make you weak because you couldn’t do it on your own. You wouldn’t expect your friends to do it on their own, you’d want them to let you help. It is important to be vulnerable and honest and speak up when you need things, even though that can be incredibly difficult. – Brianne Burnell

Work by Brianne Burnell

{Work by Brianne Burnell}

So tell me, which of these tips can you put into practice? In what other ways have you learned to protect yourself? How has art provided a source of healing or inspiration for you? Simply tap the “Comment” button below — I’d love to hear your story!

You can find more about Brianne and her work on her website & Instagram.

*Statistic from the National Institute of Mental Health.

**Medical Disclaimer: Please remember that I am not a medical professional, and the content above is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding mental health or a medical condition.

It’s Ok Not To Be Ok: How To Use Art To Protect Yourself And Your Happiness {Featuring Brianne Burnell}


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