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Joining the circus

An artist juggles schizophrenia and his search for understanding

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Innocuously scrawled in the entryway at the Visual Arts Collective, this quote is artist Matt Bodett's mantra. Bodett was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder four years ago and has used art as a primary tool in his recovery process. "Alogia and the Flying Circus" is a chronological journey into the throes of schizophrenia, full of isolation, whimsy, metaphor and acceptance.

Bodett was first diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2004 while attending college at Brigham Young University in Rexburg, Idaho. At 23, he was married with a child. Bodett's diagnosis blurred his ability to process what he was feeling, and the overwhelming confusion rendered him physically incapable of focusing on his art.

After his wife divorced him and he relocated to Boise for treatment, Bodett sunk into the sands of isolation and loneliness. He resumed classes at Boise State, but this time with a new major and a new well of experiences to color his work. Guided by printmaking professor Jill Fitterer, Bodett began to explore communicating his illness in a way that other people could understand.

"I started trying to describe what I was going through in visual terms," says Bodett. "That's when I really started playing with understanding where I was at and representing that for other people to understand."

Some of the first pieces Bodett created were flat, two-dimensional monotypes. Their titles are some of the symptoms of schizophrenia: Anxiety, Affective Flattening, Isolation, Paranoia and Hallucination. The works depict landscapes with cocoon-looking blobs that could represent trees, birds or humans. This ambiguity was pivotal in helping Bodett form an abstract vocabulary for talking about his illness without feeling like he was being judged.

"I tried to make [the first pieces] a little further away from what I was feeling, and as the timeline progressed from there I started getting more and more comfortable talking about it," Bodett says.

In "Alogia," the piece Not With a Bang, but a Whimper takes tickets at the entryway to Bodett's carnival. It's a swirling mess of red paints and emotion with T.S. Elliot's prose lettered carefully across the canvas. This piece marks the descent into madness that the rest of the exhibit tries to pull itself out of.

Aside from the freak-show and outcast associations that carnivals often conjure, Bodett explains that he chose the theme as a metaphor for the experiences that he's had with his illness. When people walk into a carnival, they walk into a surreal world of smoke and mirrors, a world where everyday reality is questioned. The carnival physically exists, as do it's performers, but the lines between real and imaginary blur.

"I've felt that things that I've seen or voices that I've heard are real. To me they're real. I understand them and they're tactile to me, but to others, they're not. It doesn't make sense to them. I thought that, in an awkward way, the circus was the best way to describe that," says Bodett.

As the exhibit continues on, Bodett begins to employ recurring imagery. Most of his pieces are mixed media, with etchings and copper plating on old popcorn buckets and crumpled tickets. This artistic repetition is symbolic of the various sounds and images that have repeated in Bodett's head. His familiarity with these images often made it hard to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

"Sometimes the circus is more fun than real life and people decide not to take their medication," says Anneliessa Balk Stimpert, a co-owner of the VAC.

Stimpert was one of Bodett's nurses when he was first hospitalized in Boise and she encouraged him to bring his work by the newly opened gallery. Though his collection at the time was underdeveloped, Bodett remained in touch with VAC and eventually scored this solo show. Stimpert, who has a background working in the mental health field, hopes "Alogia" will promote awareness and understanding of schizophrenia.

"Your mind and your body are one. Just because there's something going on with your mind doesn't mean there's something wrong with you," says Stimpert, emphatically, at a recent artist's talk at VAC. "The more we remove stigmas, the more we learn to respect and celebrate people. Look what Matt has done, it's incredible."

And all of his hard work was no fluke. At his June 25 artist's talk, a cluster of people gathered to hear him explain the meaning behind each of his 54 pieces. His work is full of symbolism and meticulous attention to detail; it's a complete visual catharsis.

"The processes I use play a lot into the meaning that I have. I enjoyed taking something away from the copper plate. With an etching, when you dip it in acid, it's deteriorating, it's breaking apart, it's not becoming what it was. For me, that resembled breaking down and becoming something different," says Bodett.

Another element to the "Alogia" exhibit is a short film that Bodett created called La Fou. The film follows a man on a quest to buy yellow paint. The random noises in the background are reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky's Pi, a cacophonous thriller shot in black and white. Bodett made the film to give people an idea of the noises that have played a huge part in his schizophrenic episodes.

"A lot of things in it I pulled from personal experience, like some of the sounds," says Bodett. "What I was hearing was what I explain as in between radio stations, where you get voices that you can hear, but you can't comprehend everything that's being said."

Though many people in the art community have tried to classify mentally ill artists as somehow peripheral to the mainstream art market, throwing around labels like "outsider artist," VAC co-owner Sam Stimpert doesn't believe in making a distinction.

"I don't believe—unless you're locked up in a room without television, magazines, or the radio—that you're really an outsider," says Stimpert.

One thing is for sure, Bodett no longer views himself as an outsider. Through his art, he's learned to communicate his feelings of isolation and detachment. And though you might never know by speaking to Bodett—with his searching blue eyes and wholesome earnestness—that he has schizophrenia, it's something he will struggle with for the rest of his life. Though he credits his family and new wife Stacy with helping him through the rough patches, Bodett is lucky to have found in art a form of expression that is both beautiful and recuperative.

"The art didn't cure me. This isn't what's making me better, but it's the vehicle that got me to accepting what I've been going through."

Alogia and the Flying Circus runs through August. Another artist's talk is scheduled for July 30 at 7p.m.,Visual Arts Collective, 3638 Osage St., Garden City, 208-424-8297.

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