My art, my pupils and my husband pulled me through depression

Artist Ann Mechelinck-O’Sullivan is using her own experience of depression and recovery to inspire conversation about mental health with a new exhibition, writes ELLIE O’BYRNE
My art, my pupils and my husband pulled me through depression
Ann Mechelinck O'Sullivan artist.

ANN Mechelinck-O’Sullivan had no history of depression when the debilitating condition struck. She was in her fifties and was a mature student in her third year of an art degree, when she began to feel low.

“You’re fighting it and you’re sinking lower, and you don’t know what’s going on,” the textile artist says.

“I had anxiety and panic attacks. I’d be sitting on the bus on my way to college and I’d just start crying, and I couldn’t pinpoint why.

“I had feelings of worthlessness, I couldn’t sleep, my interest and pleasure in things really diminished. At first, I said it was menopausal, but I knew myself that something was wrong.”

Eventually, Ann visited her GP and was prescribed a light anti-depressant. But she soon discovered that they didn’t suit her; although people with severe diagnoses would always be recommended to continue any course of treatment they are on, in Ann’s case, she chose to stop taking her prescription and immerse herself in her art, which she says is therapeutic.

“The anti-depressant did make me feel a bit better, but I felt kind of numb, creatively,” she says.

“So I decided I’d have to work my way through it, even if that was rough. The amount of people I had around me really helped.

“It’s still a rollercoaster and there are still days when I wake up and I’m sad and can’t pinpoint why. But my art has pulled me through, my teaching has pulled me through, and so has my husband with the patience he’s had just to sit down and listen without judging.”

Ann would always have considered herself mentally resilient, weathering life’s upheavals with equanimity. At forty, she even undertook one of life’s big adventures, moving from her native Belgium to Ireland with her partner, Cathal O’Sullivan, who she met in Belgium.

“I literally packed my life up into ten boxes and moved to Ireland,” she says.

“I had a complete life, a government job working in the social welfare office, and I just turned my life 180 degrees around.

“And Cathal and I had never even lived together! I remember standing on the ferry and going, ‘wow, now we’re going to have to learn to live together.’”

The couple spent a few years living in Inchigeela before moving to Macroom. Ann took on a career change too: she studied art, first with a year’s course in St John’s, followed by a four-year degree in textiles in CIT Crawford College of Art and Design, graduating in 2015. But it was during this degree course that her depression struck.

Having been a form of therapy for Ann at her lowest, her art also became inspired by her experience with depression.

“I went through my notebooks and realised that what I had written about being depressed was an inspiration for my art,” she says.

“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to use this; I need to do something with this experience.’

“Strangely enough, when I started working with paper, I realised I was not only kind of forgetting the sadness I was in but transforming it into something positive.”

But exhibition viewers expecting to see figurative depictions of sorrow will be surprised; Ann’s work is abstract and tackles the issue of mental health through use of colour, and also through the metaphor of the materials themselves.

“I need to work with my hands and feel the materials, “she says.

“Materials speak to me: it could be fabric or a piece of wood or a leaf. When I started researching, I discovered Mulberry paper. It has strength and a fragility, and a whole spectrum in between and I think that’s a really good symbol for recovery.

“I make all my own papers by hand, and for this exhibition there’s a colour palette that goes from very dark colours, blacks and reds, up to a lighter palette of creams and browns. With this, I want to say to people that even if you’re down and depressed you might have moments where you laugh and can feel happy.”

Following her graduation, Ann started teaching art classes in the Macroom area, and these have taken off so much that she currently has 40 students, spread between seven class groups. She stresses that a sense of connection and community, and an ability to talk openly about their feelings, are vital for people with mental health issues.

“I started realising that, through a lot of my students being older people and maybe having lost a husband, how lonely they sometimes were, and I connected with that loneliness,” Ann says.

“In my classes, we talk openly. It’s not just the drawing and the making art, but it’s the gathering together. Those people really don’t know how much they have pulled me through.”

Ann says residual stigma about mental health conditions is unhelpful in freeing people to admit when they’re struggling, and that by sharing her own story she wants to spread the message that it’s ok to need help.

“Be honest about what you feel; if people ask you how you are, don’t say, ‘I’m grand, I’m fine.’”

She says; “Eventually I learned to talk and tell it how it is, and that’s something we all need to be able to do.”

‘Making and mending my way through’ by Ann Mechelinck-O’Sullivan opened on Monday and runs until Friday July 19 at Macroom Town Hall.

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