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Work / World Mental Health Day

“Subtlety is key”: Rachel Levit on the art of illustrating sensitive themes

When talking to Mexican artist and illustrator Rachel Levit about this piece for World Mental Health Day she sent over a folder of archive work that illustrates sensitive content. We knew before hand that Rachel had an eye for illustrating subjects with a delicate story, but when looking through her selection a distinct style was noticeable. This is a style that hints at a tender personable thought, but also remains relatable to anyone, male or female, young or old, and whether they have had troubles with mental health or not.

This style is due to an astute drawing technique that Rachel applies when she puts pen to paper. “When I illustrate a piece that deals with delicate, sensitive or controversial issues: subtlety is key,” she tells It’s Nice That. “One cannot be too direct or literal.” This is a craft visible in each of the artist’s practices, whether she is creating a sculpture of a melting head, or a spot illustration for The New Yorker. “I also try not to take the road of over-sentimentality. I am certain that in this instance less is more.”

On asking Rachel whether she feels illustrators have a duty to visualise themes surrounding mental health she voices a personal mantra towards work: “I think illustrators should work on themes that are close to their heart.” For her, inspiration lies within “bodies and emotion” which are a continuous and central theme to her work. This is clear in two of Rachel’s recent projects, the first being Vivan Las Mujeres a piece for the campaign by Amnesty International to stop gender violence and femicide, and her book, Shifted which comments on “gender, femininity and contemporary relationships,” though illustration. “I don’t know why I draw what I draw, it just comes out,” she says. “Often times it’s not something you have conscious control of. I would say my characters are stoic yet it’s apparent they have a rich inner life.”

Illustrating themes around emotion and mental health has led the artist to think more about the subject, in the creative industry and personally. “I think it’s my responsibility to help myself and to ask for help (which is crucial and it’s what I am pushing myself to do more),” she explains on working as a freelancer.

But, as a larger problem within the creative industry, Rachel sees it as “a topic that is maybe not talked about enough,” she says. “I think being a freelancer can be dangerous if you struggle with mental health issues. The culture tends to push you to take as many gigs as you are offered. I see that it’s really easy to disregard your own body and well-being in the process. When I was in school in New York, saying that you were stressed and up all night working was almost like a humble brag. I want to live and work in an environment where I can take time to care for myself.”

Despite her work regularly having sensitive undertones, speaking outwardly about the affects of mental health is a recent development for the artist. “I feel like I have only begun to have open conversations about it, and I have a long way to go before tackling it as a subject more seriously,” says Rachel on whether she will expand this interest into a larger project. “But it will probably always be an underlying theme in my work.”

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Rachel Levit: Shifted

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Rachel Levit: Vivan Las Mujeres

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Rachel Levit: Fallen Woman

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Rachel Levit: Backbend

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Rachel Levit: I Made You Up In My Head

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Rachel Levit: Melted City

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Rachel Levit: Anxiety Candle

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Rachel Levit: Melted Head

1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem every year, and in England, 1 in every 6 people report a common mental health problem – like anxiety and depression – each week. But only 1 in 4 people in the UK reporting mental health difficulties receive ongoing treatment. If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in today’s coverage, if you would like to find out more or to donate, please contact Mind or CALM