Ceramicist shapes life through her shadows
Bipolar artist sets out to make a bowl a day to track her mental wellbeing — and discovers a rejuvenation
A pile of ceramic shards — bits of broken bowls — lies at the entrance to Ashleigh Christelis’s studio in Morningside, Johannesburg.
It’s an art installation and represents the hope and despair the ceramic artist, who lives with bipolar 2 disorder, experienced during 2016 as she set out to create #365 bowls: an exhibition of emotion.
It was her intention to track her mental wellbeing through clay by making a bowl a day for an exhibition held last month. The latter was such a success that few bowls were left unsold.
However, the process of making them had its ups and downs – a reflection of the essence of bipolar.
"Some days I open my eyes in the early morning and dread the fact I am alive," says Christelis. "On other days, I open my eyes and excitement fills my being at the thought of another creative day."
It was in that clinic that i realised what a beautiful life I had. I determined to live my life. Only you can make that decision
She describes bipolar as the "gift of feeling deeply the opposite ends of extreme emotions".
As 2016 progressed, so life intervened and interrupted her steady bowl-making progress.
Her eldest son, in matric, was hospitalised with viral encephalitis. Furthermore, after seven years in remission, Christelis’s rheumatoid arthritis made a painful return, particularly in her fingers.
As she fell behind in her schedule, thoughts of abandoning it overwhelmed her.
This is not surprising, as bipolar disorder causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks, according to the American National Institute of Mental Health.
"It is a scary condition," says Christelis, who has frequently been hospitalised for it during her 45-year lifetime.
"The thing about a manic episode is that you don’t feel safe with yourself. You feel you are standing on the tip of a precipice with nothing around you."
The well-known ceramic artist, whose studio is in the leafy Ernest Ullmann centre, has not been hospitalised for three years. It’s clear she regards this as a milestone in a life characterised by "tragic moments and hard lessons".
Her #365 bowls ranged from porcelain, thin as a leaf with exquisite patterns and varying shades of green, to plain white bowls with messages inscribed inside them. "I am silly: I am glitter: I am brilliant: I am deep," read some of them.
The rapidity with which they were snapped up not only pays testament to Christelis’s artistry but also to her bravery in confronting, and talking about, her bipolar disorder.
She wears that on her sleeve, in a manner of speaking, as a semicolon tattooed on her arm. Project Semicolon was started in the US a few years ago to encourage people to keep battling depression, self-harm and other mental issues.
"We want to create an awareness of depression. When I meet someone with a semicolon, it is a way of expressing an understanding of what the person is experiencing," says Christelis. "So many experience depression, yet there is still such a stigma attached to it."
The Johannesburg-raised artist was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy at the age of eight and her single-parent mother ensured she was medicated for the condition.
By the age of 16, she had grown out of the epilepsy and went to study fine art at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, "where I was date-raped. I didn’t tell my mother and completely blocked it out."
She left Rhodes to eventually study graphic art and textile design at Ruth Prowse School of Art in Cape Town.
There, she began suffering from depression — her family has a history of bipolar — but ignored it until the day she took 100 painkillers and left a suicide note. By the time she was rushed to hospital, she was suffering from liver failure.
Her mother transferred her to a Sandton clinic where she was treated for four months for anorexia and depression.
She had electroshock therapy, "and it worked".
Her clinic stay marked a turning point in her life, as
the clay another patient was working with intrigued her.
"It was the first time I felt interested in something," Christelis recalls.
The internationally renowned South African ceramicist, Kim Sacks, later saw her working with it and insisted she be apprenticed to her.
"She was my rock. I spent four years training with her."
In the mid 1990s, Christelis moved into her studio. She was married and eight months’ pregnant when her mother suffered a brain haemorrhage and the artist had to make the decision to switch off her life support.
A year later, she collapsed with depression. For six years, she spent up to four weeks at a time in hospital, depressed and suicidal, and her two sons moved in with her ex-husband.
At one stage, a psychiatrist prescribed Ativan, a highly addictive tranquilliser only recommended for short-term use due to the risk of physical and psychological dependence.
"But I was put on it for a long time as well as being on 11 other drugs for my bipolar including lithium. I was also abusing alcohol," says Christelis frankly.
Eventually, she was admitted to the Akeso Crescent clinic. There her new doctor reduced to four the 12 drugs she’d been prescribed and monitored her brain on a daily basis.
"It was in that clinic that I realised what a beautiful life I had," says Christelis, who grew up sleeping under chairs
at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings her father attended.
"I determined to live my life. Only you can make that decision," she says.
In 2013, she opened the Ashleigh Christelis Ceramics school. She plans to use the money from #365 bowls to attend a potter’s course in Tuscany this year.
She may have made "only 319 bowls, of which 30 were broken. But the year was a triumph, for I feel as if I have just been born."
Christelis created the installation of her ceramic shards "because they show our failures, our detritus. That is life."
•Grant-Marshall is a journalist and author, and host of Reading Matters on Radio Today