Comic book artist and illustrator Tara Booth’s work is candid, funny and chock full of personal details. The textures and patterns she achieves using gouache paint give her work a wonderfully awkward tone and she brings her characters to life through short vignettes that unfold on the page.
When we featured Tara back in August 2016, the Chicago-based creative explained how documenting her daily experiences had helped her to connect with people about her mental heath issues. “A lot of my work is about living with chronic anxiety and depression. Taking the parts of my life that leave me feeling hopeless or out of control, and being able to turn them into something sort of silly through painting helps to transform some of my negative emotions,” she said at the time. Here Tara tells us a little more about her work, what she’s learned about herself since being diagnosed and the positive effects of channeling what she’s been through into her work.
How did you get into illustration? What drove you to start drawing and making images?
My Mom’s side of the family is really artistically inclined. My grandparents are watercolour painters, and my Mom doesn’t make work often – but when she does, she makes it look effortless. She’s just an amazing draftsperson. Growing up, there were always art supplies available to me, and it’s just sort of what I ended up doing with my free time. My brother would build things, and I would draw things… now he works in metal fabrication and I make comics.
As I got older I started to keep illustrated diaries. I used drawing and writing to manage and track my emotions. Being alone has always been really difficult for me, so when I was younger – before having a cell phone, or Instagram, or whatever, when I wasn’t able to be in constant contact with whoever my support person was at the time – reimagining experiences through drawing was a way for me to sort of obsessively, continuously hold onto moments. To maintain a connection with the people in my life that made me feel safe, even while they weren’t physically present. Drawing directly from my own life has always been the core of my creative output, even when I’ve tried to force myself stray away from it.
How would you describe your style?
My drawings look very fluid and loose, but they’re really very dense and almost compulsively rendered. After art school, I decided that I wanted to change the way that I worked. Pressure from professors and competition in class made me feel really anxious about making work at all. It didn’t feel fun anymore.
I wanted to force myself to let go of a lot of what I had learned in school to see if I could remember what it felt like to really enjoy painting again. Many of my favourite artists are self taught, and I’ve always appreciated rawness and honesty in drawing. I stopped drawing from life or photo references and started working just from memory. It was really uncomfortable for me at first, to let go… but I found a new way to make images, and now it feels really good. I draw things quickly and freely, and I use the dense patterns as a way to maintain a sense of control over the image.
How has your work developed in the last year?
I didn’t think that I would notice a huge difference in my work between then and now — but looking back, I can see that press and exposure has absolutely changed the way that I make images. I like what I’m doing now, but my work definitely looks more clean than it did before. I can tell that I’ve been working to refine my imagery, to make things look sharper and more crisp. I’ve also become more conscious of how viewers identify with my work – so I’ve been putting more pressure on myself in terms of subject matter, public expectations etc. I’ve certainly gained a sense of confidence in knowing that I have an audience, but it’s been a struggle for me to balance “branding” and authenticity. I want to make sure that I continue to produce work that feels honest, rather than getting wrapped up in what sells.
You’ve said in the past how a lot of your work is about living with chronic anxiety and depression – in what way does this manifest itself in your work?
Sometimes it’s hard… you know, I’d like for my character to leave her bedroom a bit more often than she does. Painting is a really great excuse for me to hide out in my room and avoid contact with people, but at the same time… after a long stretch of bedroom isolation, I might decide that I need to leave the house simply because I’m totally out of material. Drawing myself crying in bed gets old, lol.
The intricate patterns in my art keep me busy, and painting puts me into a really comfortable, meditative state. It’s the only time that I’m really able to let go of my anxiety and focus on something outside of myself – especially when I’m working on a personal project, rather than a commission.
What made you want to channel what you were going through into your illustrations?
As I mentioned before, I’ve always made diary drawings. It happened naturally, however I never, ever thought that I’d end up sharing those drawings publicly. There are still certain things that I don’t feel comfortable publicly exposing about myself, but I’m working to open up even more.
When were you first diagnosed with these issues? What did it feel like finding out what you were feeling had a name?
I went to a psychologist for the first time when I was 14, but I grew up with an awareness of mental illness. My Dad is chief psychologist in a prison where he works with sex offenders. My Mom is a manic depressive alcoholic with Borderline Personality Disorder. My house was a difficult place to be in sometimes, and both of my parent’s experiences with mental health have had a huge impact on my life.
When my Dad talked to me about my Mom’s issues, he mentioned bipolar and BPD. Our conversations opened the door for me to begin my own research, and I quickly started to notice similarities between my mom’s diagnoses and my own personal experiences and behavioural patterns. Immediately, my dad sort of shut the idea down – the idea that I could be anything like my mom. It hurt him to think that I might identify as someone with mental illness, but I’ve found labels to be really comforting and even empowering.
I don’t look at my diagnosis as a death sentence. I think that with therapy and a lot of work, there are definitely things that can be done to alter my more destructive behaviours – but I think it’s beneficial for me to be aware that there may be a learning curve. Some things are going to be harder for me than they might be for other people. A diagnosis helps me to feel like that’s okay, and valid, and not my fault… that I’m not alone.
What has been the effect of using what you’ve gone through for a positive outcome?
My anxiety and depression make it really difficult for me to feel positive about the choices that I make in life, or confident about the art that I’m making. The recognition and support that I’ve gotten in response to my work helps me to feel like what I’m pursuing is worthwhile and beneficial to outsiders. Sharing work online has provided me with the opportunity to connect with other artists who share similar experiences. Making artwork is helping me to slowly build a community where I feel understood and appreciated. Sharing experiences publicly does open doors for criticism, which can be especially difficult to navigate as someone struggling with mental illness – but I think the trade off is worthwhile.
What advice would you give to someone going through similar issues?
I would advise people to be as honest and open as they can with their friends and family when it comes to mental health. Seek out professional help if you can afford it, or find support groups online where you can share your experiences and build relationships with peers. If you feel like you’re on your last leg, trapped, or totally hopeless… try to push yourself out of your comfort zone and do something unexpected. Pretend to be someone else. Experiment with your reality for a bit before you decide to give up on it. Move to a new place or talk to a stranger, try not to give up on the possibility of connecting with other people.
Why do you think days like World Mental Health Day are important?
I think it’s so, so necessary for the public to be reminded about the importance of regular mental health maintenance. Mental Health Awareness is not a minor issue. I think it’s invaluable for people to be aware of different mental conditions – to have compassion and understanding for other people in order to develop a better sense of community and love for one another. I think that most people grow up and unknowingly have to deal with mental illness within their families or communities on one level or another. Yet people aren’t given the resources to educate themselves and learn more about why or how their community or family members struggle.
It’s important for people to be reminded that their experiences with mental health are valid… victims of abuse should have the opportunity to be more vocal about their struggles and seek out treatment. People struggling with managing their own emotions should be aware of the help that’s available to them. Conversation about mental health issues in mainstream media provide opportunities for people to be more open about their own experiences, lets continue to work to eradicate mental health taboos.
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.