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Collage artist Juan Sebastian on mental health and growing up in Colombia

Audio: Read by Emily Simmons.

Juan is a collage artist from Colombia. We began our zoom call, and – like most conversations these days – we started to talk about the pandemic. What it’s been like on another part of the planet. Juan tells me that Colombia has opened up again – not because the death rate has gone down, not because it’s safe, but just because. I mention that big fear – that we have to rely on others doing the right thing, with the knowledge that they most definitely will not do the right thing. As a student of Sociology, social politics plays a big part in Juan’s art. At this point in the conversation I’d seen his collages without context: swathes of muted colours, blocks of compelling imagery, and scenes of domesticity turned surreal and distant. I wanted to know more and also learn about what got Juan into collage as an art form.

JOSEPHINE: Let’s get started. In the email exchange that we had, you mentioned that you have social anxiety and that you’ve been using skateboarding and collaging as therapeutic activities. I was wondering if you could go into why you chose those two things in particular.

JUAN: Alright. Well first of all I was diagnosed with social anxiety at around 17 years old. I got an appointment with the psychologist here, and after a few sessions, that’s what they tell me. I don’t know the situation over there [in the UK], but here in Colombia doctors just treat these kinds of illnesses with very heavy pills, and with things that just make you sleepy and dizzy. In my case, I didn’t want to do that. I tried one of those pills and I didn’t feel good that day, it was one of the worst days I can remember that I’ve had.

This reminded me of one of Juan’s collages, a magazine-perfect kitchen blender full of medication. It got me curious about what Juan had specifically been prescribed.

Collage of a blender full of pills.
Cóctel de Viernes por la Noche
[Image description: Collage of a blender with pills inside. The blender is on a kitchen counter with a mixer behind it and fruit to the side of it. It is surrounded by a thin red border, with a yellow rectangle going diagonally across the top right corner. This is in the centre of a light blue background.]

Well, here we don’t have Xanax or Valium, the things you hear in the movies. I got medicated with Buspirone. It was a big pill – (he demonstrated with his hands – it was an intimidatingly large pill) – I tried it just once and knew I was not gonna do that anymore. I told my mom and everything, and she said, well, don’t do it, you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. We started reaching out for other options. I tried a lot of things, and collage and skateboarding were the two that I stayed with. I also used to read a lot of books, and I still do, but sometimes I get so many thoughts in my head that I decided I needed things to get me physically exhausted. Skateboarding is a great example of that. It has been really helpful. In skateboarding, I’ve found a great community full of creative and kind people. Some of them are struggling with mental conditions too or socioeconomic difficulties. My best friends, who are skateboarders, are my biggest fans. And since just over a year ago, I’ve been doing collages because it’s a great way of expressing myself when I’m also trying to calm my thoughts. And I just love it. I’m thankful that I found this technique to express myself.

A part of me could relate. I had recently begun cutting down on antidepressant medication, with the knowledge that I needed to replace them with exercise, mindfulness, and much, much better sleep. Art, especially a form of it that is so tactile and physical, struck me as an outlet that can be underrated.

THE ART OF COLLAGE

I want to ask you about your artistic method. Who are you inspired by?

Specifically for collage artists – I have one from Australia, who lives here in my city. She is called Emma Anna and she is a great artist. She made the poster for Kolaj Magazine the previous year. She’s a great artist and I know her personally. She is a great reference for me, sometimes I open Instagram and check her page, see what I can feel, what grows in me after I see her pictures. There’s another artist here, a local artist called Alejandro Obregón. He’s the best artist that Colombia has ever had. He passed away some time ago. He has this style where he’s a universal painter, but he was always focusing on the place where he came from. I think that’s something I want to do. I don’t wanna be famous, that’s not my goal. I want people to see my collage and say, this guy was trying to present this and that, and this is what I feel.

I had many more questions that all came out in one flurry: does he have a particular method when it comes to collaging? Where does he source his material? Does he plan them out beforehand, with an idea of the finished product, or is it more intuitive?

It depends on the piece that I will make. Sometimes I’ve got all these ideas – because I’ve studied Sociology, I always have certain particular themes that I like to express in the collages. But sometimes it’s just like you said, it’s a free process where I sit, get some newspapers and magazines, and just start doing it.  To answer the other question, I use newspapers, magazines, and have also used things like leaves from the trees, fabric, a lot of things. It’s up to the piece and my mood of course.

You mentioned using leaves, but there’s a neatness to your collages, with very clean lines. How do you incorporate things like leaves into the pieces as a physical object?

What I do with the leaves is cut them in particular shapes. They come through as 2D because of this. I think I sent one of those pieces. A big head, that has some real leaves.

Collage of a head with puzzle pieces.
Inspiración en el aire
[Image description: Collage on a light green background. In the centre is a dark grey cutout of a head, on to is 4 different coloured puzzle pieces fitting together. Scattered across the image are clouds, leaves, and squiggly lines. In the bottom left is a record, and in the bottom right is the end of a pencil.]

I’ve noticed there’s a lot of scientific imagery in a domestic setting in your work. The blender full of pills, this x-ray of a woman where you can see her spine, also one more where it’s a mother and child holding hands in a field, and they’re taken over by a periodic table. I was interested in where you sourced these images, but also what draws you to them.

I get those from my primary school books. I reimagine them, give a new purpose to these books stacked in the corner. They were gonna end up in the trash. That’s what I like about collage, you can reinvent things, anything can be reinvented. I consider myself an eco-friendly guy, and I think that collage is one of the best techniques to respect and express that. 

Are you quite sentimental then, because you just can’t bring yourself to get rid of old textbooks?

Yeah! I’ve always been like that. I think these are the things that make us who we are. I see these things and think, ok I’m gonna do a piece with that. I’m sorry but I will reinvent you for a work of art.

Collage of two people in a field holding hands.
Química
[Image description: Collage of two people in a field. They are holding hands, and their bodies are replaced with the periodic table.]
Collage of a woman cut up with an x-ray of a spine.
Busca Por Dentro 1
[Image description: Collage on an orange background. Photos of a woman dressed up and smiling are cut up and mixed with an x-ray image of a body’s spine.]

How precise are you with the cutting? Do you use very specific cutting tools? 

At the beginning I just used scissors. I think I’m a master with scissors right now, I can do any type of shape! But right now, the elements can be so little and tiny that you have to use these cutters. I have a few tools – I have around three scissors, different sizes, and six cutters. Because for instance, newspapers are a very fragile material, so if you go with a not very sharp cutter you can just damage the whole thing. So I have a lot of tools to do it. 

So you want it to be very precise, that’s an important part of it?

I like to say this every time someone [asks me about my work]: I’m very proud of having a mental illness because I think I have a different perspective on things. There are certain characteristics of myself that are there because of it. For example, I think I am very much a perfectionist. I always take care of every little detail, every little colour. And I think that has affected my work in a positive way. 

Do you feel that it’s an outlet for traits that could be used quite negatively, but when you put it into art it makes it a positive thing?

Yeah. I think that’s what we have to do. If we keep repeating this idea that mental illness is something you have to hide and be ashamed of, you’re not going to get better by thinking that. You have to switch the situation. That’s what I’ve been doing and I think so far I’m doing good. I’m doing good, yes.

MENTAL ILLNESS AND POLITICS

Referring to that particular one with the leaves, that was one of those moments where I decided to myself, I’m going to do a collage today. But instead it went on for like, two weeks, ‘cause I was going through difficult times because of the pandemic. One of my relatives got COVID, and I was very stressed with that, because they’re very close to me. 

But as the time passed, I just realised that the way I think is gonna affect the way I behave, and the way I behave and treat others is gonna affect them too. If I call that person with COVID and I’m just very worried about them, saying ‘how are you? Are you good? Do you have a fever? Are you ok?’ I just think that’s not the conversation we should have. We should be like, ‘I love you’. Because you don’t know if tomorrow that person is going to be there. This virus is so lethal. 

After that, I just started again another day and I was like, when I put my head together, everything fits, you know? And that’s what I tried to reflect in that one piece. It’s a big head with some puzzle pieces, and I added two more little puzzle pieces with landscapes because you have to open your perspective to things. You don’t have to think that you are the only person who can feel something. That person in the hospital, I cannot imagine what she was feeling at that moment. She’s ok now, thank God, but it’s hard to think what she was going through in those times. She was all by herself. So that’s what I try to do in my work, open perspective. 

I also include my Sociology degree too. I try to do social manifestations. For example, I don’t know if you know, but Colombia is one of the most corrupt countries in the whole world. We have very bad politicians, we’ve always had them, people are just used to that. When we vote in the elections, it feels like people forget the experiences that we’ve had, and they keep voting for the same kinds of people. I just made a piece where there’s this big hand grabbing a washing machine, and the washing machine has a little window where you can see the clothes going around with different kinds of currencies, British pounds, dollars. I don’t know how to say it in English… money laundering.

Collage of a washing machine full of money.
Lavado Activo
[Image description: Collage on lime green background. A disembodied hand holds a washing machine full of money. On top of the washing machine are piles of gold coins.]

Earlier we talked about the way your mental health was treated simply with medication and nothing else. I wondered whether this is part of a political context in your pieces?

Yes – we are a very conservative country like I’ve been saying. These kinds of illnesses are always approached as – ‘OK, you’re crazy, and you have to be excluded from society because we cannot rely on you to make good decisions, or relate correctly with people.’ And these pills, they just get you sedated and dizzy. You’re just in auto-pilot. People with mental illnesses, we are thinking, we overthink, and that’s not bad. With particular situations such as corruption, if we start to think ‘OK, this is not good, this is not how we should be,’ and we start sharing that with others, that is a problem. That’s why I think they haven’t changed things. It’s very sad. 

The poverty here is high, so it’s cheaper for them to throw out pills to sick people. Take this, take that. Getting good treatment is expensive, that’s not a mystery to anybody. But the objective has to be to help people, not to make money. That’s also why I think things are not improving here.

ILLNESS IN ART

I notice that there’s a recurring theme of obscured faces in your collages. Ones that are either split into columns or obscured by blooming flowers and geometric shapes. What does this have to do with the human mind?

Collage of a teacher in a classroom, with their heads replaced with geometric shapes.
Figuras
[Image description: Collage on light pink and dark pink grid background. A teacher is in front of a blackboard teaching a class of students, and their heads are replaced with geometric shapes.]

I like to portray faces because I think, as Erving Goffman said – a Canadian sociologist – we are in a theatre society. We don’t present ourselves with our true faces, but the faces that others expect us to have. Especially from people with mental illnesses, because you cannot show how you really are. I think this is what I’m representing with those collages. They expect us to be one way, like they want us to be, and that’s why I do this layering thing, because in every one of those layers are different things. We decide with whom we share it, but at the end that’s what we are. That’s what defines us.

Collage of a bar with multicoloured circles on top.
D.E.T.A.LL.E.S.
[Image description: Collage on an image of a busy bar. Multicoloured square pieces of paper have circles cut out of them and sit on different areas of the image. In the bottom left is the word ‘Detalles’ in corresponding colours.]

I also wanted to ask you about one particular piece you sent. I think it was called Detailles? It’s this photo of a pub or bar, and there are these primary-coloured shapes.

I was trying to make people understand how people with anxiety think. It’s based on personal experience. When I go into a bar the first thing I do is just scan the area thinking, am I gonna feel comfortable, am I gonna feel weird? I wanted to portray that in a piece. Every colour represents a different word. The name is ‘details’ in English. 

The D in the navy blue is Dureza, for toughness, hardness. When someone has this really closed face, don’t approach me, just stay over there, respect my own space. 

The other one is yellow, for Envidia, envy. That guy is looking over the other table, like ‘they are having a greater time than me. I wanna be there.’ They’re always focusing on other people. But really, you should enjoy the people you’re with. Enjoy the situation. Don’t start thinking what it could be if you could be there. You’re not, that’s not gonna change things. 

T is for Tranquilidad, tranquillity, which is the guy just laughing over there, enjoying the time, living the moment. 

The A is Ansiedad, anxiety. It’s focusing on cigarettes, because well, cigarettes represent that, in my opinion. I used to smoke a lot. I used to work in call centres, like three years of that, and the first time I started smoking a lot of cigarettes. It’s a very stressful job. 

The red one is Llama, which is like flame, some kind of sexy thing between a couple, what it’s focusing on is on the couple holding hands. 

The other is the green one, which is Exceso, excess, which has a cigarette but also has a lot of wine bottles. Those of us with anxiety can see ourselves falling into that a lot. 

In my particular case when I got prescribed [medication], I had this big expectation that I was gonna get better. But when I took the pills I knew it wasn’t right for me. When it comes to other substances like drugs and alcohol, I don’t think everybody can get outside of that box, and just say, this is not great. What they do is take more and more, because they may feel a little bit better, for a little amount of time, and they just get addicted to those kinds of substances. That’s what I was trying to portray with that word.

The last one is the letter S. Singularidad, singularity, because the picture is well taken, everybody is perfect, but this guy, it’s like he was running as they took the picture. He’s like the strange person in that room. I think that is our point of view, that’s how we feel we are. In reality, everyone is doing their thing, you know. Everyone is minding their business, except for the guy in the yellow circle. That’s something I’ve learned. I don’t know if it’s a positive or negative thing, but – we’re important, but we’re not that relevant to other people. Sometimes we think, oh they’re watching me, they’re gonna make fun of me, but it’s not like that. Sometimes that is just the illness in itself. It’s doing its thing in your brain but it’s not reality. 

I liked this piece very much. I think the orange S, especially, is a wonderful way of representing the self-centredness of anxiety, exposing the absurdity of imagining yourself as the focus in everyone else’s life. You have to be able to step outside of yourself and look around – not compare, but reassess.

Lastly, I asked Juan if he had anything left he’d like to say. 

People realise I am making this art to express and make visible things like anxiety, and other things hiding in society. Things people don’t talk about but we have to, especially in a country like this. A lot of people suffer from anxiety, but they just don’t dare say that they are feeling a particular way, because they’ll be singled out. I have suffered the consequences of not being able to speak. 

We as young people have to make changes. The ones in power are not gonna give things to us. We have to raise our voices and make them see us. Make them look at us. They aren’t just going to give it to us on a silver plate – here! Here’s our society, do what you want! Especially nowadays with women and the LGBTQI+ community, they are silenced here in Colombia. So we got to start somewhere. I’m trying to start that conversation. Someone has to, and I’m happy and open to be that person.


Follow Juan on Instagram: @casstuff_

About Author

Josephine Dowswell (she/her) is a writer from Wolverhampton. She has a background in English Literature and hopes to one day be lowered from a high ceiling inside a giant pearly shell. You can find her poetry on Instagram @ceilingdreams_ and her zine @hope.xzine.

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