At 25, Christi Furnas was diagnosed with schizophrenia. This queer-identified woman has used her disability as inspiration for making beautiful art and connecting with other mentally ill artists. Based in Minneapolis, MN, Furnas has been involved with Spectrum Artworks, an organization that serves as a community and studio space for artists with mental illness.
I emailed Christi recently to ask her about the truth behind the “madness = creativity” myth, her muse, and her views on being a mental illness/LGBTQ/feminist activist.
When did art have the most significant impact on your life? Have there been times in your life where there was significant growth in your art?
Greatest impact? High school. I don’t know if it is true for most people but high school must have been the suckiest time in my life. I was a tomboy living in Topeka, Kansas and my freshman year my mother died of lung cancer. I had watched her battle it for a year. She died at home in a hospice bed. The only place I felt like I fit in was in the art room. My senior year a friend shot himself in the head. His family set up a memorial scholarship which focused on the arts, it was awarded to me, and I got to go to college for a semester. If you have something in high school that you are confident at, a place to go where you feel safe, it helps you to deal with all the other bullshit. Art is what got me through.
As for significant growth, I think I am taking a turn right now. I have fallen in love with cadmiums and am working with vivid color. I’ve worked with color for a while now, but at this point I’m hyperaware of not wanting to muddy things up or wash them out. I used to turn my nose up at people that worked from photographs, but now I’ve joined them. I take snapshots with my little point-and-shoot and dig for the image I think would make a good painting. A good picture is not necessarily a good painting. Working from a photo allows me to play with the composition, emphasize line, switch up the colors, and make it my own.
I’ve seen that a lot of your work is oil on canvas; is it your favorite medium or do you make art in other media as well?
I also work with pen and ink. I draw from life, or my imagination. Sometimes I include whimsy and humor, like a drawing of a little girl pointing to have superman fix her dropped ice cream cone. I started off as a kid doodling with pencil, smearing and shading. Now I like a clean line, something that as a viewer you might want to color in. In fact, I start off my paintings with a line drawing. To do this, I paint on the canvas with thinned out oil paint and brush in the composition first. I think that the color is the first thing people notice in my paintings, but I hope that the painting would stand up compositionally in black and white.
How has being diagnosed with schizophrenia affected your art? Do you see yourself differently as an artist since your diagnosis?
This is the question I seem to get asked the most. I can’t say that schizophrenia hasn’t affected my work, because it is a disease that has affected my life since my early twenties. I know the illness; it is part of my existence. Asking me how it has influenced my work is like asking an only child if they miss having siblings. Not an answerable question. I do want to break down one myth. Madness does not make you more creative. Does suffering make better art? Suffering is human; humans make art. I believe art is a discipline. At least if you identify as a professional artist. When I am having symptoms, I am not working.
I’ve always defined myself as an artist but needed to make a living and felt like I had to keep art on the side. I’d been showing my work for five years before I was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After that I felt I might end my life at any moment. I took risks and kind of had a recklessness about me. I could no longer hold my nine-to-five office job. Since I was officially “crazy,” I had an excuse to do anything. For example, I was at a restaurant where a friend worked and watched him get fired for no reason. His boss was a real asshole so I told the guy off. He threatened to call the cops so I not only told him to kiss my ass, I pulled down my shorts, mooned him and slapped my ass for the lunch rush. Anyway, long story short, I had always wanted to be a full-time artist, so damn it, I became one.
You work with Spectrum Artworks. What do you do there?
Spectrum Artworks is awesome. It is a program that supports a group of professional artists located in a drop-in center for adults with severe and persistent mental illness. The amazing woman who founded this program, artist Amy Rice, had the idea that by providing artists with mental illness the resources to advance their careers, those artists would then be best equipped to succeed and advocate in the community to break down stigma. I joined the group about eight years ago. A friend of mine with a similar diagnosis told me I should go to this group for people with mental illness. I said no way. Then he told me I could use free art supplies. Of course I was broke, so I was in. What I found was a community and lasting friendships. Also the support and opportunities that I would have never had on my own. As professionals exploring our craft and practice together we found something other than illness to connect with. Spectrum hired me as staff a year ago, and I get to give back a little bit. My job is to support artists by helping them navigate what’s almost impossible for someone with a mental illness to do alone, like finding shows and applying for grants, maintaining their portfolios and résumés, listening and providing feedback on their work. It is a safe space where artists can make art. The larger drop-in center can assist with other needs and issues.
How do your relationships with others come into your work? I’ve noticed there is a woman in many of your paintings, how has she affected your work and what does she represent for you in your art?
That woman is my wife! Legally recognized in six states. We just got married in March in New York, where she is from. Ruth and I have been together for seven years and that entire time she has been my muse. I remember our first date. She said guess what I did today? I had no idea. Turned out she got her nipples pierced. So before we went to dinner she had to wash her piercings. (Not like I wasn’t nervous already or anything.) So there she was in her bathroom, door open, with dixie cups with sea salt water jiggling on her nipples and I am in the hall staring at the floor. Ruth assured me that she didn’t have the body image issues that most women seem to have. I was like uh huh. That was when she explained that she modeled for figure drawing classes for years. I said, maybe I can draw you sometime? I started painting her the next week.
Has your activism for educating the public around mental health issues made you an activist in other areas? Do you consider yourself a feminist? A LGBTQ activist?
I consider myself an activist on all these fronts simply because I won’t back down from who I am. It is really difficult to be open about having a mental illness. Once you start telling people your diagnosis you find out who your friends are quick. I think that coming out as queer when I was nineteen helped “train me in” for being truthful about my mental illness. Quite frankly I didn’t even know what schizophrenia was until my therapist said, “We don’t know that! We’re not sure of that yet!” I had dial-up but I patiently looked up what it was because nobody was telling me anything. People seem to believe schizophrenia is a death sentence. It is a chronic illness, not necessarily a lethal one. Just like cancer, early treatment makes a world of difference. Then you have to take care of yourself like people with diabetes do. When I am having symptoms Ruth and I say that I have a “brain cold.” It reminds me that I’m sick, not a bad person or weak in character.
As for being queer, my family has been really supportive and that’s huge. I was slow on telling my dad about my sexuality. He always seemed unpredictable to me and I didn’t want to deal. Upon my first hospitalization my then-girlfriend called my dad, told him I attempted suicide and said oh, by the way, she’s a dyke. I guess the gay thing wasn’t a big deal after that. A year later I told him that I had gone to the march on Washington when Clinton was elected. He got upset and asked me why I took so long to tell him. He goes, “I’m a hip kinda guy.” Which I guess he is, in a dad sort of way.
I would say I’m a feminist because I firmly believe that we are all equal. I stay outspoken because there is injustice and every moment of life is a decision. It is a decision to be conscience of what is going on around you. Taking the step to do something about what you see can be a life-saving action. I feel the most powerful impact is when I am face to face with a person and I am honest and comfortable with who I am. On that note, I believe the weakest element in our society is a lack of honesty. I know queer friends in the closet who are miserable. I have people who need help because of their mental health and refuse to admit anything is wrong. And I would say many women deny themselves what they deserve before it is refused. For example, if you believe the only way to get hired is to under-bid your male counterpart, you are going to get paid less.
I demand respect because I know I deserve it. Many people living with disabilities believe they are a burden to society. This is simply not the case. Everyone eventually gets sick, and everyone eventually dies. Every person deserves to experience this with dignity. Every person has the exact same worth as the next and it doesn’t matter what gender you identify as or if you get around using a wheelchair, or are a CEO of an oil company for that matter. Mortality is real. Some of the work of social justice comes from how we have been bombarded with the opposite message our entire lives. If you don’t see that then you are not being honest.
Where do you sell your art? How might our readers support your art?