Liz Atkin is a visual artist based in London. Physicality underpins a creative practice with her skin as a primary source for corporeal artwork and imaginative transformation. Compulsive Skin Picking dominated her life for more than 20 years, but through a background in dance and theatre, she confronted the condition to harness creative repair and recovery. She creates intimate artworks, photographs and performances exploring the body-focused repetitive behaviour of skin picking. Liz works directly with her skin as a site for textural transformation, using materials such as clay, latex, paint and pastel.
Liz will be talking about her work as a part of Fragmentary Presents, taking place on 5th June at Kentish Town Health Centre, London. This event is free.
Could you briefly explain what Compulsive Skin Picking (CSP) is and how it affected/affects your life?
Compulsive Skin Picking is a complex physical and mental disorder that often develops in young childhood. It is a recognised and dominant illness falling under the category of Body Focussed Repetitive Behaviour. Many thousands of people all over the world experience the condition. Compulsive Skin Picking provides comfort, pleasure or emotional release from endlessly picking at often healthy skin but this can often lead to bleeding, infection, scarring and physical deformities, as well as significant emotional and mental distress.
Skin picking was, for me and from a young age, a way to release tension in my body, to block out emotions and hit a zoned out sense of calm when I was overwhelmed with anxiety. It became a private vicious cycle that totally dominated my life behind closed doors. At its height my face and body was littered with wounds. It also developed into something I did subconsciously so there were hours and hours of the day where I would be picking my skin. Some nights I would pick until the early hours of the morning. I would even pick in my sleep. Many times I would be poised in the bathroom because this was a private space. No one knew about it. I masked and covered the illness from those closest to me by wearing clothes that concealed the parts of my body covered in scabs and scars, lying that I’d recently had chicken pox, making excuses and even using make-up on my body to try to mask it. I experienced intense physical anxiety followed by guilt and shame about something I was doing that caused harm to my own body yet felt no control or ability to stop. It absolutely dominated my life and my body in private for many years. I hid it from everyone important to me. As a professional woman no one would have noticed. Part of its power was the concealment and camouflaging. Behind closed doors there would be hours of each day where I would be picking until I bled. Mainly when getting ready in the morning or last thing at night. The bathroom was my battleground, picking in the mirror until the early hours of the morning. Even picking in my sleep and waking with blood in my bed sheets. Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously.
Frightening depressive episodes, nightmares and hallucinations were common as the illness dominated me. I suffered in silence for a very long time. The illness was actually undiagnosed until my early 30s but by that point I’d been picking for the best part of 20 years and it was only through internet searches that I realised that it had a name. I had even hidden it from various doctors and psychiatrists over the years, getting medication for acne when I knew I had caused the marks and wounds by my own hands. By my late 20s I got to a point where I didn’t want this illness controlling me anymore. There were perpetual cycles of shame, embarrassment and chronic anxiety and I had no choice really but to try and help myself because it was destroying me. I had to confront the illness head-on when I started a Masters in Dance when I was 29 and it was then that I realised that I could use the illness and study it in terms of a movement pattern in and on my body. I had no idea that thinking in this way was going to turn this disorder around. It was life changing.
It is evident in your work that texture plays an important role. What is it about working with materials and your own body that is so integral to your practice?
As I honed in on the unique physicality of Skin Picking I began to recognise the obsessive ways my gaze had always been drawn to textures. I have always been fascinated by peeling paint, lichen, distressed or ageing surfaces. As I began to turn skin picking into a creative practice I found I was using these influences directly with my skin. I guess I navigate my skin as a soft canvas for imaginative transformation and ultimately healing. I explored the way my body moved. I used body-focused repetitive behaviour as an art practice and miraculously began to get better. My artworks encompass not only CSP but depression and anxiety through the use of textural materials like latex, clay, acrylic paint to transform and re-imagine my skin.
How does your background in theatre and dance come into your work?
I was not formally diagnosed until my early 30s, so lived with the illness for more than 25 years without ever being treated. Making this artwork and confronting the condition through my training in dance and theatre is what got me better. The body has always been a fascination for me. I had studied dance and drama throughout my education and at university elected to study drama. My dream was to study performance and the body but beneath my clothes the compulsive skin picking continued to prevail. Studying movement at university level meant I could no longer avoid the picking. As part of the course were encouraged to study our everyday movement patterns. For the first time I looked at how this illness dominated my physicality every day. Very slowly I began to document what the illness had done to my body. I began to recognise the illness was a unique dance and that I could turn my illness into something else, something creative to move me away from the harm it was doing to me. Through dance I found I was able to express things I didn’t have language for and channelled the specific movements of the illness across my body into something positive. I began making artwork about my skin using film and photography. Subsequently I’ve been fortunate to exhibit my artwork in therapeutic settings and galleries all over the world, including Japan, Los Angeles, Melbourne and London.
Is there an element of catharsis from the work you make? Is there a need to create that has therapeutic return?
Yes, there is absolutely a cathartic and therapeutic effect in making this work. The compulsive capturing process in the studio absolutely mirrors the illness, and yet for creative return, not damage and pain. I have been able to transform the illness into something beautiful instead and in exploiting my own preoccupations with texture I have found new ways to see my body. It keeps me well. It will never leave me but I now have a creative strategy to return to again and again when I am unsettled or anxious.
Do you have a favourite project and why?
Curdled, commissioned by Bethlem Gallery for Anxiety Festival 2014, was made during my darkest and most frightening episode of severe depression and chronic anxiety in 2014. This was a life changing process because I allowed my creativity to explore the darkest emotions and horror I was feeling at the time. It enabled me to pull myself back to health. In the process it also enabled me to change my job and leave a long term role to pursue creative and therapeutic endeavours.
Were you able to draw inspiration or kinship from other artists who make work in response to CSP?
I haven’t met any other artists with Compulsive Skin Picking but I am certainly inspired by others who are transforming personal mental and physical health challenges through creative processes. there is absolutely a kinship to folk also navigating these kinds of issues.
You’re also a creative practitioner. What role do you think art plays within self-expression for those with mental health difficulties? And what tools and tactics do you use when teaching to bring out creativity in others?
I am now using these experiences through my art as a creative practitioner to lead workshops and work with others living with anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses. I am keen to help people find ways to express and release challenging or dominating feelings creatively. I try to work intuitively, patiently and gently with people creating for the first time. I always trust the ‘making’ to find a way through the challenges and failures that inevitably come up. When everything seems hopeless something intuitive and powerful often swings in — this is the process! I have been awed by it time and time again when working with others.
How did you feel about releasing such personal work into the public sphere? Did you have any fears?
I only spoke publicly about skin picking for the first time when I was invited to show the work in Bethlem Gallery, the world’s oldest psychiatric hospital. This revolutionised my approach everywhere. Instead of hiding the truth I now say it as the first thing!! It’s taken 10 years to feel able to do so. I have been making work as an artist for a decade now but I only really ‘came out’ about the skin disorder and mental illness in 2013. It was a very hard decision at the time but it has transformed my life and purpose. I realised as I started to get better as a result of making this work that it was a valid and important piece of information the audience were missing out on. I could have just carried on saying “I make work about skin” but when I started saying “I make work about a compulsive skin picking disorder that I have had all my life” the audience reaction began to change and that became very important to me. Basically the illness used to dominate and occupy my body in private, which was its power, and eventually the artwork became more important than the illness. I found a way to normalise and control the condition. Compulsive skin picking is very misunderstood and hardly talked about and I realised I almost had a duty to tell the truth because every time I did so I was destigmatising it and audiences began to really understand what they were seeing and why. So I guess it is not just a personal story, it becomes something that is human and universal. We all have skins and bodies and stories. People will always find their own interpretations and identifications in artwork, no matter what. So the two are intrinsically linked, the art and the condition, the condition and the art.
What prompted you to speak out as a mental health advocate on CSP?
I now understand anxiety is cited as one of the most common mental illnesses but some chronic anxiety disorders such as Compulsive Skin Picking and Trichotillomania are seldom recognised and treatment in the UK is very hard to access. They are much more common than initially thought and I know from first-hand experience the complexity and distressing impact it can have on life. Most people with CSP suffer in secret and feel totally isolated. I now aim to normalise Compulsive Skin Picking. I do what I can, bravely speaking about my experience in an attempt to destigmatise and help others with this devastating condition who may feel they have nowhere to turn.
What are you working on now?
Compulsive Skin Picking is considered a lifelong condition. I now largely live in ‘recovery’ so there are periods of wellness where CSP doesn’t happen at all, but it’s my body’s default mechanism to handle stress, fear, anger, boredom, so it’s a daily reprieve and a constant shadow. Making artwork is a crucial way to keep me well, so it’s a daily activity to take photographs, draw or paint as part of my art practice. Thus I have been compulsively drawing in charcoal since January and have accumulated more than 50 drawings. These are proving to be very therapeutic! I also am collaborating with other photographers (Daniel Regan and Lenka Rayn H)
It’s also Open Studios coming up where I live, 9th/10th and 16th/17th May from 11-6pm at Havelock Walk in Forest Hill. Come and see my latest charcoal drawings, artworks and photos.