John Ledger, 31 from Yorkshire, United Kingdom is an artist who specialises in fine art and drawing. With a self professed existentialist nature, John continues to search for what he defines as a “breathing space” in order to find the answer to one of life’s big questions “who am I” and says “I experience this world we’re in as one that demands a competitive and unending assertion of oneself, with the inevitably of daily crises of identity”. However John uses his art to address this demand from our world and asserts himself with “f**k you, this is me” which we at ASLI are like minded in this way, which is just one reason Johan’s work stood out to us amongst the thousands of entries we received.
Having always drawn throughout childhood, to channel fleeting obsessions and ideas which then transformed into endless doodles, this behaviour was self censored during high-school so as to not stand out too much, due to low self-esteem. Something which many teenagers do to fulfill the social rhetoric and survival of one’s school days. The identity crisis in which John often found himself in during these formative years played a part in his mental health but as well as this heaviness of confusion, another concern started to push its way into the forefront, foreboding thoughts for the state of the world we live in, which became an all encompassing interest which in John’s late teens allowed him to channel his artistic ideas, which as hard as this was for his younger self, it has helped him to this day and continues to aid him in his confidence as an artist with a message.
When we at ASLI received John’s submission we were blown away with his art and how committed his art is to communicate important issues concerning society, politics and mental illness. So we were excited for him to join our mission and aim as well as enthusiastic to show an international audience his work and give more people the opportunity to experience this important artist.
Here is our interview with John:
What motivated you to deal with your chosen submission subject?
Submission Subject: Politics, society and mental illness
Every waking hour there’s an unending sense that the state of things is wrong, troubling, in as it stands, in a worsening state, whilst I feel an unending pressure to adapt to this world, as if it was all OK. Of course, I’m not the only one feeling this way. But you feel alone with it sometimes, and I haven’t yet managed to escape the episodic destructive downers, breakdowns I thought would be left behind in my early twenties. For this reason, mental well-being in relation to the socio-political reality we are in has become of utmost importance to me. Climate change and personal experience of eating disorders had propelled me into a ceaseless questioning of things from my late teens onwards, but especially since after the 2008 financial crash and the austerity program that ensued (in the UK), climate change has become this overarching background issue in the my drawings whilst people’s’ abilities to cope with this politically-imposed harsher agenda inevitably became the foreground, more immediate issue.
What is your process when creating?
For years I used to spew out ideas for pieces in quick succession to no avail. I discovered that large landscapes mapping out everything that upset or angered me about the world were the best way of saying what I really wanted to say. The ideas always precede putting pen to paper, and their formulation in my mind takes much longer now, but when they come together it brings both great relief and great excitement. The compositions for new pieces usually emerge when I’m nowhere in particular – on a train journey, at work or sitting in a cafe. I jot them down and some just feel right. But I want to do justice to all that hidden labour that has been underway in my head, and for this reason these doodles have no choice but to become murals. I wouldn’t be satisfied with my work if it was only focussing on one instance instead of trying to depict the entire human landscape under capitalism in the 21st century.
Although I am aware that my work is of a very dark nature, I don’t see it, or myself, as being pessimistic. They are slow-building compositions that serve as cases against a scheme of things I find unnecessary. That’s why the titles are important to my works as they help get this across.
Who are you influenced by within your artistic discipline?
There are many artists from a broad range of fields who I admire and respect; painters, filmmakers, writers, philosophers. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t both music and my immediate physical surroundings that I have in mind often when I feel inspired. Although I have a University degree in art, it was completed whilst living in my home town, which has always been heavily orientated around music/bands, and you find yourself inevitably in comparison with what’s happening in your immediate area. Although I have found visual art the best tool for expressing my ideas (I work in a gallery, share discussions with fellow artists, and love much art ), I must admit that sometimes I think I am working on a new album. Each drawing sometimes feels like a title of a track on a big album I am trying to put together. And I don’t feel some shame in this; I very much believe that some of the popular music made by bands in the second half of the 20th century is possibly some of the most powerful art to have been borne out the working, and lower middle classes.
Who inspires you in general?
Everything. That’s the problem. It overwhelms me, and eventually a composition will work itself out in my head that it a response against this. Sadly, it’s always against, rather than for. I want a better world, I want a better me, but I spend most my time trying to fight the tragedy of Now.
What causes and world issues are you passionate about, campaign for, volunteer for…?
I try to either support or attend demos/campaigns that discuss what I believe is the elephant in the room: capitalism. The pressures it is putting on everything, as the governing forces leave all discussion of it well off the agenda, means that many issues are left to fight their corner alone, even though they are, in my opinion, interrelated. For this reason I am very supportive of mental health awareness. I don’t think some people are aware of the damage they can do by telling people to ‘get a grip’ etc. I think raising awareness of mental health is very important, but also I think what is important is to understand why the world as it is might make it particularly hard to find a ‘place of safety’ regarding mental well-being. The stigma of the likes of “he needs to pull himself together” make people feel even lonelier in a world that can already feel lonely.
What do the statements “art saves lives” and “art creates change” mean to you?
I think they are very important in situations where art is being used to support people on the fringes of society. I also know a couple of people who have dealt with addiction problems through getting into art.
Have your artistic and creative outlets saved your life in anyway and do you think your message within them could help create change in the world?
They have certainly given me the confidence to live a more social life in this world than I may if I hadn’t done art at college after school. But there has also been certain situations where I have been feeling literally at a dead end, and then I get an idea for a piece of work that really makes sense of everything to me, and before I know it, I’m much more active and social again.
I really hope my work can help make the world better in some shape or form. I know it’s very dark, but I feel strongly that it expresses an large part of the truth of our times that shouldn’t be ignored. I make no bones about how I think we live in a very unhappy time. I know we all need cheer. But my work is strong when I find a way of staring back at the troubling aspects. And I think that if these aspects are glossed over, a lot more people will feel alone with their anxieties and unhappiness over the state of things. I think we have forgotten the virtue of the sharing of the pain we feel.
What are your present and future goals for your art?
I have a few projects on the go with friends which I think could be very promising. But my main goal is not to give up.
The following question are about mental health:
Can you tell us about your own experiences with mental illness?
I’ve always been quite open about the fact that I suffered from eating disorders towards the end of my teenage years, into the baby months of my 20’s. I am open about it because what caused it and how I dealt with it is very important to what I became as an artist, and of my understanding of what I felt to be fundamentally wrong with the world. I went to see a counsellor at the time, and an eating disorder clinic as I was coming around from it. But as long spells of depression prevented me from functioning again, I initially went for group therapy, and then, later into my twenties I went for CBT. I found the CBT a far better method than group therapy. I was on antidepressants for two-thirds of my 20’s, and initially they really helped me really get my art-making together in the final year of my degree, but towards the end of my 20’s I realised they didn’t really do anything anymore, and I’ve not noticed any difference since I stopped taking them. Truth be told, I can talk elaborately about it to anyone, but preventing those crashes every 3 months or so still seems like an unfathomable task.
How does your artistic /creative expression help you with your mental health?
Massively. There’s very few of my socio-political large works which don’t raise mental health issues in the face of the organised insanity I depict in the wider picture. And as I’ve said, most of my works are born out of a crisis point, whether a big or small one.
Have you ever experienced being stigmatised or marginalised due to your mental health or have you seen this happen to someone else?
I’ve always feared being so. I think what hurts more is when somebody I know seems understanding of my reasons for who I am, but then massively judge somebody else for their difficulties, hitting them with that very condemnation that I’m always fighting to prevent from falling on me, when I feel the pressure to the explain why I haven’t done this/or aspired to do that in life.
Depression isn’t a fashion, a certain look to go for; when I’ve felt like that in public, you’re pride is so sapped that you avoid people you know, and feel so exposed, as if you are wearing a cloak of shame. You’re confidence utterly disappears. I think the fact that it makes you want to hide away, means that you’re less likely to find yourself a target for derogatory comments.
Do you think society and culture is accepting of people with mental illness?
I think many groups are, and there is some awareness about it in government, large decision making bodies. But, no, overall I don’t think society is accepting of it at all. Unfortunately I think it is still largely seen as a weakness. If it was up to me, we’d also, treat the obese, alcoholics, etc, with compassion, but we don’t, we see it as a personal failure to be condemned.
How do you feel your Government in your country helps people with mental illness and could they do more?
Our government is making life harder for the majority by the day, under the word ‘austerity’. It is doing the opposite of helping people, because they are, in my opinion, making the problems that harm mental well-being worse and worse. I don’t think they can do more, because I don’t think this specific political party is capable of showing any compassion. The best thing they can do is be consigned to the history books.
Have you ever had any creative therapies as part of your treatment, did it help?
No, by the time I was seeking therapy I was already making work. I think all the practitioners were very positive of this, and encouraged it.
Do you think artistic / creative expression can be used to help people with mental health problems?
Yes, definitely. But other things are needed. You can try surround yourself with your creations, but you also need friends aside from this.
Do you think artistic / creative expression could help raise awareness and communicate how mental illness affects people?
I hope so, as I’m trying to do it with nearly every work I make!
What made you want to get involved with ASLI’s MENTAL ILLNESS, HEALTH AND RECOVERY CAMPAIGN?
It’s trying to give help to some of the more silently lonely and trapped people. The more awareness is raised, the more it has be looked at seriously by those who destructively dismiss it. Whether mental illness is the correct term or not is irrelevant; there’s a lot of people who are finding the world an incredibly difficult place to exist in, and avoidance of the issue by society won’t make it go away. People keep saying it’s becoming one of the big issues of our times. Good. Let it become a bigger and bigger issue.
Do you believe in more rights for mentally ill people in the workplace and for equal opportunities?
Just giving them breathing space? We can’t expect people to function properly in a work place, when they are struggling to deal with day to day existence. It’s as debilitating as trying to get out of bed the day after breaking a leg in a car crash. But for some reason we expect it of people.
We at ASLI want to de-stigmatize diagnosis labels within mental illness so that people treat others and their own mental health label as that of a diabetic or any other chronic “physical” illness, as we know the brain is physical and this would further improve stigma and marginalising mental illness. How do you feel about diagnosis labels?
They aren’t brilliant. I suppose the doctors have a tough task on their hands trying to explain what’s happening. My view is that many people are just reacting differently to the demand to adjust to a way of living that is very hard on us. In the long run I believe a big social change would sweep away the need to have all these labels. I don’t believe there’s a natural way human beings want to live, but this currently way of living is clearly very destructive for a lot of us.
Everyone within ASLI is affected in some way by mental illness, with our MD having several chronic mental illnesses and other members either caring for or dealing with mental health issues. Would this make you think twice about working with ASLI? And does this make ASLI “less professional” in your opinion and if so why?
Not at all. I have the same issue when I am involved in something that has more of an air of ‘professionalism’ about it; I get this shiver running through me thinking “oh my god, they’d want nothing to do with me if they were aware of some of the states I find myself in”. It means I have to treat it like a Jekyll and Hyde situation, which is awful, as it makes me feel more like a silent freak. I’d rather more people were honest about their own difficulties they have from time to time. I know I’m not alone with situation, although all our situations differ. So anything that tries to cut through this lie that you can’t suffer mental illness and also be a competent, productive person is very important to me.
Are there any artists/creatives/performers which you admire, who suffer from mental illness that you feel use their work to discuss or highlight mental health?
Maybe Ian Curtis isn’t the best example, as he committed suicide. But I am thankful that his lyrics are there, as Joy Division’s music is one of the few things that seems to make sense of my world when I’ve plummeted. I don’t think it is dangerous to listen to this music when I’m in such a state, because it makes sense of this world there and then better than anything else I know.