A’Driane Nieves is a USAF veteran, writer, artist, speaker, and postpartum depression and anxiety survivor living with bipolar disorder. A’Driane’s writing – which focuses on the intersections of life, motherhood, art, music, faith, race, and mental health – has be en featured on BlogHer, UpWorthy, EverdayFeminism, Postpartum Progress, and the 2015 Austin Listen To Your Mother ensemble. In 2014, she was a BlogHer Voice of the Year. In 2015, she was nominated for an Iris Award for Most Thought Provoking Content. An activist with a heart for serving, social good, and mental health advocacy, she believes art and words can foster dialogue and serve as a catalyst for personal growth and responsibility.
Tell us about your story as a “butterfly,” what was your metamorphosis like?
My parents divorced when I was about 4 years old, and I lived with my father early on. He was pretty violent and abusive – emotionally, verbally, and physically. At home, I wasn’t allowed to speak unless spoken to or really allowed to even think for myself. My father decided everything for me – when I could eat, speak, sleep, what clothes I wore, how I did my hair…everything. I had zero autonomy or agency over my person. At school I was a bit more free and able to discover parts of who I was and what I liked, but I wasn’t able to carry any of that over into my home life once the bell dismissed us for the day.
So much of my journey has been about trying to extricate myself from the impact that trauma had on me in my childhood and teen years. When I left my father’s house to go live with my mother and stepfather at age 17, I was literally starting my life over. I had no sense of self or identity, my self-esteem was rooted in his total lack of care for me, and I had no voice. I couldn’t even trust myself to make a decision about anything and I was constantly terrified of making the wrong choice. It has taken me the last 16 years to learn to find my voice and trust it, as well as discover who I am as a person, let alone a creative and an artist. Many of those years were a fight, and very dark, but I’m grateful to say I finally feel like I’m coming out of it a whole, healed, embodied woman. I finally feel like I’ve emerged out of the cocoon and have the strength to flex my wings and fly.
How does your experience with mental illness impact your artwork? Do the colours that you use help you to express these more difficult themes?
Painting has become as crucial to maintaining my mental health as a sort of medication and therapy as well as a form of physical movement. I laugh when I think about that, because in school, my creativity was always expressed through writing and performance based arts like dance and theater. I never saw myself as a visual artist. The closest I came to creating visual art was composing collages of pictures in my journals full of poetry and prose.
I didn’t attempt to paint until early 2012. I had been diagnosed in July 2011 with rapid cycling bipolar disorder type 2, OCD, and anxiety after suffering from postpartum depression following the birth of my second child. On a recommendation from my therapist, I was in the crafting aisle at Walmart, looking for something I could “make” with my hands. I was looking for crochet hooks and yarn when I saw some canvas boards, brushes, and small tubes of paint. I gave up trying to crochet about a week later and sat in front of the canvas boards, brush in hand, just putting random colors down on it. My mind was reeling that day from anxiety and I remember my thoughts were loud, scattered, and stuck in a ruminating loop. I needed a distraction, something to help me cope with the intensity of the hypomania I was experiencing. After about 10 minutes of painting I noticed my mind had grown quieter and I felt peaceful.
So that’s what painting is for me – it’s a peace giving form of self-care that helps me cope with the shifts in mood and other symptoms that I experience. It helps me process what I’m experiencing in a safe, constructive way without placing a demand on me, which I feel writing sometimes does. With paint, I can just let go and trust that it has me, and that whatever it is that needs to come out is going to show up on whatever surface I’m working with. It drives my creative process, but in a way that’s empowering versus one that’s destructive.
It is evident that a theme of “survival” runs through your work. How does it play out in other aspects of your life?
You know, I’m only 33, but I’ve survived a lot of things – abuse and sexual assault as a child, a deployment in the military, homelessness, being a single mother, postpartum depression…I’m a Black woman navigating systemic racism and microaggressions in a country where Black life continues to be devalued and snuffed out by state sanctioned violence and cultural apathy. I’m a mother of three children with varying special needs. Fighting for survival and for a sense of autonomy is all I know how to do. It’s a daily, conscious decision I have to make, sometimes several times a day. Since turning 30, something I’ve really tried to do is to be just as intentional about thriving and living my life as I am about survivng. It feels like a fairly daunting task most days, but again, this is where painting and living a creatively driven life helps. I’m trying to show that in my work, these themes of surviving and thriving simultaneously in the face of whatever circumstances are present. When people see and experience my work, I want them to know that it’s possible – that they’re capable of doing it too.
When we talk about the future, what sort of images or ideas come to mind? How do you think the role of the female artist will change in the next 50 years?
I first wonder what advances in technology will empower us to disrupt systems (media, healthcare, education) that are either outdated or don’t put us (everyday people, patients, consumers, students, etc.) in the driver’s seat. I think about how technology will continue to increase our access to information and enable us to create, publish, and share our own work without needing a traditional method or process to do so. I think of self-empowerment and self-determination. Women and other marginalized people have always been the ones to speak to our marginalized experiences, especially women of color, but I’m currently seeing more female artists speaking and standing up. They’re putting their work out there on their own terms and creating their own spaces to showcase it.
We will be in the driver’s seat and we will have access to platforms to share it far and wide. Our role will be the same as it’s always been, telling our stories, teaching, creating, etc., but the filters and gatekeepers that have silenced us will be gone. I’m a huge fan of Afrofuturism and the work of writers and artists like Sun Ra, Octavia Butler, Ellen Gallagher and Basquiat, Janelle Monae and King Britt, so I also think a lot about the hope I have for Black liberation as I ponder the future. Over the next 50 years, I hope that women artists are finally seen as the leaders and innovators we are, and that our perspectives become more of the default instead of an afterthought.
I also see people being able to share their lived experiences through art and storytelling via mediums like virtual reality, which I think can help us connect to other people and immerse ourselves into their lives or perspectives in a much more personal, sensory, and dynamic way. I’m hoping that virtual reality can expand our interactions with visual and performance art – what would it be like to be inside an artist’s or musician’s mind as they compose a song or begin a painting? I want to find out! I think technology will enable people who wouldn’t necessarily see themselves as “artists” tap into that part of themselves and be expressive through visual art.