Inside Issue #23: Longer Dives Underwater: Yumi Sakugawa’s Work Is A Deep-Sea Mission Into the Infinite Cosmic Ocean

In these turbulent times, tuning in to our needs has become an imperative anti-burnout tool; a necessary defense against the constant flow of painful events on the news. Yumi Sakugawa’s work is a window into her traversing through vulnerability, and an honest look at what healing can look like. The Los Angeles cartoonist, zinester, illustrator, and author shares practical tips, beautiful drawings, and poignant messages in books, zines, on Patreon, and on her popular Instagram account. She has explored befriending our demons, disconnecting from external sources, tending to creativity, connecting with the universe, and developing your own sense of self. Sakugawa’s work is a friendly hand offered as we dive further into the oceans of ourselves. 



Artists who create work on mental health are often cast into the role of guide, which often places them on a pedestal. Do you feel as though you are put into this role? If so, how do you navigate it? 

I don’t think so. I always see myself as an artist sharing my particular experience. [In a way it’s] a universal experience with other people who are more or less on the same journey as I am. So, I have zero desire to be placed on a pedestal. And I am happy to share what I have learned and am learning through my books, my workshops, my Instagram, and my Patreon blog. I think we are all equals on the same journey. 

What role has creativity played in your becoming and unbecoming? 

Creativity helped me find my voice during the years of childhood when I felt too scared, shy, and intimidated to use my actual physical voice and take up space with my actual physical body. Drawing and writing stories were my way of expressing myself, taking up space, articulating what was important to me before I learned how to do that with my physical voice and body. Creativity also reminds me that narratives, paradigms, worldviews, identities about myself can always shift, change, transmute -- because that is the nature of the creative force itself that gave birth to this universe. Things are always in flux, things are always becoming and unbecoming, being born and being destroyed to make way for the new as it becomes the old and dies again. 

There is a page in your book “The Little Book of Life Hacks” which offers tips for beginners to meditation. How has meditation assisted your connection to yourself and creative process? 

Meditation is my daily anchor I can’t imagine living without. I meditate for twenty minutes every morning, and it is something I must do every day as a way of acknowledging that I am not my thoughts, I am not my mental state, I am a far more infinite being and I am a crest of a wave in an infinite cosmic ocean. Meditating every day helps me connect with that intuitive, present, flow energy where things manifest with more ease and joy. I think that is how it is supposed to be once you remove and transmute your inner mental blocks. 

The term “expired pain” has appeared in your work. This term heavily resonated with me. At what point would you say pain has run its course, and is no longer serving its carrier? 

Healing has its own non-linear timeline that works more like a spiral that dips into the past, present, and future, not a straight line from point A to point B. Sometimes, it feels like it has its own intelligent logic independent of the person being healed. I know for myself, the most I can do is to be soft and compassionate and non-judgmental to myself, and to give myself permission to feel all the pain and sadness and anger fully as a way to honor my hurt feelings, and to give myself permission to take all the time that it needs, and to trust that the universe will allow for me to shed the pain when I am ready while being open to the possibility of no longer being in pain. It’s all very mysterious. 

What causes a series of your work to be made into a book? Do you typically begin a body of work with the intention of it being a formal collection? 

Usually, no. My first books came about accidentally. They were originally self-published blog posts that turned into a self-published zine, or a web- comic that I made for my own pleasure with zero intention of them becoming published books. I released the work out into the world, and then a series of coincidences and synchronicities brought the work into published book form. The universe knew better than me how to turn my work into published books. 

The Internet is a tool for connection and communication, which allows artists to share their voice in ways they choose. At the same time, social media feeds a disconnection from our daily lives, distraction, and sometimes, unrealistic expectations. Your work often brings up the importance of being present and intentionally disconnecting. How do you slow down, and find a balance with social media? 

I have specific activities during the day that are strictly offline mode. Waking up first thing in the morning. Unwinding before going to bed. Going on outdoor walks. I also like to make a habit of turning my phone off and hiding it in my underwear drawer for hours at a time. To remind myself that my default state should be offline punctuated by occasional, intentional forays into the online world, instead of the other way around. 

Of course, this is all easier said than done and takes a lot of practice. I still can’t eat a meal alone without watching something on Netflix. 

You are a prolific artist who has multiple published books, as well as many zines and also has a regularly updated Instagram & Patreon. At the same time, you have talked about how the expectation to constantly produce is unrealistic and unsustainable. How do you draw the line between meeting deadlines and paying the bills, while also allowing inspiration to come organically? 

I think you have to proactively plan for containers of time that prioritizes your creativity and your pleasure, instead of waiting for time to free up after you have done your bill-paying work. So, in the creative handbook THE ARTIST’S WAY, author Julia Cameron emphasizes the importance of doing morning pages every morning (writing three notebook pages’ worth of stream-of-conscious writing) and at least once a week going on an Artist’s Date-- a date with yourself where you go out on a solo adventure to recharge your creative muses, whether it is going to a museum or a concert or a cool thrift store. I think you have to fold into your life daily and weekly habits that are the creative equivalent of flossing or brushing your teeth -- you do them because it keeps your muses happy. So, in my case, I absolutely have to meditate every morning, go on daily walks, write my morning pages, go on artist dates, regularly feed my mind with new inspiration, and work on passion projects in tandem with deadlines and paid work. Those activities are not things I do as an afterthought or as a luxury I have to earn after doing bill-paying work, they are things I absolutely must do in order to stay sane, grounded, and inspired. 

You talk of the muse and the importance of feeding them, as well as listening to them. What are methods you use to nurture your muse? 

I meditate, I write my morning pages, I leave a bowl of water as an offering to my muses. I make an effort to experience something creatively new every week. I do a lot of walking. Sometimes I hike in nature or take long walks by the beach. I honor the needs of my body: getting ample rest, eating healthy food, taking breaks. I also love connecting with my constellation of creative friends who are all doing amazing work as musicians, writers, cartoonists, healers, and more. So being able to talk to other friends about the creative process and the obstacles we have been going through also recharges and re-energizes me. 

There is a James Baldwin quote which reads: “The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” What do you believe is the role of the artist, in their own life and in the public? 

I can’t speak for all artists, but for myself, I believe my role is healing through vulnerable authenticity and reminding people through all my different mediums of the infinite cosmic magic that we are all connected to, and how we can truly heal ourselves and this world once we realize this inherent connection. 

A piece of your writing where you articulated that there are No easy answers stuck out to me. Too often people assume that an artist was born with inherent wisdom, when much of the time, that knowledge and wisdom came from a commitment to being in conversation with themselves. What has the process of finding your creative voice, and learning to listen to yourself, looked like? 

There are many layers to this process, and of course it is ongoing. So in my twenties, I did anything to get my work out into the world. Doing an art show because a friend was curating a group art show in a coffee shop, doing live painting at community events, putting together a zine for a zine convention, illustrating event flyers, and so on. Doing a lot of different things. Also: meditating, learning astrology, learning tarot, ending a ten-year relationship, reading a lot of self-help books, attuning to my own desires, practicing saying no to people and honoring my boundaries, finding new ways to express myself through fashion and make-up. 

Another topic addressed in your work is that of non-hierarchical joy. You encourage others to enjoy the mundane and rather than believe excitement can only be found in accomplishments and rare moments, cherish the simplicity of everyday encounters. What are tools you use to slow down and to appreciate each moment? 

I meditate every morning. One simple thing anyone can do is to take three slow breaths -- inhale and exhale mindfully. That, and listen to the sounds you hear in the present moment. Also, gratitude is an underrated practice. Being grateful for the abundance in my life helps me slow down and appreciate all that I have. 

There are times when self-improvement becomes presented as a never-ending project of fixing, rather than a lesson in acceptance. You have articulated that we should stop seeing ourselves as flaws to be fixed. In what ways do you think accepting ourselves as we are can change the process of growth? 

You can’t self-hate yourself into a happier person. It’s the difference between a parent who screams at her child for not being good enough or trying hard enough, and a parent who hugs her child and says I love you and you are capable of doing anything you set your heart on. 

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I saw you’re being featured at the Portland Zinefest this July! I am set to table as well. What is on your creative horizon? What projects are you working on? Is there another book coming to fruition? 

I just released my first iMessage sticker line, TEA WITH DEMONS, which is inspired by my favorite chapter in my book YOUR ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO BECOMING ONE WITH THE UNIVERSE. It’s on the App Store and you get a set of 81 illustrated stickers for $0.99 which you can message to other iPhone users. (Sorry, non-iPhone users, I hope to eventually have my work available to everyone!)  So, I hope that this will be the first of many iPhone sticker lines to come -- it’s interesting to think of how new visuals expressing specific inner states that can’t be found on the traditional emoji keyboard can transform the way we communicate with one another. 

I am also putting together the finishing touches for FASHION FORECASTS, an art comic zine about futuristic Asian American intergenerational fashion, that will be released by Retrofit Comics this year. 

I am also working on a new book and a screenplay. But those are kind of a secret. To be continued! 

What self-improvement projects-- art related or not--are you working on? 

I have been slowly easing my way into deeper dives with my creative practice. The term I came up with for myself is “deep sea pearl diving.” How can I go for longer dives underwater in the process of creating my work instead of skimming the surface? How can I go for longer dives underwater with my life in general instead of skimming the surface? 

I have also slowly been working my way through Julia Cameron’s creative handbook THE VEIN OF GOLD, which is about different creative exercises we can do to tap into our personal vein of gold in our creative manifestation while being playful and intuitive and exploratory. So I’ve done a lot of really interesting exercises because of this book. Like, make a mask, make a collage series of my life in five-year-increments, draw on a T-shirt, and so on. Right now, I’m in a chapter that is all about attuning to sound and silence, and expressing your inner emotional states through sound therapy, so I’m really excited to be working with a completely different genre that is very much out of my comfort zone which I know nothing about. 

Where are you finding joy these days?

I find joy in the simple, quiet life I have right now in Los Angeles. I work on projects that excite me, I spend time with friends I love, and I have many opportunities to share healing practices that have worked with me with complete strangers all over the world. I love the mundane days of working at home, and then the small pleasures of being able to walk to a neighborhood cafe or sometimes spontaneously going on a drive at night with a girlfriend to walk along the ocean shore. 

Keep up with Yumi’s work on Instagram or on her website . If you want regular access to what she’s making, support her on Patreon. Her books are available here; zines here

read the whole issue here

Inside Issue #20: A Conversation with Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast

all photos by  Julia Leiby

all photos by Julia Leiby

I was not grieving when I began writing this article. But then, as it tends to, grief swept in at a time that was neither expected nor convenient.

Suddenly my combing through of the two Japanese Breakfast albums and conversation with front person Michelle Zauner carried new weight. On a flight to Seattle, en route to visit someone close to me in the hospital, I listened to our recorded interview and found pieces of my loss-colored self in Zauner’s responses.

The first album under the Japanese Breakfast eponymous, Psychopomp, digs through the fresh mud of loss. Lyrics like, “The dog’s confused / She just paces around all day / She’s sniffing at your empty room,” dive into the immediate feelings of someone close now being gone. These raw emotions are cloaked in layers of sound — the soaring of guitar, the sweep of synth, and over it all, Zauner’s emotive vocals. Together, these elements build a place of remembrance and processing.

This space of honoring and sorting through is furthered in 2017’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet. While Psychopomp was a fresh dealing of loss, Soft Sounds sifts through life following loss and the ways that grief continues.  

In our interview Zauner explained, “ ‘Psychopomp’ is so rooted in confusion and raw feeling. It was very much my subjective view of the world. This new album is more about taking a step back and looking at my life, and other people’s lives, and recognizing that I’m not alone in experiencing this.”

Grief is a non-linear, mysterious, oftentimes alienating process which can leave one searching for meaning and methods of understanding.

Said Zauner, “… When something very serious happens in your life that is difficult to explain the purpose of, you’re torn between these two camps. [There’s] an older generation that preaches this idea they’re in a better place and that there is some kind of heaven, and this other place which is completely nihilistic and cold. When my mom passed away, I was searching for something like that for myself, to help me through that experience.”

Mystery, otherworldliness, mysticism, and the unknown were tools that helped Zauner through this difficult time, and these elements are present on both albums. Psychopomp contains imagery of dreams and Jungian psychology, while Soft Sounds has the subtle theme of space and sci-fi coursing through it.

The first song written for the album, “Machinist,” is about a woman in love with a robot, who then applies for the Mars One project when she realizes it’s a futile affection. The song was originally created for a media company (and eventually not used by them) before Psychopomp was about to be released. It was incorporated into the band’s performances from the early stages and brought into recording when the band began working on their second album.

Said Zauner in our interview, “That’s how that album came to be. I tried to draw from the themes I had started a really long time ago; it inspired a very subtle concept that I’m happy with.”

The mysterious elements of dreams and space point to the hazy, out-of-touch state that grief can leave you in. It can cause you to feel disconnected from the world around you and yourself. On trying to reconnect to herself following loss Zauner said, “It was kind of like coming down from space and [trying] not disassociate through my reality so much.”

Grief interrupts. It disconnect and disrupts. It can change you irreversibly.

As I listened to our interview, with California passing outside the small plane window beside me, I thought of a line I had scribbled in my journal a week after hearing the news about my loved one being seriously injured. “How can I be the same again? I have been wiped so raw that I have been made new.”

Zauner demonstrated this sentiment perfectly saying, “There’s a lyric on [Soft Sounds], ‘It feels like my life is folded up in half.’ I think of my mother’s death as a marking point of who I was before and who I was after. If I look at pictures, I think to myself, ‘Oh, that was before my mom died.’ My whole life is folded in half around this moment. This album was about trying to reconnect to who I was before this terrible thing happened.”

Grief can stop your life and make you incapable of interacting in the ways you previously could. Well-meaning, kind people often do not know how to deal with it unless they too have undergone loss or a tragic event. I thought of the looks of pity I got from friends following the delivery of this news. The wanting to offer comforting advice but not knowing exactly what to say.

Zauner told me, “I felt really uncomfortable talking about it with my close friends because none of them had lost parents before and didn’t know how to talk about it. They wanted so badly to be there for me that it kind of made me uncomfortable … I felt like it was easier on all of us if I didn’t talk about it. They didn’t have specific questions about it, they would just say, ‘If you need to talk …’ and then I felt this pressure to talk about it even though I didn’t know what to say.”

So, what do you do when grief interrupts your life? When it makes it hard to interact with others? When you fear connecting to it because you sense its ability to overtake you? When you have to stay strong for others, for yourself? Where do you go next?

You sift through. You process in small doses. You give yourself projects to pour yourself into. In Zauner’s words, you, “Create these challenges for yourself that are very small, that help you survive.”

I thought of my simple to-do lists littering my desk at home. “Take a shower. Eat. Write a poem. Scan new comic. Call Nikki.” I too had instilled movement in my day to ensure that I did not fall into the looming fog which threatened to take over in any moments of stillness.

Said Zauner, “I threw myself into work and tried to push forward day-to-day … I’ve become obsessed with working and making things and sharing them. It was a very healthy way of dealing with my situation. A lot of [Soft Sounds From Another Planet] definitely explores that feeling of making it through, and putting your head down in a way.”

You find outlets and tools you can use to process. To be able to process in intentional ways and not overwhelm yourself. The song “The Body Is A Blade” goes in this: “Try your best to feel and receive / The body is a blade that cuts a path from day to day.”

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Amidst our discussion of healing outlets, Zauner and I talked about the performance of grief and constantly being placed back inside a traumatic experience in live shows and interviews. She told me that she finds healing in sharing with strangers beyond her albums and that, “When you’re doing these interviews with strangers, more than anyone else, they ask you these really poignant questions about this experience you had and your work. That felt therapeutic to me in some ways. It’s exhausting because you get asked a lot of the same questions, and you feel different ways about it on different days. Sometimes, doing interviews about it is enlightening because you start talking about it and figuring out how you really feel because so many people are poignantly asking you how you feel about it.”

I brought up Phil Elverum’s “A Crow Looked At Me” to her, mentioning how both her and Elverum have gifted the public deeply personal experiences with someone close to them.

She said, “His writing is a lot more barren. It’s all there. I think if I had said certain things, it would be harder for me. Having a band, and having so much going on sonically, it’s easier to get wrapped up in the music that you aren’t thinking about these hard-hitting details. There are moments in the songs that are really moving to me and emotional, but it must be different for Phil Elverum because the songs are speech-oriented… I have a really hard time writing that way and not hiding behind anything and re-telling the story because it’s just a lot more painful that way… The process of putting it onto a record, producing it, arranging it, brings it to a different place.”

Hearing her discuss her albums in comparison to Elverum’s reminded me that healing does not look the same for everyone. It is multi-faceted, shifting, and does not follow a rigid path.

When talking about different forms of healing Zauner admitted, “I didn’t see a therapist for very long, and I just didn’t like it… It always seem like people push therapy as this ‘be all’ cure, and I think it can be for some people, but for other people it’s okay to look at other ways of healing. It was a very scary path for me to take when I decided not to go to therapy. A lot of people were very concerned for me, but I started taking Korean lessons, I started making an album, I wrote an essay. I was meditating on placing that time and money on something else that I thought would be more fulfilling… You’re not a bad person if you consider trying something else because it’s not working for you.”

So, when grief looms and threatens to take over, you try out different outlets until you find ones that work for you, that make you want to keep going. You do what you can to not fall headfirst into the looming fog.

Zauner shared how depression interrupted her life as a teenage and left her fearful of how she would process a traumatic loss in the future. She explained, “I was so afraid that when a bad thing happened to me-and for the longest time I thought losing your mother was the worst thing that could happen to anyone- that I was going to fall into another depression like that, where I was completely unable to work or get out of bed.”

I found myself recognizing my own behavior and fears in this answer. How my life had been interrupted by debilitating depression in the past, how this made me afraid to connect to my emotions because I was afraid of the emotions again shutting down my life.

She continued, “I knew that it would be very disappointing to do that to my family. I had just turned 25 and it was a really big time in my life to figure out what I wanted to do, and to be an adult, and take responsibility. I felt like I didn’t have the option to fall into depression.”

Self-protective strategies can be powerful methods of taking care of yourself through difficult times. Sometimes, this can look like emotionally turning off. Or disconnecting. Or retreating, like a turtle hiding in its shell, into your own world of safety. While these urges to take care of ourselves are beautiful things, the difficulty lies in reconnecting to your emotions once it feels safe to do so.

Zauner told me, “I had checked out emotionally and was trying to relearn how to feel.”

Partially in an attempt to reconnect to a time of hyper-emotionality the albums pull up past instances of frustration, nostalgia, and heartbreak. They untangle past painful, highly emotional experiences as a way of remembering how to feel.

Said Zauner, “I just remember being a teenager, and even though it was a really difficult time in my life, and I was so depressed, I missed feeling so much. A lot of the songs are about past relationships, when I used to feel so much. These petty arguments with lovers used to mean so much, and now, looking back I wonder, ‘How did this ever bother me? How did this ever hurt me? I miss the days where [relationship issues] were a big deal and I was not just contemplating death all the time.”

While the intention of pulling up these experiences is to reconnect to past emotions, they also act as testaments to Zauner’s resiliency. These albums do not paint Zauner as helpless. Yes, they deal with suffering. Yes, they are sorting through loss. But, not as something which destroyed her, but as something which happened and is being worked through.

The albums twist like a conversation one has with oneself in the mirror, and while the bend into hard feelings of grief, of nostalgia, of pain, of heartbreak, they come out in places of clarity and empowerment.

“I like songs to have a narrative arc, like short stories. ‘Road Head’ is a good example of that arc. Feeling like you were taken advantage of, or that you’ve lost something or embarrassed yourself, and then at the end it’s like you’re driving away with your middle finger in the air. Like, that person kept me down in a lot of ways and now I’m leaving… ’Till Death’ is another song like that. There’s a long list of terrible things that happen in your life coupled with the thought, “isn’t it nice that this person is there, standing by through all this shit?”

These bending conversations that Zauner has with herself end in a strengthening of her resiliency and clarity. There are many layers here; many doors to open and find information behind. Zauner lays her grief out, but not to present it as something which destroyed her life.

Zauner said, “What I wanted to convey with [Soft Sounds] was not, ‘Here is this individual, unfair thing that happened to you,’ but, ‘Here is this thing that happens in life and how do we move forward from it in a productive way? How do I try really hard at staying a good person who doesn’t get so negative and lives as this person who is so upset with the world for the rest of her life?”

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Amongst all of the loss, joy is continually celebrated and created on Soft Sounds. There is gratitude given to Zauner’s husband, who she married two weeks before her mom passed away. There is thankfulness given to the small worlds those who have undergone trauma build with each other.

Said Zauner, “One thing that was interesting to me when I went through that experience was how the world just opens up to you. All of a sudden these people who have never really talked about the death in their lives are sharing this in a very natural way and connecting with you. It’s really eye-opening to see. Even going on tour, so many kids come up to me and share their experiences with loss, cancer, and illness. I’m not happy that it happens, but I’m glad we can share it together, and it’s not something we have to feel alone in.”

What Zauner gifts us is not just her experiences with grief, but all of the ways she has worked through pain, in many different forms. These albums are not only dealing with what has been lost, but with what remains. The joy, the anger, the waves of pain, the found places of connection. All of this exists in this project. As all of this exists in the multi-layered, twisting, dense, nature of grief.

see the whole spread in issue #20 here.

 

Inside Issue #18: SBTL CLNG

by Lora Mathis

Los Angeles based SBTL CLNG (aka Carolina Hicks)' self-analytical work is a diving into uncomfortability. It is a mourning. An honoring of grief. An unlearning of negative patterns and taught beliefs that is spread between text, illustrations, zines, and music. It is highly vulnerable and presents healing as an intentional, non-linear process. SBTL CLNG's exploration of personal disconnection reveals patterns of what separates us from others and nature at large.


I’ve loved the powerful healing aspects of your work since I encountered it. The first piece of yours I ever saw was writing which mentioned, “emitting healing frequencies.” What does healing look like for you?
The daunting reality of healing is that once you start, you can’t really turn back. Once you realize how much you deserve to heal, you nervously just start little by little. You make microscopic progress, and celebrate private victories. You trip up —a relapse, a triggering confrontation, a self-sabotage trap you set up for yourself. Sometimes those bad moments turn into a bad month, and it can feel like you’re constantly starting at square one (or negative one). That’s the intense truth.

Healing is this constant, never-ending process; it’s very multidimensional. It takes a lot of stamina, recovery, reassurance, and self-validation. A big aspect of it for me has been figuring out what forgiveness actually means — not so much towards the forces and people that have hurt me but the constant, everyday process of forgiving myself (and I have to do this all the time). I would never treat anyone the way I’ve treated myself in my own head. I hold a lot of anger, frustration, guilt, remorse, regret towards the past and myself. But I’m learning that it’s going to be an uphill battle and constant wrestling match with myself if I don’t work on the forgiveness aspect. Much easier said than done, of course. But practice certainly helps.
 

Last fall, you began an MFA and this summer, your thesis may have you coming to the east coast to explore, “creating art amongst psychic / ecological / racist / misogynist / xenophobic violence of the new sociological landscape.” How is your work affected by this pervading, multi-layered violence?
I fell into one of many existential crises after the election. I was frozen by how scary (and ridiculous) it felt to have entered such an enormous amount of financial and emotional debt starting an MFA while the world entered this new multi-layered nightmare. But what has started to sink in since November is that this new era is not so new; everything that’s been festering, colonizing, oppressing, and killing for hundreds of years is now just inescapably present and exposed for the world to see. This experience of graduate school has been a huge self-check of my privileges and the socio-political responsibilities/ethics that I’m responsible for as an artist.
 

I know it sounds grandiose, but I feel whole-heartedly that there’s no more room to make apolitical art — it’s way too late to be neutral, about anything. This unpredictable landscape affects my work in direct and indirect ways. I have very real privileges that, so far, keep me from experiencing the immediate, life-threatening violences of the unraveling shit show. And that’s meant that I now have even more responsibility to use my access and positioning to maximize my use of resources, in order to create as much work as possible — to reach and affect as wide an audience as needs me. I’m becoming much more sentient of the ways that this landscape is affecting the very notion of home/place, planet, and the concept of dwelling for human and non-human life.

That’s been a bigger shift in my work, more eco-feminist research and socio-ecological awareness. I don’t think art for art’s sake is very helpful right now. I’ve started to notice that despite whatever form or packaging you give a work, if you have no generative content, the art is just taking up space.  I don’t want to make art just to take up space.
 

via   SBTL CLNG

Much of your work sorts through mourning, loss, nostalgia, and growth. What are the relationships between these things?
Being a person is so intense! We carry everything that’s ever happened to us within us. This question reminds me of something one of my favorite artists Wizard Apprentice (Tierney Carter) talks about: there is so much pain/sadness in the world and for hyper-sensitive people, it’s nearly impossible to forget about it or pretend like it’s not happening. I think that’s why mourning is so prevalent in my practice, because I see that there’s so much to constantly mourn.  So much is being lost, violently erased, and threatened without end.

Misogyny kills, and it’s enraging and horrible to watch it happen on so many scales. You start to feel a nostalgia for a version of the earth we’ll never see again because of the irreversible damage that’s being inflicted upon it. As a first generation Colombian person, I think a lot about nostalgia for a place I’ll never really know—never really from here, never really from there. Yet, despite all this internal and external mess, you find yourself still opening your eyes in the morning. You’re still breathing and it kind of hits you that you will just have to keep growing because as long as you’re still alive, you still have a chance to add something good to the world, despite the grief of it all.
 

Do you believe growth is a loss?
Definitely, but the loss is crucial – without it you’d run out of space to grow. You lose parts of yourself that you’ve known for years and years. You let go of the patterns and habits you’ve gotten so used to navigating your reality with. I picture it like a video game terrain in your mind that you grow accustomed to, like muscle memory. Your life’s experience and traumas create a map and you learn your video game’s grid —all the guilt hallways, regret corners, self-hate goblins, self-sabotage vortexes. When you start to grow, you realize those virtual maps are just your own patterns shaped by trauma(s), misogyny, really toxic socialization — you keep them because they’re all you know and all you have to cope with. But, something I learned this past year (via a studio visit with Karen Rose, herbalist/healer) is that coping isn’t healing.

Once that truly sinks in, you realize that you have to scrap those virtual maps and make entirely new ones and starting from scratch is always really scary! But once you start this loss/undoing, you realize like “wait, I can’t go back anymore and even though that makes me sad (and it’s normal to get sad about growth), I know I don’t ever want to.”   
 

You’ve recently begun incorporating music into your work. How has this new medium expanded your work?
I’ve been thinking a lot about misogyny and the ways in which it’s become internalized within my own body. As someone that came of age in the punk/DIY scene where I grew up, I can trace that “community” as the place where my friends and I experienced some of our most humiliating and scarring experiences with what we thought was intimacy, validation, and support — experiences that warped our sense of self-worth and stunted so much internal growth. Fast forward to a decade’s worth of unlearning, and here I am, sad at how long it took me to realize my own agency and snap out of the stupor that had me convinced music-making and validation was to be found in “talented” men with disproportionate amounts of social capital. No one told me I could play the instruments, I could book and/or play the shows, that I should or could make my own sounds. I’m so relieved and at home now in my developing music practice. It’s become an extension of my writing and visual work, because I often incorporate all elements into my song-making and live performances. My music is intentional; when I play, I am creating sonic waves to combat my internalized misogyny and inferiority complex that a Boys Club world has instilled in me — a type of sonic mourning/grieving/cleansing. It feels so healing and exciting to create the songs my body wants to make, to create work that is deeply instinctual and non-technical. My music is partial  “fuck you” to toxic/mediocre cis man-music and damage but mostly a sonic prayer for the Earth and all its wounded.
 

via SBTL CLNG

via SBTL CLNG

As someone who publicly shares highly vulnerable, self-analytical work, how do you carve out personal space for yourself?
As an empath, I really appreciate this question because I think about it often. Energy is very alive and real to me, so creating spaces of recovery/retreat for myself is critical. I often forget how open and exposed I make myself through my own content, but I’ve been feeling its effects much more lately. Intentionally or not, people in the contemporary moment become very entitled to your energy and emotional labor —a lot has to do with the Internet, and instantaneous accessibility to the work.  So, I suppose it “comes with the territory” but it gets quickly draining and dangerous if you aren’t careful.

Energy vampires are real and they’re really tricky/manipulative! Creating boundaries has been crucial (and relatively new for me). It’s scary to be forthcoming and clear about not only setting boundaries, but actually following through with them. Intentionally protecting my energy/emotional labor/time and anticipating my needs has become increasingly more important to me. In doing so, my practice has actually strengthened because you naturally become more disciplined and selective about how you spend your time and psychic resources.
 

There is so much power in the self-awareness and deep self-reflection in your work. It’s poignant honesty on trauma, mental illness and self-destructive tendencies has helped me sort through my own experiences. How does art become a tool for learning forgiveness in a body which has hurt itself and been hurt by others?
Something I’ve been learning through my own visual work and writing is that my subconscious is actually my most honest sounding board. A tactic for the patriarchy to perpetuate itself is to atrophy the feminine and the unlearned wisdom within ourselves (I’m directly referencing Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic” essay — a foundational text to my practice). We are forced to mistrust and silence our own desires and instincts. After years of doing so, it’s no wonder we feel like such strangers in our own bodies. That estrangement from ourselves is how we end up so lost and far from our own power. But, I think deep down, despite how loud our self-loathing may get, we really want to be advocates for ourselves — my own art practice has taught me this. Art has helped me understand a lot about my own behavior and through that, I’ve learned how to safely hold empathy for others and myself. Art helps me better navigate reality when it often feels completely unnavigable. Art opens up portals: a source to access lost, ancestral knowledge and support; a well to receive psychic nutrition and relief; a space to unpack all the things; a refuge to cry/scream into when the sadness feels unbearable; a quiet space to learn how to forgive others, and most importantly yourself. I feel perpetually homesick for a place that doesn’t exist, so for me, art is the home I get to live in (somewhere in my mind and heart —connected via tunnels).

Keep up with SBTL CLNG on Instagram at @sbtl_clng.

See the whole spread here in Issue #18 here.

Inside Issue #18: Lara Witt

Philadelphia writer and activist Lara Witt uses her voice as a powerful tool to tear down oppressive systems. Witt’s writing has appeared in Teen Vogue, Elle, and Newsworks and often explores healing, sexual violence, race, and self-care, all through an intersectional Feminist lens. Her recent activist work includes moderating a panel on being an ally in activism for the Electric Lady Series and helping set up anti-street harassment installations across the city. With unapology coursing through all that she does, Witt’s work is an example of survivorship that refuses to be silent.


What initially drew you to writing?
Fortunately, I have always been a great communicator (shout out to other Geminis!) I enjoy putting my thoughts together in effective sentences so that someone else might connect to how I feel and who I am. Writing is my way of helping amplify the voices of those who have been made to feel smaller or quieter. Writing is powerful and healing- to me it is a part of who I am.
 

You have a weekly self-care column in which you interview women & gender non-conforming people of color. What role does self-care play in your own life?
I grew up feeling guilty about taking care of myself, I also had the idea that self-care was something you could only do if you could afford manicures or spa dates. Shifting into my 20s and reading works by black queer feminists like Audre Lorde taught me just how wrong I was.

Self-care is open to subjective interpretation, but at its core it is deeply powerful for women of color to love themselves when they have a whole world telling them not to. So, self-care to me is essential as a queer woman of color who struggles with depression and anxiety.

Taking care of myself is as basic as drinking water, making sure I eat regularly and practice mindfulness. I try to carve out time once every week to do whatever I feel like doing. I’ll cancel plans, stay at home and eat food in bed while watching a movie. I’ll take a long bath with epsom salts and lavender oil and a homemade face-mask. Self-care is a reminder that the deepest, most loving relationship I can have is with myself, and that makes me happy after years of self-hate.
 

Thank you for your openness about trauma and healing - especially as it relates to sexual assault. What do you think is the importance of being vocal?
Being vocal helps me regain control, which is vital because the loss of control, the feeling of powerlessness, and isolation is devastating. Healing isn’t linear, nor does healing look the same for everyone. So, writing about sexaul assualt is not only for me, but it is also for others who can’t be vocal about it for their own personal and justified reasons.

Silence is quite literally what abusers want, it is also what the system which protects abusers wants. Disrupting the culture of shame and silence which hangs over victims of assault is necessary in order for us to get any form of justice and if there isn’t any judicial result, then at least survivors will know that they are not alone.
 

Tell us about Pussy Division's roots. What is the message the group seeks to get across?
Pussy Division is a small, local, Philly group which uses guerrilla activism and street art to raise awareness around various forms of oppression. I joined them last year to help with any media-related tasks so that we could amplify our work without breaking the anonymity of our members.

We center our work around confronting misogyny, racism, transphobia & general anti-queer hate, but we also have created work which offers solidarity to marginalized communities. Post-election we had a series called “Dear Friend” with different messages tailored to those of us most affected by this current administration.

For anti-street harassment week we put up installations which mimicked  ‘warning’ tape but actually had anti-catcalling statements: “Do not comment on my body” and “Do not cross catcall crime scene’.
 

I'm curious about the name "pussy"? Have you considered changing the name of the group to something more trans-inclusive?
When the group was originally established in 2013, the goal was to reclaim the word “pussy,” which has been used to demonize femininity and attribute weakness as a feminine trait meant to be squashed out by hyper-masculine, toxic cis het men.

But recently, cis women, cis white women in particular, have been basing a lot of their “activism” in centering cis white women and their reproductive organs with pink pussy hats and bullshit slogans like, “pussy grabs back.” So, they’ve somewhat tainted our original goal, we are indeed in the process of finding a new name because we sure as fuck aren’t TERFs.

Your articles are always so powerful and unapologetic. How has Feminism informed your voice?
Thank you! My parents always used to tell me that my lack of a filter would get me in trouble with forms of authority and that I would never be able to hold down a stable job if I kept going on the way I did. But, I refused to make myself smaller or quieter for the benefit of any source of authority or the benefit of the white supremacist heteropatriarchy.

I have strong feminist morals, and intersectionality is just my lived reality, even before learning about feminism from an academic perspective. Feminism is about being empathetic, not just towards the people you are close to or the people who look like you or have similar experiences.

Everything I write is for marginalized people, especially for black and brown queer women and femmes. So the way I write has to be deliberate, it has to be forceful and unapologetic. We don’t have the time to sugar coat shit just to make our realities more for palatable for others.
 

Has your relationship with healing changed for you over the years?
I used to ignore it. I used to just absorb, internalize, and compartmentalize everything which was terrible. I just felt as if I didn’t have the time or energy to work through trauma because everything was hitting the fan at the same time. So, I just wanted to pretend everything was okay because I thought that was easier.

Eventually, I realized how toxic that was for me. I started to suffer from extreme waves of depression and anxiety without seeking any therapy, which I still haven’t done.

My life has gotten significantly better since my partner and have been together. He has given me a reason to be present and loving with myself. His help at home means that I have the time to come home after work and take care of myself and if I happen to be so despondent that I can’t do the basics. He cooks for me, makes sure I have water and gives me massages when my back is in knots.

Right now, healing looks like me doing what I love, which is writing so that others can heal. I don’t think healing will ever be complete for me, but I know that I am loved, that my work is meaningful, and that my relationships with myself, my friends, family and my beloved are nurturing.

Keep up with Lara Witt on Twitter and Instagram at @FemmeFeministe.

See the whole spread here in Issue #18 here.

Vulnerability as a Healing Force

In the middle of a breakdown, my head is crueler to me than anyone I’ve met. It chimes in to tell me that no one cares about my suffering. That I am pathetic and that my suffering is a sign of personal failure. In stable moments, I reflect on my thoughts in a breakdown and feel as though I cannot totally trust my head. It feels like a traitor to my recovery. Or a bully. It took me awhile to realize that the things I tell myself in low moments are learned. They are internalized shame resulting from a society which insists that to feel is to be weak.

Society tells that the picture of strength is a stoic, emotionless person. We are taught to keep our pain to ourselves and not tell anyone we are suffering. Women, femmes, queers, and people of color are particularly shamed for their emotions. They are dismissed as “crazy” or “over-dramatic” when they express issues with their lives, especially when said issues stem from systemic forces. Society tells those in pain to keep their mouths shut, because allowing people to be openly vocal about their problems means acknowledging that there is work to be done.

I see unapologetic vulnerability as a way to push back against society’s shaming. Being upfront about what pains us helps us learn our hurt and allows others to know they are not alone. Plus, if our pain is out in the open, it becomes less of a terrifying, shapeless cloud and more of a thing that can be tackled, little by little, each day.

My form of healing heavily relies on documenting my emotionality via social media. I post very upfront statements about my mental illness on social media. I am a poet and artist who uses their work to sort through the trauma of mental illness and childhood abuse. Sharing my pain in a creative outlet and with strangers allows me to work up the courage to be upfront about these things in my day-to-day life. My healing has been a cycle of me chipping away at my layers and getting to the core of what I feel.

 

In October of 2015, I coined the term “radical softness as a weapon,” to describe my personal approach to healing. This term is about not shaming yourself for your pain and recognizing the strength in vulnerability. It is about regaining a voice after being silenced by forces such as mental illness, trauma, and systemic oppression -- and others’ reactions to your suffering from said forces. It is not about strategically using your emotions or manipulating others with your pain. It is about being soft and unashamed. It is about recognizing the power in vulnerability and repainting the image of strength.

I have spent years being ashamed of having an abundance of feelings and not being able to “control them.” (I have this in quotations because often I was told I was out of control when expressing valid anger towards abuse or trauma.) I was described as “overly-sensitive” and “angsty” when I had a breakdown that stemmed from mental illness. I thought that I should be able to snap my fingers and stop all of the negative thoughts in my head. I was told that continually breaking down was a sign that I was not trying hard enough.

By being vocal about my struggles, I am unlearning internalized shame. I am teaching myself to acknowledge the strength in constantly picking myself up. Being vulnerable is a way of survival to me. If I don’t speak up about these things they will eat me alive.

Healing is a personalized process and while I believe it can look differently for everyone, I think that the most power comes from viewing healing as collective action. Being open breaks stigma and offering support fosters spaces of growth.


Vulnerability is not weakness. It is a force. It is a method of collective resistance. It is a way of pushing back; of taking back your voice and saying, “enough.”