Artist Spotlight: Max Callaghan
By Anna Jeavons
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Max Callaghan is a visual artist from Adelaide, South Australia. We asked Max about his creative practice, the communities he holds close, and his mental health journey.
Lounge room, seclusion room, 2020, oil and acrylic on unstretched canvas, 2×2.5m
Running naked into a carpark, I tried to do a dance for someone who didn’t want to eat grapes anymore, my warm yellow water-soaked clothes, my tongue on the floor, 2019, oil on canvas, 55x65cm. Photo Credit: Sam Roberts. From Running into a Carpark Naked, 2019 at Rubicon ARI (Vic)
Hi Max, how did you first hear about mindshare?
From my wonderful friend Anna, who had just started working for the organisation. I wanted to learn more and get involved because I think it is important to support platforms and outlets for people to be able express and communicate about their lived experience of mental illness. Mental illness is quite common but is stigmatised, poorly understood, and hard to express in language, let alone in everyday conversations. I think things like mindshare can help us to overcome these barriers that get in the way of understanding each other and healing.
What mental health challenges have you faced personally?
I had an episode of catatonia and a difficult subsequent, 9 week hospital stay when I was 22. Whilst in hospital, I had a manic reaction to a medication I was given and was put in a locked ward and spent long periods of time in seclusion which I found very difficult. I was told what happened to me in hospital was symptomatic of bipolar disorder but have not been told that I definitely have bipolar disorder. I am trying to remain open to whatever happens. I don’t plan on becoming unwell again but if I do I will try to adapt to whatever that looks like.
I have made several bodies of work that reference mental health among other bodies of work that don’t. I have just had a solo exhibition in Sydney at Firsdraft, Australia’s longest running artist run initiative, called Tomb with No Windows. The exhibition is an installation of paintings that show the ongoing presence of memories, bad dreams, visions and unconscious thoughts that derive from my experience of seclusion and physical and chemical restraint in a psychiatric hospital in South Australia.
How has creativity played a role in your mental health journey?
Since leaving hospital, I have made different groups of paintings about the experience of mental illness and hospitalisation. This has helped me to reflect on the personal and broader social significance of what I have experienced on my mental health journey. Creativity has helped me to navigate, understand and realise who I am and what my experiences mean.
[Creativity] gives me a sense of purpose, a feeling of mindfulness, self esteem, self reflection, self realisation, something to do physically and mentally that I can turn to at any time, a way to have a voice, a way to navigate, a way to think about and speak about anything, a sense of freedom, a way to connect, a way to question, a place to be angry, an escape from the confines of spoken language, a place to go when I don’t feel good. These are some of the positive impacts that my creative practice has on my sense of wellbeing but there are too many to list. Art/creative practice is everything to me—like eating or breathing and I would feel lost without it.
Who is your community?
My community is the people and animals I live with, share things with, do things with, dance with, make art with, am family with, am friends with, am acquaintances with, play soccer with, the people who work at the supermarket, the dogs that bark through the fence. Sometimes I just like to be alone but I would like my community to be open and not limited to anyone in particular.
Where do you connect with others and find meaning?
I like dancing with people, going to the Art Gallery and knowing that other people are looking at things and thinking similar or different thoughts, playing soccer in a non competitive context, volunteering at the Hutt St Day Centre art room, Writer’s week at the Adelaide Festival, walking around the city or botanic garden, swimming at the beach, trying to donate to people centred causes I believe in when I have the money, cooking together, cleaning together, being driven around in people’s cars and things like this.
What mental health conversations do you think would be useful for your community to have?
Having conversations and creating awareness about the complexity of lived experience of mental illnesses, beyond a generalised concept of “depression and anxiety” or “mental health problem” that centre the experience of the person experiencing them seem important. It would be great to have conversations that educate us more about the diversity of mental illnesses, what can bring them on, who is most at risk to them, how to know if someone is dealing with one, how to manage and live with them, how to help someone who is living with one or multiple and the support that is on offer. When I became unwell it hit me and my family really hard and i found it really difficult because I didn’t know what was going on but if we can have educative conversations we can make it easier to understand what is going on and how to deal with mental illness.
What else do you want to see from the wider public to support mental health/social and emotional wellbeing?
More beds in hospitals, more nutritious hospital food, higher paid or more staff in psychiatric hospitals to prevent compassion fatigue, better gardens in psychiatric hospitals, you shouldn’t have to feel like you are being punished for ending up in a psychiatric hospital, better art therapy in hospitals, more easily accessible art therapy that comes to you in the community, giving space for people to talk specifically about their illness or things they find difficult, make programs where people can volunteer as peer support to visit people in hospitals or wherever they need, some people are in hospital and have no one to visit – I’m sure there would be people cueing up to visit if they knew this was happening. There is a lot of things that can improve – these are just some things that came from the top of my head.
Dragging your warm face across a cold wall again. Around and around. Being held down and bitten by a needle
again and then, waking up with the same scream in your stomach six years later ah, 2020, oil on canvas, 90x120cm
disappeared people, 2019, oil on canvas, 65x55cm
insect clothing, bruises, terrapin that ran away and then returned, face that you ran away from and never saw again – acrylic, , oil and paper, 38x65cm. Photo Credit: Sam Roberts. From Open Studio Group Exhibition, 2020 at ACE Open