“A Visceral Experience of Psychosis”: Why an Artist Spent Three Years Painting Bipolar Disorder | Books

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A steep road up to the top of a ridge takes away all the mundane.

From here, nestled between the surrounding hills of NSW’s Northern Rivers region, the sheer weight of Wollumbin Mt Warning is revealed – its wooded flanks a shimmering blue, its crags gleaming in the sun. Wedge-tailed eagles ride the thermals overhead and rainforest, scented with wildlife, stretches in all directions.

It is to this place, Uki in County Tweed, that Matt Ottley retired more than 10 years ago. The musician, artist and children’s book author lives surrounded by a harsh chorus of birds. In this house – his sanctuary – he has found peace from the pain of his past.

Ottley has always had a heightened sensitivity to the pain and beauty of the world. He shares that with the young protagonist in his latest release, The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness. It is a monumental project that includes not only the book, but an accompanying symphonic score on CD performed by a Czech orchestra and a 50-minute animation created from the book’s 74 paintings and illustrations, and in small theaters across the country.

Illustration of a baby and two people holding it, from Matt Ottley's book
“The tree grew out of one of my own psychotic experiences where I thought something was growing inside me.” Image: Matt Ottley

The story follows a boy who, like Ottley, sees things differently. “His gift showed him things so beautiful they made him cry. But it also tormented him with the pain of others, which made him numb. The narrative unfolds around the metaphor of a tree growing within it: its blossom is ecstasy, its fruit is sadness. It was inspired by Ottley’s bipolar disorder, which he was diagnosed with in his 40s.

“The tree really came out of one of my own psychotic experiences, where I thought something was growing inside me,” he says. “It was a plant that was naturally floral. I wanted to express that.”

In the book, the tree transforms into a flying cow, a reptile, then a blue bird that flies over mountains and oceans into a world of “beauty and wonder.” All stages of the journey represent the stages of psychosis – such as in an ancient city when it encounters a self-centered ruler with the huge bulbous body of an insect.

A painting from Matt Ottley's 2022 book The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness, the illustration shows elephants walking up a rainforest lined river
A painting from Ottley’s 2022 book The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness.

“She’s the kind of child self at the heart of psychosis,” says Ottley. “When you are in this state, the other does not exist. The world has become so distorted and you are trying to navigate it.”

Flying over valleys and hills, the boy journeys through the stages of fragility and revelation in darkness and storm – until he returns to the world and to himself with “calm” and hope.

As we sit on his patio overlooking the natural vista, freshly baked muffins are placed on the table by Ottley’s partner, Tina Wilson. Ottley is a gentle man, delicate and somewhat blissful with long white hair. One of the country’s most popular author-illustrators, he has worked on more than 40 titles – including last year’s Prime Minister’s award-winning children’s book How To Make A Bird, written by Meg McKinlay.

Matt Ottley paints from his studio in Uki, New South Wales
Ottley at his studio in Uki, New South Wales.

But he says the scope of his creativity comes at a terrible price. It wasn’t until he was in his mid-40s that Ottley was properly diagnosed and treated for bipolar type 1 disorder. By then he had endured countless frightening bouts of mania and depression, psychotic episodes that would end in psychiatric hospitals, and two suicide attempts.

“I’ve had some very high creative abilities that stem from being bipolar — but that’s a huge price to pay for that,” Ottley said. “If you had access to a magic button that turned off this disease, most people would say no because of the creativity. But I would say yes.

“If I could relive my life without creativity, if I could turn off this sickness and live a quiet life with a quiet mind, I would.”

He used to hide his illness and lead a life of secrecy and shame. As a teenager, “he would just go down or go into my room and ride it out. By the time I was in my 40s, I just felt so alone with it.”

Ottley spent the first 11 years of his life in Papua New Guinea at a time when the country was becoming increasingly dangerous for Australians. He was sexually assaulted by a man when he was nine, a trauma he believes may have triggered a genetic predisposition to bipolar disorder.

“Basically, as it’s been explained to me, you inherit a set of genes which, when they’re turned on, you start experiencing the disease. It can be trauma that turns these genes on.”

Whatever he attempted in the decades that followed, his illness would be waiting to grab hold of him and bring him down. He would get sick, fall and burn and run away. He failed school – “I just couldn’t do it” – and followed his father and brother into the bush to work as a rancher, but says he “wasn’t good at that kind of work”. He studied at the Julian Ashton Art School, fell ill, went back into the bush. The return to the bush became “a pattern”. He majored in music at Wollongong University but failed to graduate from that, too. “Actually, I have no schooling,” he says.

Image of the Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness by Matt Ottley, 2022
“If I could relive my life without creativity, if I could turn this disease off and live a calm life with a calm mind, I would.”

Ottley also has synesthesia, a neurological condition. “The sound becomes very colorful and I see many shapes and become hypersensitive to noise and light.” In a rehearsal with musicians, he notices if someone is wrong “because it’s the wrong color”.

The tree of ecstasy and unbearable sadness arose in two periods of illness. During a severe episode in 2010, Ottley lost the ability to understand speech. But the music was “crystal clear,” he says, “so I started writing music.”

“The sound I heard consisted of 97 instruments. I wanted a 50-player string family, a bass clarinet, a bassoon.” This would become the overture to the book’s symphonic soundtrack, with stormy crescendos giving way to plaintive laments; recorded by the Brno Philharmonic and the 40-part Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno, it is the sound of a psychosis.

An illustration of a tree and flowers against a black background from Matt Ottley's book The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness
Ottley, who suffers from synesthesia, says music makes him “see many forms.”

“When you start making an orchestral sound in your head and you get sick and you go into psychosis, you can actually hear it like it’s out there. It’s a 68-voice fugue meant to represent the noise in a person’s head, whether it’s multiple voices or some other type of auditory hallucination that just becomes unbearable and you just want it to stop.

A few years later, while keeping a recovery journal after another difficult episode, he wrote the poem that would become the lyrics of The Tree of Ecstasy. “It just disappeared from the universe.”

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It took two years to compose the music and three years to paint the 74 artworks. Together it is an outstanding work for adults and children; a luminous, intense and ultimately beautiful journey through the stages of psychosis and out the other side. “I wanted to create a metaphorical experience that goes straight to the emotional centers to give people a visceral experience of what it feels like,” says Ottley.

“I think the arts are a direct conduit to our deeper emotional thinking that bypasses logical, superficial thinking and can get straight to the point of how we’re feeling about something.”

Ottley’s goal is to destigmatize mental illness, shed light on the experiences of those who don’t live with bipolar disorder, and advocate for those who do. “Probably the message is that it can’t be about judgements,” he says. “I think all things can be achieved through empathy. I encourage people not to feel humiliated about these aspects of their lives or the thoughts they have about hurting themselves or hurting others. Being really, really open to these things from the start. Because of the deep shame that surrounds these things, people just keep their mouths shut until it’s too late.

Illustration of a boy sitting on the edge of a giant waterfall, from The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness by Matt Ottley
“I wanted to create a metaphorical experience that goes straight to the emotional centers to give people a visceral experience.”

“You can get a diagnosis, you can get treatment. Go out into the world and find the people you need to talk to and ask their forgiveness for your behavior and forgive yourself too. The condition does not go away, but life goes on and you can find peace.”

Creativity has always been Ottley’s salvation — “I could always turn to that” — but it’s the love of his partner and friends that has brought him to relative calm.

Likewise, his book ends with his protagonist hearing the distant voices of those who loved him and called him back.

“I’m here,” he called. And so he came back into the world. And still the tree of ecstasy and unbearable sadness was within him. And yet flowers grew. And it still bore fruit.

  • The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness is available now from Dirt Lane Press. The animation will be shown at the University of Sydney on June 23rd, at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra on August 18th and 21st and at the State Library in Perth on September 21st and 22nd

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