Featured photo: Artist Tomie opens her new show Exalt & Illuminate at the Gallery on Main in High Point on Sept. 11. The show focuses on celebrities who struggled with mental health issues and substance abuse. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)
From across the dimly lit room, Anthony Bourdain’s face emerges from a neon green background. He wears those thick sunglasses he was known for and the words, “IT’S BEEN AN ADVENTURE,” run vertically across the vast canvas, framing the right side of his face. An oyster shell juts out from his neck while syringes hover above his hairline. It’s an apt homage to the late chef and cultural icon with its frenetic energy combined with Bourdain’s own words of wisdom. It’s also one of artist Tomie’s favorite pieces in her new show, which portrays celebrities who died from substance abuse or suicide.
The High Point mixed-media artist has struggled with her own mental health issues for the last decade. With her deep red lipstick and her arms covered in tattoos, she exudes confidence and speaks with warmth and a comforting smile, but she says that her battle with depression hasn’t always been easy.
Tomie says she was raised by a single mother who was addicted to drugs and she saw firsthand the kind of impact that can have on not only the person using, but their child. Then, about 15 years ago, she went through a complicated divorce; her husband ended up getting custody of their daughter. Tomie hasn’t seen her in nine years.
“Christmas, birthdays, Mother’s Day, that sets my depression off,” explains Tomie, who goes by her first name only.
Twelve years ago, she got pregnant with her son, who she says saved her.
Drawing from her own experience, the artist is opening her first-ever show at the Gallery on Main in High Point on Sept. 11. Her favorite pieces in the exhibit are her Anthony Bourdain and Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. Both died by suicide.
“Those two really hurt my feelings, like really, really hurt my feelings,” she says. “They were loved, and they were so funny and lovely and awesome, and they both committed suicide and it’s just sad, you know? It’s so sad because they were so loved… but it’s not about how many people love you or how famous you are, you’re still going to have issues.”
And that’s really the point of the show, which Tomie has named Exalt & Illuminate. As someone who has struggled with her own issues in the past and continues to work through them now, Tomie says she wanted to shed light on some of the more somber parts of famous people’s lives that many may not know about.
During the pandemic, she saw how many others were struggling with addition and suicide as well.
“I decided to choose this topic because I wanted something that had some meaning,” she says. “Not just a landscape or a normal picture and something that brought in all the dark things that people don’t want to talk about. Each of these pieces have facts, rumors, speculation, conspiracies all the things that go along with it and it’s up to each person to decide what they see, what they believe.”
While Bourdain and Bennington might have been beloved by many, Tomie says she was intentional about including all kinds of celebrities in her show. That includes many who she knows committed horrible acts during their lifetimes, such as Michael Jackson and Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols. The point, Tomie says, isn’t to celebrate these individuals necessarily, it’s to show that they were people who experienced trauma and mental illness, too.
“No matter if they’re terrible people or not, they still have problems,” she says. “Who’s to say that their drug addictions and mental health wasn’t the culprit of them being the shitty people they were, because that happens right? They’re still people.”
Other celebrities that Tomie chose for the show, which spans about 30 pieces total, include Amy Winehouse, Carrie Fisher and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. To create the works, Tomie says she scavenged for used canvases at Goodwill or Reconsidered Goods. She used glow-in-the-dark and UV paints to create eye-popping, luminescent works that reveal additional layers when viewed under blacklights, which will be set up during the show’s opening. She also added little trinkets to many of the canvases like fake drugs that represent the ways in which some of the celebrities died. She calls the combination of it call “trash pop art.”
For her first show, Tomie says that it was important for her to create works that spoke to her and illuminated problems that she knows many people deal with. During the last year, when having to quarantine at home, she says her depression got worse. Working on the series is what gave her renewed hope and direction. As a 46-year-old who grew up in an era when talking about mental health was still heavily stigmatized, she says she’s excited about younger generations openly sharing their struggles with each other. That’s her ultimate goal for this show too, she says.
“I want people to realize that they’re not alone in what they’re in,” Tomie says. “These people aren’t with us anymore; they don’t have that choice anymore, but we do. And the person who it resonates with does, to have the choice to stay and be here.”
Exalt & Illuminate opens at the Gallery on Main in High Point on Sept. 11 at 7 p.m. The show will run through Oct. 2. Learn more about Tomie on Facebook or on Instagram at @tomie_arts.