It isn’t easy facing one’s own darkest thoughts and accepting help. Society’s blatant ignorance concerning mental health added to the problem. But today, with growing awareness and opening up of communication channels, this is slowly changing. For Benjamin Bauchau, an artist from Brussels, Belgium, anxiety has been a lifelong presence, one that he has learnt to tame through his meticulous drawings and illustrations.
As the Kickstarter campaign to fund his illustrated book A Place For My Dark Thoughts comes to a close, having succeeded in its goal, he talks to The Alipore Post about how art came to the rescue and helped him fight anxiety, and what he hopes to achieve through the making of this cathartic book:
Your artworks bring out your personal experiences with anxiety and loneliness. If you don't mind talking about it, could you talk about what you've gone through and how you channeled it into art?
I'm still unsure as how to describe my experience with much clarity, but I realise today that I have been living with anxiety for as long as I can remember, although I wasn't aware of it at all.
I guess it can be hard for lots of people to get a grasp on who they are compared to the people around them, especially when you're a teenager or a young adult. Without wanting to sound too cheesy, I always felt weird around other people, and felt like I didn't react to things as most people would. I had some sensitivity issues I had a hard time sharing with most of my friends or relatives. I’ve also always been kind of shy when it comes to meeting people, having a hard time knowing how to act natural and coping with social anxiety. But I’m very comfortable with people I know well enough.
There’s often been a discomfort and uneasiness in my life which led to sadness, confusion and loneliness. As a kid, I’d avoid certain situations, and would miss classes or stay sick at home every now and then because of this, without knowing what anxiety was at the time. This continued as a teenager, and then at some point, I started having panic attacks. They didn't come often and always felt random, which was the hardest part. I remember one of the first ones I had when I was about 15 years old. I was drawing and suddenly felt frustrated and then something clicked, as if I had reached a certain level of stress, and I ended up crying, unable to speak or breathe, shaking heavily. It didn't last too long, maybe about half an hour, but the build up was pretty intense, and I felt exhausted afterwards.
It was around 2014-2015 that these panic attacks and discomfort started becoming unbearable on a daily basis, so I started seeing a therapist, and reflecting on my issues. At the time, I was finishing a Masters in Animation, and had to stop going to school because of my distress, which made it hard to manage my projects, and made starting my career right after very difficult.
It felt very weird and it actually took me a year or two to really understand that anxiety had always been a part of my life. One thing I learned was the difference between feeling anxious about something specific, like anybody does, and actually having anxiety disorders. That’s what took the most time for me to comprehend - the fact that when you have an anxiety disorder, it some things can trigger your anxiety and panic attacks, but your anxiety is also some sort of hidden demon that can come and annoy you at any time. I've been working hard on ways to manage my anxiety for a few years, and I think in parallel, drawing has been a sort of good place for me, which is why I’ve always been drawing. Only 2 years ago did I start drawing my anxiety though.
I’m glad you did, Benjamin. Sorry it’s been so hard. Let's talk a bit about your art itself. You say you can't get enough of drawing. When did that start?
Yes, I've always loved to draw, and as a teenager, I simply didn't like colors that much (probably because I couldn't use them properly), so I used to do ink or pencil drawings. Then I went to an art school and learned about painting techniques, perspective, live figure drawing, etc... which led to learning through a kind of frustrating process where I wanted to do things I couldn't (which I guess is what lots of art students go through).
And when did you start transitioning to digital art?
Well, at the end of high school, I knew I wanted to draw but did not know what to do with it, so I checked out a few colleges and learned about Animation Bachelors courses. It seemed like a good field to focus on that had to do with drawing. That's when I learned about digital art and the tools, and it quickly became obvious to me that these tools would be great to add life through color to my ink drawings. So I started scanning and coloring the drawings. Through some experimenting, I ended up figuring out a process that I feel comfortable with today.
I kept that mix of traditional and digital simply because the same way I like to read books that are actually made of paper, I like to draw on actual paper, but the process of coloring is easier through digital tools.
Who or what inspires you?
I'm inspired by tons of things from nature, daily stuff I see or hear, music, feelings, art (to name a few: Manu Larcenet, Moebius, Kurosawa, Miyazaki, Audubon, Klimt, Alebertus Seba, E.H. Shepard, R Dahl, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Lautrec, Duhrer, and others).
Do you have a work routine going or does inspiration strike you sporadically?
I do have a work routine, but I don't think it’s anything particular. I always use A3 papers to draw everything and anything on it, to lay down ideas, and then choose what I like in those, and develop rough sketches based on these, to then detail the sketches and then do the ink drawing over the sketch.
In general, I like to keep a vague inspiration when I draw though, so anything that comes to mind can help me create. But it's usually a mix of lots of feelings related to those things. Ideas or inspiration strikes at any time, but I often have lots of ideas coming up when I start drawing something, or when I go to bed (which isn’t the best of moment, hehe), and I can’t really tell where the ideas come from.
Your work is layered with folklore and storytelling. Tell me about the characters you visualise.
Anything that has to do with folklore or surrealism tells something that has to do with more than the plain world we live in, and that fascinates me.
It’s not about believing anything in particular, but just about not knowing everything about the intricate world that surrounds us, and keeping that in mind. So yes, I do like to give a feel of folklore or surrealism in my drawings, without trying to give much more meaning to it, but celebrating the unknown.
Your crowdfunding campaign for the book A Place For My Dark Thoughts has been successful. Congratulations! What made you go the crowdfunding route, and what were the challenges during this?
Thank you! I’ve actually had the opportunity to work on a few crowdfunded projects these last two years, and I found that it’s an amazing way to get a passion project funded.
I had a good idea of what the book would be, and most of the illustrations were done, so I was hoping that by preparing a campaign and explaining the project as good as I could, it would peak the interest of people, and it did! If publishers are interested in the book after the campaign is done, that's great, but I wanted to make sure I would have the opportunity to have the book made the way I saw it since it’s meant as a pretty personal testimonial.
It’s a tough experience going through Kickstarter because there's a lot of practical things to handle to get from a book’s draft to an actual printed quality book sent worldwide, but I learned a lot of useful stuff, and it was more of a positive experience than anything.
The book is all about vulnerability and talking about what you went through, as an immersive exercise of self expression. How do you hope it will help people who are dealing with similar problems?
Mental health has become an important subject, and that’s amazing. There are a lot of artists, writers, singers/rappers, and social media accounts that speak about these issues, and I think that’s great because the more we talk about it, the more people will feel comfortable about it, or understand it better, and the less it will feel weird for people who struggle with these issues.
I think when I was younger, these subjects were still a little bit taboo (maybe mostly because of the internet and how information is more accessible today) but I wish I had learned about anxiety sooner, or could relate to more people with these kind of issues. In the end, the ones who struggle with mental health issues are the ones who have to open up to actually feel better about it. So I’m hoping my book can be a part of all the forms of media that create awareness and help democratise mental health issues.
Last one. Has the making of this book and illustrating your deepest, darkest thoughts helped you personally. Has this been therapy in itself or do you have therapists who also helped?
I did see a few therapists and went through hypnotherapy, which helped at some periods. But it hasn’t been a definitive solution for me. It is a great help to feel better and then work on feeling even better afterwards. Other than that, I've been focusing on different things to try and feel better, from breathing methods to sport or walking daily, etc.
But the illustrations have helped me in a major way. I did not expect it at first, but what the drawings did was to help open up and feel ok about it. These drawings helped me break my chains, so to speak. The dark thoughts are much less present. Instead, I often find myself in a fighting spirit, as if I actually had to kick some demon’s ass, which is a good way of facing the issues in the end.
I see my struggle with anxiety as something almost positive, because of the mindset in which I am nowadays. It's weird but the shame and weight of anxiety has held me back a lot, but now that I've started talking about it through the drawings, talking about it and sharing it like that in this interview is actually easy, and strengthens that "stand" I'm taking against anxiety today even more.
Thank you for opening up, Benjamin. This was been a real learning experience for me.