Making art & making progress

Julian is an artist, designer and father based in London. His work is inspired by the sculptural possibilities of computers combined with industrial and craft making processes. A graduate of the Royal College of Art, he has worked with design studios IDEO and Pentagram, and his artworks have been shown around the world including at the V&A London, Tate Britain, Rossana Orlandi Milan, Armel Soyer Paris and 21st gallery New York.


Hi Julian, i’m going to dive straight in at the deep end here: how is your mental health?

These days my mental health is good, I haven’t had any major issues for the past 3 years. I have been diagnosed with ‘Schizoaffective disorder’ which began around 10 years ago during a very stressful period of my life. I was teaching as well as making my own work, and I think the workload, as well as relationship issues, led me to have a kind of breakdown where I became extremely paranoid and had to enter a mental hospital for my personal safety. I met with doctors who were very supportive and encouraged me to take medication which did (and does) help - but which have side effects such as weight gain and tiredness. I tried many different drugs which mostly seemed to work but they all had similar side effects. So, each time I got out of hospital I took the medication, then thought I was better and stopped taking the medication because of the side effects. Then, within a couple of months I got ill again and ended up in hospital. This was a recurring cycle for around 7 years until, during a period of intense paranoia, I destroyed one of my fingers which had to be amputated. When I recovered that time, I realised that I was just going to have to put up with the side effects of the medication, and since then I have only been in hospital once.

You mention your diagnosis of Schizoaffective Disorder. Some people find a clinical diagnosis to be useful, others prefer not to be classified in this way. How do you feel about it?

I think coming to terms with the fact that I was susceptible to mental health issues, and that my mind was quite fragile, took a long time. Nobody wants to believe that there is something ‘wrong’ with them, especially if it’s something that is so intangible as your outlook on reality. So, yes, I think I found the clinical diagnosis useful. It is something which has been (and still is) a major part of my life, so I think giving it a name is okay.

When you suffer with your mental health, how would you describe it?

Each time it’s different, but it’s feelings of intense paranoia, where I believe people are talking to me without speaking and I am reading too much into even simple conversations. Because I don’t trust what anyone is saying, my mind closes in on itself and the paranoia spirals out of control. I become very introverted, do not talk (in case I say the wrong thing), and I have hurt myself quite badly on a few occasions.

Do you talk about it with family and friends?

Yes, my mum and dad have been fantastic throughout my illness and very supportive indeed.  My partner visited me nearly every day that I was in hospital, even if our relationship wasn’t always going well, so I am thankful for that. Also, I have two main galleries, one in Paris and the other in New York, who both know about my mental health issues and are very supportive.

The art world is notoriously competitive - is this your experience of it?

Yes, I do find the art world very competitive, and I quite like this aspect, being challenged by your peers. I left teaching because I found the environment very stressful in terms of management, although I quite enjoyed the classes themselves. I think that a lot of my mental health problems were probably not directly related to my work but rather to the personal relationships situation that I was living in and trying to do too many things at the same time.

What does your day-to-day life look like?

No day is ever the same. I spend more time with my parents in doncaster, because they have a calm environment that lets me focus on work and not on stressful people. I make my work there and live with my partner and young child in London for the rest of the time. I usually spend about two weeks in each location because it takes me a few days to adjust at each end.

What do you do to look after your mental health?

I definitely feel that I am now in recovery from the illness.  Of course every time you get better you believe that it will never happen again, but after having the illness for over 10 years I am now more realistic. Probably I will get ill again at some stage in my life, but in the meantime I can try to avoid too much stress and be smarter when meeting people who are likely to get me stressed.  And, though I hate to say it, keep taking the medication because although I hate the side effects it has proved itself to be effective time and again.

Also, I think that as I get a bit older I am able to manage projects better, and realise that if a certain thing isn’t done in time that it’s not the end of the world. That isn’t to say that I don’t take my work very seriously, but just that I know how quickly and easily I can end up back in hospital where I won’t then be able to do any work at all.

If someone else had a similar situation to when you were most struggling with your mental health, would you have any advice for them?

I’m afraid not - it is something that you have to work out for yourself, every mind is different more than we can imagine.  But I would say try to have a support network around yourself, and realise that it is not your fault. My doctors and support workers (and of course my family and friends) were non judgemental and did not blame my illness on me, looking back I think this helped a lot.  It is easy to feel ashamed of having a mental illness.

I have a great respect for the doctors and care workers (NHS) who never forced me to take any medication, and they let me come to terms with my diagnosis in my own time, which - because I am fairly stubborn - took more than five years.

There is still a stigma around talking about mental health - how does it feel to be talking about it here?

I have had time to give a lot of thought to what it means to have a mental illness, and am comfortable talking about it.  But I don’t want it to define me.

I probably usually wait a while before mentioning that I have had mental health issues to someone I have never met before because I don’t want it to define me, but if it comes up in conversation then I am not ashamed of talking about it and most people are supportive.

What’s coming up next for you in 2018?

Me and my partner are expecting our second child in march, so that’s the biggest and most exciting thing happening this year. Apart from that I have a couple of nice projects coming up, a mass produced chair with the company Luteca, and a large 6 metre long table for a client in the Middle East which will be very challenging to produce.

Thank you so much for sharing about your experience Julian - wishing all the best for the year ahead!