Rachel Gustafson - artist's statement | Springfield College

Growing up my brother and I would pretend to be spies and would sneak around the house, being careful to avoid the creaking wooden floors. We would hide behind our old worn green couch and run our fingers over the velvet grooves for clues. We would peek around the cool, smooth white door frames with notebooks to write reports about what was going on around the house. Drawing each detail of the cracks along the pale walls and how they possibly got there. Sliding in our socks across the tile kitchen floor to see what time it was from the soft blue glow of the microwave clock in relation to the television program being watched that night as well. That weekend we would hold top secret meetings in our closets under a fort of old blankets, or on the purple floral throw rug in my bedroom. We would compare our drawings and observations and keep them in plastic folders and binders. We would create codes and languages for our spy missions and store them for next time. I always thought that there was something different going on in my house that was never talked about. Every family has struggles, and at the age of 8 being a top secret spy, little did I know how much I would uncover with my brother growing up.

I am Rachel, an Art Therapy major, and I really like to draw skulls. I am a very friendly and personable person, but am very hard to read. I have gone through a lot in my life, starting at 13 being diagnosed with a chronic nerve disease that is not curable, grew up with an alcoholic, helped them through sobriety and recovery, have what feels like constant medical spirals, later diagnosed with two additional chronic illnesses, and express everything through my art. My art includes a lot of skulls, arms with IV’s, dripping or splattering paint and abstract pieces that embody dark, unsettling, and uncomfortable feelings. 

            My focus is to show how I feel, what goes on inside my head, and the feelings I have about what I have gone through. I have noticed throughout my work that I have a lot of dripping ink in red, blue, black, or any dark color in the pieces representing blood and showing darker emotions. I try to take criticism and ideas from others and use their feedback but it is not always what I picture given they have not lived what I have been through and expression and interpretation can sometimes not align. I have learned that I have not really opened up before with what I have gone through and how it has affected me but that from feedback from my peers, they are accepting and grasp the emotions the pieces are emitting. There is no right or wrong way to view each piece, but each one to me holds similar emotions with different visuals. Spending small increments with pieces and rotating through them instead of manifesting with one piece until I dislike it completely has helped me achieve the effects I wanted. This way I could add what I wanted before it became a mess of something I got overwhelmed with. It can be easy for me to not achieve the look of what I am going for in a piece if I overthink it. I can work quickly but if I start a few projects at a time, it will allow for the work to be broken up, almost forcing me to spend more time on them.

            The themes that I explore in my pieces are mental health including depression and anxiety, which are uncomfortable emotions for most people to understand. I also explore the visuals of different interpretations where abstract pieces can have different meaning to others and hidden meanings to myself. Some of the pieces are personal representations of myself where other pieces include family members. 

Getting sick at such a young age and having to learn about what it is and what it has done to my body over the years, continuously fluctuating between good and bad in terms of my health has been really hard. The deterioration of my nerves is very painful and I have gotten really weak and tired and have had a lot of different treatment options that include IV blood transfusions, a daily dose of pills, constant blood work, and check ups. Due to this, the pieces that have included the drips of red and blue and the piece with the arm with the IV represent my chronic nerve disease. Chronic illnesses are not always fatal, but growing up with them created my infatuation of skulls. Skulls are creepy and uncomfortable, but to me, they always look like they are smiling and happy, which is how people most often describe me. 

The piece with pills and bottles as well as the piece with the bomb as a head represents being overwhelmed with what is happening in my environment. Being diagnosed at a young age while trying to grow up was difficult for me. It was very confusing and I can often be hard on myself because of it. During this time, I lived with an alcoholic family member. I was away at school when they started their recovery and it was very hard on me not being there to physically support them and helping the rest of my family. I felt really overwhelmed trying to do well in school, to understand who I am, and support my family all at once. That piece has all of the pills I take as well as beer bottles on top of what looks like rising water. The piece resembles all of the feelings of my environment and my thoughts being overwhelming.

            The abstract pieces are about the feelings that go on inside me more than what can be gathered from me. They are emotions based off of the things I have gone through which help the viewer understand where I come from. There is one piece that has construction paper, tissue paper, and is covered in splattered ink and paint which resembles more of how I feel inside. It is very chaotic and dark and confusing. The other abstract piece is more colorful with big spots of pink, blue, red, and purple and the background is a reflective silver. This reminded me of Rorschach’s inkblot tests which many psychoanalysts used to either spark a trauma or issue in the patient’s life. This piece resembles the start of a deeper expression in my art about the events in my life that I do not really talk about.

            There is a piece with a skull in the center with a purple background which resembles imperfection. The skull does not look realistic and the background is a solid color. Growing up, a lot of people I went to school with picked on the way I looked. Part of my nerve disease can be drooping eyelids and in middle school, that is what I dealt with. One of my eyes was not all the way open and so I did not look perfect, I did not look the way people thought I should look. I also had a lot of missing teeth growing up, so a hold in the skull’s mouth and the eye holes being a different color that the rest of the skull resembles that I am imperfect inside and out.

            There is a series of four panels starting bottom up: a flower, a hot air balloon, a sunset, and space. These panels were made over a course of many months and during some stressful times in my life. They were meant to be peaceful and relaxing to look at all involving nature which often brings me peace. Each panel includes one of my favorite things. Someone special in my life helped with making the hot air balloon panel which was really fun to do and work on with them. This series of panels was to show that even with the chaos of my life, there are still things that are special and peaceful to me.

            The skull poster that has four skulls on it was an idea my brother had given me. He knows I like to draw skulls and knows they are special to me and gave me this idea to put a theme to each skull. That being said, each skull in this piece represents a member of my family at home, including myself. They have been my biggest and best support system through everything and turning them into skulls with a theme was really fun to do. 

The mediums I used are acrylic paint, India ink, oil pastel, construction paper and bleach, colored pencils, twine, medical tubing, and sharpies. The process of using these mediums has been partially uncontrollable which normally makes me uncomfortable but since part of my pieces is to be uncomfortable, I decided to try it myself. Most of these mediums I have used before but the combination of these materials is new and has been really fun to see what I can make outside of my comfort zone. The pieces as a whole represent that time still goes on and with time, things can change, but here is what happened so far in my life. We also do not know how much time a person has in their lifetime, it is limited, but it is still going right now. 

I am excited for people to see my work, those who know me and those who do not. I want to see how people react to something that they might be able to relate to in some way or just acknowledge. I have personally gone through a lot compared to most, that I still look and act fine for most of the time, but those really close to me know what is going on. The intentions of my pieces are to show that there is always something going on in everyone’s world, we would not know unless we know them. I would like my future work to still be a free space to express what I go through and be a safe space to openly show how I am feeling about something going on in my life.