Artist uses art to cope with, communicate her life with bipolar disorder

Throughout our conversation, Cassandra Peters keeps returning to a particular word: devastating. It's a heavy word, an onerous word, a word with magnitude. Peters uses the word to explain what it's like to live with a bipolar disorder.

“It affects everything, from jobs to relationships,” Peters said in an interview following a brief walkthrough of her work on display at Fresh A.I.R. Gallery. “I can't have a normal relationship with anybody. Not very many people can [handle] it for so long. It's exhausting, I think, for others. For me, it's just how I've been.”

“Mending Broken Pieces” is a duo exhibition with artist Em Gan that closes following Peters' Friday artist's talk at Fresh A.I.R., which, as part of Southeast Inc., an agency serving individuals with mental illness or substance abuse disorders, displays work by artists with their own histories of mental illness or substance abuse.

“When I'm down, I know I'm down [because] I'm horribly down. When I'm up, I'm too up to realize it,” Peters explained. “There are so many misconceptions. People hear ‘mood disorder' and want to downplay it and say everybody has moods, ups and downs, struggles. And that's true, but it's so much more extreme.”

These extremes can be difficult to describe, but Peters can paint them. Discussions on the intersection of representational and abstract art often begin with the necessary processes of assimilation and translation that occur when an artist makes something that depicts something that exists in the physical world. Peters' art is representational of something necessarily abstract.

“I paint to show the chaos that's in my head. I'm painting about how it feels … like a roller coaster every single day,” Peters said. “When I'm so aggravated with stuff that's inside me, I just paint.”

Art and mental illness have both been with Peters for most of her life. She enjoyed painting as a teen, but her family didn't really encourage it, she said, at most wondering why she didn't paint still life scenes or landscapes. She squeezed an art elective into her high school schedule and the teacher, impressed with Peters' talent, encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to CCAD.

“I didn't even know there was a CCAD,” Peters said.

She was accepted on scholarship, on her way to Columbus from Sunbury, which seemed much further to Peters than the relatively short distance in miles from eastern Delaware County to CCAD's Downtown campus.

But Peters was struggling inside. A friend who'd done a high school research paper on bipolar disorder suggested Peters read one of the books she'd encountered in her research.

“I didn't get it, couldn't see it,” Peters said. “People around me could see something was going on with me, but to me everything was just black.”

Peters completed just one semester at CCAD. One night, her roommate returned just in time to prevent Peters' attempted suicide. Peters called it one of “many times God saved my life.”

Hospitalizations, treatments and medication followed, coupled with attempts to return to some kind of normal life. But medications often rendered her incapable of painting, a situation she forced herself — and her doctor — to rectify.

“I would just sit and stare at a wall. I was fine, but that's all I could do, and I couldn't paint,” Peters said, saying she told her doctor, “I have to paint.”

“But it was frustrating. I did try to do what my family wanted: to paint realistic stuff. I even did portraits of my kids, but I wasn't happy [because] that's not how I felt inside,” she continued. “I wanted to paint things that represent how ‘this' feels. If they couldn't see it physically, I wanted … to try to paint things that show the chaos inside.”

Just a few years ago, Peters painted a piece she titled “Sea Storm,” which depicted a small boat amid harsh waves, all angular and agitated, awash in deep grays and dark blues. This was, Peters realized, what she was seeking — a means of expressing what was going on inside her that also provided for her a way through, even if temporary. And, as an artist, she had found a style and a voice.

“When I start out painting, it's the biggest mess you'd ever want to see.” she said. “But as I paint, it calms me, and the painting starts to blend and work and make sense and become clear.

“I usually finish something in four [to] eight hours, but there are certain times when I can't stop. It's that intense. … I can't even stop to eat.” (Peters' 18-year-old daughter, Brittany, who's joined us for this interview, adds, “She won't even make us food!”)

Peters credits all four of her kids, but in particular Brittany, with “making me better.”

“It's a struggle every day. My life is chaotic [and] all over the place, but it works. I don't know why, I can't explain it, but I am happy with my life. I love how my kids have turned out. My oldest daughter is 18 and she still has a relationship with me,” Peters said with a laugh. “When I'm not feeling good, she literally grabs me and makes me do something. It's nice to have that support.”

Showing at Fresh A.I.R., where the mission is to help understand mental illness, is important for Peters, who not only wants to try and explain what's inside her to people who don't understand bipolar disorder, but perhaps also provide comfort and hope for those who do, intimately.

“I want somebody else to see these and know I've been there,” she said. “I couldn't paint like this … if I didn't feel this way. So maybe I can use [the ability] I have to give back to others. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.”