Ex-gymnast finds new direction as painter, uses pieces to advocate for those diagnosed with ‘mental illnesses’

<strong>“Melting Away” acrylic painting</strong>

“Melting Away” acrylic painting

Ariana Gastelum
Editorial Intern

It only took a second for Brigitte Johnston’s life to change almost completely when she injured her knee. Five surgeries later, it was apparent that she would no longer be able to compete in gymnastics.
Johnston searched for a new future. She tried acting and then studied psychology. Soon after, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
When Johnston attended her first drawing class at Loyola Marymount University (LMU), she found her passion. She currently goes to LMU and will soon be finished with a master’s of fine arts in drawing and painting.
Johnston uses painting as a form of expression in her moods and a voice to reach out to those with mental illnesses.

When and how did you become interested in art?
Strangely enough, I was completely unaware of my artistic talents until second semester, sophomore year at LMU. I have always been a creative type but was a gymnast for a good number of years and sacrificed all my time to practice and [compete].
I did not have any time for [other] extracurricular activities and was planning [to compete] in college, until I severely injured my knee– which led to five knee surgeries and an existential crisis. I did not know anything beyond gymnastics since it had been my life.
I decided to attempt acting, which brought me out to New York to study at a conservatory for the summer and then Los Angeles to study theatre at Loyola Marymount.
I had always been a creative kid and tried the arts as a new passion or output for my emotions. Not satisfied with acting, I began enrolling in a number of psychology classes and found myself extremely interested in behavioral neurosciences. I discovered later that I was so interested in psychology because I…was struggling with an undiagnosed mental disorder.

School became more difficult, but I found peace in my first drawing class and found that art was keeping me alive. It was giving me some sort of purpose. It was so natural.
Before I was ever diagnosed [as] bipolar, I wrote in my drawing class, “My art originates from my psychological states of up to down.”
I would not necessarily say that art was an interest of mine. It was innate, a part of my complex world and genetic makeup. There is a huge corollary between manic depression, or what we now call bipolar, and the artistic temperament.
Who and what are your inspirations?
My art is a result of “the relationship between moods and imagination, the nature of moods, their variety, their contrary and oppositional qualities, their flux, causing in some individuals occasional episodes of madness. My art attests to ‘the importance of moods in igniting thoughts, changing perceptions, creating chaos, forcing order upon that chaos, and enabling transformations.” (Kay Jamieson).
I sacrifice everything for the sake of my art. My art is ultimately what saves me. I am my own inspiration. My emotions guide me through pieces, from one extreme to the other.

<strong>“My Suicide,” oil painting</strong>

“My Suicide,” oil painting

Do you have any goals that you have yet to fulfill?
As I progress in my career, I plan on using my art as a tool to eradicate negative stigmas against what the western culture calls “mental illnesses.”
I adhere to the philosophy that things such as bipolar [and] schizophrenia should not be treated as an illness but as “dangerous gifts that need to be cultivated.”
For me being bipolar, I go in and out of altered extreme states of reality. But through this process, my creativity flourishes.
I want all [who] experience darkness to embrace that struggle because through that struggle, an immense amount of light is able to be found. We cannot have light without [darkness], and I want a shift in thinking…on the way we perceive those who struggle with “mental illnesses.” Rather than treating them as if they are sick, isolating them, we should embrace and work as a tribe to heal.
I want to become an advocate for others, for the mad pride movements; for the Icarus Project, (a mental-health movement that provides alternatives for approaching and treating mental illnesses); [and] for those that are fighting for the acceptance and understanding of their struggles.
I hope everyone is able to resonate with my art because we all know sadness, and we all know joy, and we should be comfortable with all spectrums of emotions, face them with strength, and not be scared of judgment.
Is there anything that you’re currently working on?
Oh, I am always working on a million things at once. I have about four pieces in progress right now. My newest piece that I am starting is a 6-feet-by-6-feet canvas, which is quite intimidating, but I’m thrilled to see what comes out.
My work is recently transitioning from a personal expression to devotional worship. As I began to see the divine in nature, in color, in line and in the design of all things, my art began transforming, as I…began growing spiritually. My new works embrace and express gratitude for all spectrums of emotions, which is beginning to enter…into the realm of “visionary art.”

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