Can you imagine sharing your diary with the public, unveiling your emotional tumults and deepest anxieties to strangers?
For many of us, the answer would be a resounding no. But for Catherine Edgerton, a Durham-based visual artist and musician, this risky act is profoundly healing, for herself and for others. Edgerton will display her multimedia journals at the Carrack from April 12 to 23, with an opening reception this Friday, as part of an exhibit called Bottled Light. It also features her kaleidoscopes, which are stained glass wheels with found objects. For Edgerton, both mediums are ways of externalizing her headspace in order to help others navigate their own.
Mental health issues and addictions are never totally vanquished; they are ongoing challenges. But, after five years of sobriety, Edgerton feels that sharing the struggles she overcame can be broadly beneficial.
Since the age of eleven, Edgerton has been journaling extensively. As anyone who has felt the need to work through thoughts on paper can attest, journaling is a powerful way to reflect on daily life and, as Edgerton says, to navigate mental health. As she dealt with her own struggles with depression, mania, and alcohol addiction throughout her teenage years and early adulthood, keeping a journal provided solace and contemplative space. Later, it provided markers of progress.
"I'd look back and be scared of myself, and I'd draw through the page, but now I look back with so much compassion: 'That's just where you were,'" Edgerton explains. "I've got this one journal from when I was seventeen that is so self-deprecating and gross, but I now I'm like, 'This is the most important one, because it's so raw, unguarded, and unbridled."
Indeed, for people struggling with depression or addiction, knowing that others have experienced the same things and seeing that experience articulated in art can be revelatory. The shame that inhibits people from sharing their mental-health challenges often keeps people from working through them. Edgerton believes that only by being unguarded can intimate connection—and, ultimately, healing—be achieved. She also believes that people are wrongly conditioned to think about mental health as purely burdensome or indicative of sickness.
"People who struggle with mental health also deal with these really intense and profound creative gifts," Edgerton says. Looking at her art books, which are not mere journals, this quickly becomes clear. Typical entries narrating a day's events are interspersed with collages of clippings from periodicals, often juxtaposed with handmade drawings or poems. Some pages are solely paintings. This multimedia mode makes the books material representations of emotional states, interior monologues, and images, imagined or recollected, which run in troubling combinations through one's mind.
"There's something about collages where they take influence from the outside world, because they're driven by these images that you wouldn't have thought to tie together," Edgerton says, adding that the danger of journaling is that it can lead to destructive thought loops. Collage, by admitting the external world into the intimate space of her journals, mitigates that. A photo of soldiers clipped from a newspaper induces contemplation of the political and violent. An upside-down dollar bill next to a drawing of a children's birthday party creates an ambiguous connection, perhaps relating economics to play and innocence.
This porous mapping of internal space also informs Edgerton's stained glass works, which are represented in the Carrack show. Her kaleidoscopes are made of found objects like flys' wings, marbles, and light bulbs, suspended in handmade stained glass. When you look through them, the objects refract and blend together in geometric swirls. It's beautiful and—like Edgerton's journals—can give the impression of looking into someone else's mind, full of disparate images and thoughts bleeding into one another.
While the combination of these objects in kaleidoscope form is conceptually similar to Edgerton's collage-diary hybrids, she sees the kaleidoscopes as forcing her to relinquish more control, because light—whether from the sun or electric sources—has the last say in vivifying these objects or rendering them lifeless.
"There is so much more potential for play from the universe," Edgerton says. She talks about trusting the universe in many of her endeavors, which also relates to her Kaleidoscope Gifting Project, in which she gives them to people with mental health issues and encourages them to regift them to others. This facilitates an invisible chain of connections, a community of gift-givers and art-experiencers. But, in the exhibit and in her activities as one of the leaders of Durham Artists Movement, Edgerton balances her faith in the universe's serendipity with practical actions.
"I think a huge part of why it's important to pull this into community is to help each other gauge reality," she says. As such, the exhibit includes several events geared toward fostering support systems for people with mental health and addiction challenges.
Two workshops provide education on "psychiatric advance directives," documents in which people can predefine for their communities what they want to happen should they suffer an incident that renders them unable to make decisions. The first workshop, on Saturday, features attorney Mavis Gragg, while the second, on Sunday, features the release of DAM's "Creative Advance Directive Chapbook," a template for community care that also includes poetry, art, and reflections from DAM artists.
If one is vehemently opposed to established modes of thinking about mental health or addiction—things people are discouraged from discussing openly—it's easy to feel isolated, invalidated, and even unreal. By illuminating webs of connection in the Kaleidoscope Gifting Project and sharing her personal journals, Edgerton hopes to shed light into that darkness.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Art of Glass."