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A Vibrant Studio that Celebrates Mental Illness as a Superpower

by Caitlin Kelch

When I first laid eyes on the work of Taylor Lee, I felt the electricity that vibrates in her paintings. I also felt an affinity for her bright palettes, brimming with some of the same hues that colored my great grandmother’s muumuus. A thriving abstract painter in Charlotte, NC, Taylor has a superpower — and she uses it well.

Taylor was originally diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and after making therapy a regular part of her schedule to manage her BPD, her doctor realized there was more to her atypicality. Taylor’s rampant anxiety and lack of sleep, coupled with her extreme feelings of “being on top of the world,” led to the additional diagnosis of bipolar disorder. This atypicality has become an important component of Taylor’s creative process. As she describes it, “I see the world through the ever twisting kaleidoscope of mania, experiencing extreme periods of high energy regularly as a result of bipolar disorder. Still, I find ways to bring the reality of a stigmatized mental illness into a celebratory light, creating paintings that are buzzing with energy, movement, and loud colors. My goal is to normalize mental illness and encourage people to see their ‘disorders’ as superpowers.”

Today we’re taking a tour of Taylor’s studio, which is located in the apartment that she shares with her husband John — in a renovated gingham mill that was originally established in the early 1900s in Charlotte, NC. It has gorgeous high ceilings, exposed brick, and a concrete floor that she doesn’t mind covering with paint. I was thrilled that Taylor was open to the idea of my interviewing her about her art and her atypicality, too. Read on to discover how Taylor turned a “disorder” into a creative asset and a successful life. You can follow Taylor on Instagram here. –Caitlin

Photography by Mikayla Christiansen

D*S: What do you make or practice in your studio? 

Taylor: I create brightly colored abstract paintings, mostly, but I also create resources for other artists, like e-books and recorded workshops.

What is your favorite thing about the space?

I love the natural lighting pouring in from the 15-foot windows, and I love being close to my dog all day as I work.

Image above: Taylor‘s in-home studio in a renovated gingham mill in Charlotte, NC. The mill was first established in 1903.

Is your studio in your home? A shared space?

My studio is in our apartment and takes up a large chunk of it.

Do you have a regular schedule in your studio? If not, what brings you there? An idea? A dream?

When I first wake up, the immediate thought is coffee. I typically have a few cups while my husband and our dog, Frida, are still asleep — I enjoy this quiet time alone first thing in the morning. I’ll spend this time staring at the paintings I did the day before, deciding whether or not I like the direction. When John gets up we’ll have breakfast and take Frida out. It’s best to get out and do any errands first thing in the morning because in the South it’s already almost 90 degrees and so humid by lunchtime. But throughout this whole process I have this nagging feeling to get back to the studio as soon as possible. I get really rusty if I don’t paint every day, so each day’s goal is to at least show up and paint. You’d think it would be easier to achieve this goal since my studio is at home, but it’s actually the opposite. The ideas come while I’m in the act of painting. I may write out notes on ideas I have for concepts that get inspired by movies, music, or going on a walk, but they never really form into an image until I’m in the paint.

Image above: Taylor working on “The Sound of Cicadas,” a painting inspired by the sounds of Southern summer nights. She enjoys bringing intangible experiences, like sound and emotion, into her work.

Tell us about your art.

Through my paintings I strive to depict things that are unseen but felt. For instance, emotions, sounds, and mental illness are just a few of the things that fill up our lives, yet we can’t see them. I have bipolar disorder, and I am particularly sensitive to noise, lights, and definitely to emotion. I was talking with one of my favorite artists, Tara Leaver from the UK, recently and she described trying to use art to show how something feels more than how it actually looks. That idea has stuck with me. I often hear that people see my work as bright and happy because I use a lot of vibrant colors and expressive brushstrokes.

Describe a typical day or night in your studio.

First I have to choose music — this is a really important element in my process. I like music that triggers synesthesia, like CHVRCHES. Or I’ll choose music that is made by someone who I think “really gets it,” like Panic! at the Disco. Their frontman, Brendon Urie, talks openly about ADHD and to me his music feels super manic, so I get really into that. I also love playlists full of 80s and 90s hits.

Choosing the music is an ordeal for me. But once that’s over I try my best to tune everything else out, and usually I do my best work when I get lost in the music. I have loose canvas pinned up on the walls and spread across the floor — I tend to work my way across multiple pieces at once. If I’m waiting for layers to dry I’ll put on another pot of coffee, but I’ll sit and stare at the pieces, evaluating what is singing and what isn’t. This process will go on for about 10 hours if I’m in a manic period, and more like 6 if I’m not.

Image above: Vibrant, heavily pigmented paints like Golden Acrylics and Liquitex Professional are just a few of the materials that go into Taylor’s paintings.

Can you describe the process of making a piece of your art?

A lot of my process begins in my head. I’d say almost 80% of the process is mental. I study artwork from my favorite movements — Fauvism, Naïve art — and also take workshops from my favorite contemporary artists. I look at painting like a skill that I’m honing, and I believe that the more effectively I can use the materials, the more effectively I can communicate my ideas. Abstract art is tricky because it doesn’t have a clear subject, so I’m essentially coming up with a vocabulary that doesn’t exist yet. I like for my paintings to look free and unrestrained but I also love shape, volume, and gravity. It’s a hard balance! So upfront I study and consider concepts, but only hold them in my head while I actually do the painting. I’ll start by painting colors and shapes and then “bust them up” into something more abstract.

Image above: From Taylor — “This is my painting ‘Don’t Go Chasing Watermelon’ while it was in progress. The title was inspired by my childhood dream of running a bubblegum company whose flavors would be titled after 90s hits. “Gettin’ Figgy With It” and “Smells Like Teen Spearmint” are just a couple of my other gum flavor ideas, which have now become fun painting titles!”

How long have you been making abstract paintings?

I’ve been creating my whole life. My grandmother was super creative and we didn’t have cable, so we spent a lot of time watching Bob Ross on PBS. But back then I was really concerned with a realistic painting style. At the time that was my definition of “good” art. When I was 21 I moved into an inpatient eating disorder treatment facility. It was there that I learned about art therapy, which is highly expressive. It was really tough for me at first because I am a perfectionist, but eventually I came to appreciate the freedom and power I found in creating these raw pieces of expressive artwork. I fell in love.

Image above: Taylor says “A good desk is hard to find, so I went the DIY route. I have been using this desk for over two years, and paint remnants of many hours in the studio hang onto the surface like memories.”

Prior to your diagnosis, did you know you were different from your peers or family or did you think everyone thought and saw things as you did?

I absolutely knew I was different. My husband describes it as me having a “burning fire inside.” I don’t know how much of that is my personality and how much of it is pure mania, but I do know that it is a core part of who I am. At my wedding my dad referred to me in his toast as “free-spirited.” It’s who I’ve always been.

How does your “superpower” enhance your life, and conversely, how do you struggle with it?

There are some aspects of my disorder that do make life harder for me. I’m so overly stimulated by lights and sounds, and that’s made simple, mundane human experiences like driving and going to the grocery store herculean tasks. Being constantly activated can make it hard to relate to people — I’m told on a daily basis by someone that I need to rest. But the thing is, I’m wired to be manic, so resting isn’t really an option for me.

However, there are aspects that have become my greatest strengths. I have this “burning fire” that goes for long periods of time with no stopping, so I’ve been able to literally create my dream job and have the fuel to actually run it. Long studio hours, shipping days, live workshops, engaging on Instagram — I can do those things in my sleep. So in that case, my disorder empowers me to do things that most people can’t do. It also provides endless inspiration for my favorite part of my life — painting.

I have to put special effort into things that many people don’t need to do, but the special efforts that I put into things I care about go above and beyond. I’d personally rather have a thriving art business than to be naturally calm in a room full of people. It’s a tradeoff I’d make every time. When I began sharing these insights about myself on my social media, a lot of people started to tell me that I was putting words to their feelings and experiences in a way that they hadn’t been able to. Something that started out so personal, and made me feel so alone and different, actually has become the way I can best connect with others.

I talk about mental illness (or neurodiversity, as I like to say) on Instagram and as an essential part of my brand because I’m not the only one who has a special set of abilities that isn’t common (and are usually a source of deep shame). Those abilities come with a price — my mania flips into deep depression, for example. But if you just think of mental illness as a list of symptoms to manage, you can miss out on the ways that it can actually empower you.

Image above: Taylor’s analog table, she has a digital workspace. She was inspired to do this by the advice of Austin Kleon who described the importance of separating your creative space from your business space.

Where do you get inspiration?

I get inspired by emotions. Maybe I wake from a dream in which I felt utterly free and I want to get that down on canvas. Or I’m just full of manic energy and I need to get it out of my body. I also get a lot of inspiration from movement, like seeing trees wave in thunderstorms, or the leaves falling in October. And I will forever be the most inspired by color. Its ability to transform and not be confined by mankind’s determination to contain it into tiny aluminum tubes. A lot of my paintings start with a single color, and as I build in more and more I love to really make them sing.

Image above: This portable, tabletop easel traveled with Taylor across the US on a three-month road trip last year. This easel allowed Taylor to create in plein air, from Lake Michigan to the rocky beaches of Pacifica, California.

Did you always make art as an outlet for yourself? If so, when did you realize it was therapeutic and a healthy container for your anxiety (and mania) and that you could use it to your advantage?

After getting into art therapy I was mostly making work that was directly inspired by my experiences with an eating disorder, which I recovered from almost six years ago. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I switched my focus to what I was going through NOW instead of just my past.

Image above: Taylor sometimes uses unconventional materials in her studio — that red wedge is a kitchen tool by Betty Crocker! She recalls, “I was in the flow, and it was either this or a whisk.”

Image above: “This painting (“You are a Kaleidoscope”) depicts that feeling of swirling colors clicking into place. I like to think of our memories and emotions doing this in our heads.”

Image above: Taylor shares that her “first creative mentor was my grandma, Katie. When Katie passed away last May, I wanted to keep her spirit alive, and without any real place I began to paint these gigantic, energetic floral paintings. My grandma was a fantastic gardener with a free spirit, so I think the big flowers are fitting.”

Image above: “I experience vivid dreams, an aspect of living with bipolar disorder. I decided to try to paint some of them, and found myself working on these color explosions that evoke wild flowers. These are my most popular paintings, so I recently started hosting workshops to help new painters create some of their own. This one is titled ‘It’s This Dream I Keep Having.’

“I can never have enough brushes. They’re like extensions of my hands, and I want to have as many hands as possible.”

“Celebration.” I created this piece in May as a celebration. I felt myself breaking through anxiety and impostor syndrome, and really coming into my own as a painter.”

Taylor and her studio mate, Frida, who is named after her favorite painter. She noted that her “husband and I joke that if we get another dog we’ll have to name it Diego.”

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Comments

  • Gosh, I absolutely adore Taylor’s response to her mental illness – rather than allowing it to hinder he creative endeavors, she allows it to fuel them. I have never come across an artist that does this. I believe this is what sets Taylor’s art apart in the most beautiful way. It draws people in close and says “You are not alone, and what you think constricts you actually has the potential to be your greatest superpower.” So refreshing. So powerful. So inspiring!

  • yasss taylor!! congrats on getting featured♥️
    also, i just love learning more about how/why you paint – it really helps me better understand your work.
    love you girl!!

  • What an incredible feature. Thank you so much for sharing all that you do. A true inspiration – both as a person and through your art!

  • This was a fantastic read. It makes me realize that my ADD gives me a fire in me as well that empowers me to multitask!! Your story has always been so fun to follow and it makes me feel like I’m not alone in neurodiversiry 😊

  • I have been following Taylor’s work for a while now and it never ceases to amaze me how incredible her work is and how she channels her mental illness into her superpower. Thank goodness she has as the work she creates is an inspiration and her openness to share her experiences and help others is so genuine 😊

  • THIS IS GOLD! I am SO happy you interviewed Tay – she is one of the most amazing artists and humans I know (from the Internet ;) I love that we are having the conversations around mental health so that we can de-stigmatize it and use it as superpowers in our art practice. Such a fantastic piece 👌

    – Molly

  • neurodiversity . . . I’m definitely going to be using that! I’ve always disliked “mental illness” which implies, to a lot of people, that you have a choice to be well or to be ill. Physical illness doesn’t stop at the neck. Brain disease is illness. Period.

  • I love this! The way she talks about mental health makes me think about Mad To Be Normal, I wonder if she’s seen it!

  • So interesting! Really enjoyed the chance to read about an artist’s creative process. The photos were fabulous and really enhanced my understanding of her work. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Taylor, you are an amazing woman and artist! Thank you for sharing so much of your life (your struggles and successes)!

  • Makes my ❤️ Happy and Proud that your journey with mental illness empowers us all to rise and fight. Life is truly precious and you are making us all truly understand that with your heart-wrenching shares. You are pretty darn awesome! I don’t say that because you are my daughter, I say that because you choose to make a difference and are doing just that! A favorite quote of mine by Drew Barrymore, I never regret anything. Because every little detail of your life is what made you into who you are in the end. ❤️

  • It is admirable how Taylor turns her illness to positivity and each painting shows the vibrancy of her personality and control over her life. Always fun to follow her page and congratulations in having been featured in here. A cool lady and her cool art !!!

  • Taylor, this is a truly inspiring share! The rest of the world is so lucky that you’ve harnessed your neurodivisity and totally steer it to your advantage. What a beautiful gift!

  • This article is a beautiful snapshot of the amazing artist and woman Taylor Lee has become. Much like her art, Taylor’s spirit is full of passion, enthusiasm, vibrance, and strength. Not only have I enjoyed the six pieces of her work that reside in both my home and my office, but also getting to know the powerhouse behind the joyful creations. I am constantly receiving compliments on the pieces that adorn my office walls. I am lucky to know such a fascinating and unique lady, and I cannot wait to see what she’ll do next!

  • This is the best thing I’ve seen on the internet in a long time. This story is so great it cancels out like 10 videos worth of YouTube comments.

    Taylor, kudos to you for embracing who you are. Your art is stunning.

  • I really love this one. Very inspiring to me, as an artist. I think painting is my least successful endeavor, but I like it the most! It feels like a cop out sometimes to do anything in abstraction, but this one has a great message. It is hard to just START when you have a mental illness. So this has helped me to get excited about a new START.

    • Jac, I TOTALLY feel you on this. I oftentimes think I’m a weak painter myself, but lots of people tell me otherwise. I think that means we’re our toughest critics, and as long as you are HAPPY when you create people can see that radiate through. Oh, and hahah yes abstraction can feel like a cop out. I’ve been there, where I was thinking “what am I even doing? What does this even mean?” But there’s a way over that feeling, too. Like you said, getting started is the hardest part! I hope you feel more energized to start today. :) If you’d like to paint with me sometime let me know! I stream live workshops from my studio (and offer the replays)! It’ll be fun. Thanks again for reading and supporting!

  • I’ve recently become obsessed with Taylor – as an artist and as a person – and this interview was an amazing look into her story, her beauty, and her talent! Thank you for sharing such a unique and eye opening perspective!

  • Your work is beautiful – I feel like I can hear and see your inspirations as they come through on the canvas.
    What started as therapy will continue to to help others and yourself for years to come! Thank you for your art and thank you for sharing! (p.s. I love that lil doggo) :)

  • Great article! I’ve been following Taylor on IG for awhile now, first because her art is gorgeous, then after getting to know a little about her, because her soul is beautiful. Super supportive workshop coach & always willing to listen on a tough day. Thanks for sharing her story!

  • Inspiring and Resonating! I cherish my Taylor Lee print and am so happy to have you as one of my artistic heroes!

  • Taylor is amazing. I love following her on Instagram. She is such an inspiration with her art and openness about mental health. It’s a huge encouragement for others.

  • This was such a breath of fresh air in my news feed. Thank you! Such beauty, color and life in a world that is feeling pretty gray right now. Delighted at her success. Beautiful work.

  • Taylor, your work and your story are truly inspirational. I have anxiety and while I’ve never had much of an eye for visual art, my craft is writing. It’s a side passion for me rather than a career, and sometimes it’s hard to break through my work schedule and anxiety to get any writing done. But this post has inspired me to try and find ways my anxiety could bolster my creativity, rather than hold it back. Thank you!

  • Inspiring and beautiful, and I especially love her using “neurodiversity” instead of “mental illness”! So many of us are neuro-diverse in some way that is often disparaged or feared. Kudos!

  • I like the mix of colors in the paintings shown here. The frank discussion of the artist’s mental health and how she has worked to seek treatment and still incorporate her experiences into her art was refreshing. A good article and an interesting read.

  • Such an inspiring interview and a refreshing way to view life. I love Taylor’s work and think she is an amazing human being, courageous and resourceful!

  • I love this movement from being ashamed of mental “illness” to standing firm in everything it can put you through. I think this is so important. Also, Taylor just rocks!

  • Do you think intense creativity can live alongside the depression or does medication sometimes become necessary. And if so, does the medication thwart your creative process? I hope these questions are not too personal?

    Barbara

    • Hey, Barbara! These are great questions. I do believe that intense creativity can live alongside the depression – in my experience I’ll sometimes tell my husband, “the spirit is willing (creativity) but the body is weak (depression).” I find medication to be necessary, and the right medication should cut off the extremes, regulating mood. I have had the fear that in cutting off the HIGHS I’d lose my creativity, and during a medication adjustment I have had that happen – but it’s difficult to tease out whether that was truly a medication issue or just the natural ebb and flow of the creative process. Taking all of this into consideration, I believe that creativity is a habit – so even if I have moments when I don’t feel super creative I can at least produce a large amount of work while on medication (that I cannot do while I’m depressed), and that leads to a greater creative output in the end. It’s hard work!

  • Taylor inspires me on so many levels. I love how she owns her mental illness AND shares how she uses it as her superpower! She is refreshing and courageous! Thank you for this Design Sponge.

  • Really inspirational! As my mom deals with bipolar disorder, it’s really great to see Taylor and this site de-stigmatize mental health. Loving ALL of this!!!

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