‘A visceral experience of psychosis’: why one artist painted bipolar disorder for three years

Up a steep road to the top of a ridge, all the mundane falls away.

From here, among the surrounding hills of the Northern Rivers region of NSW, the great weight of Wollumbin Mt Warning is revealed – its forested flanks a blue haze, the top of the cliff face glistening in the sun. Wedge-tailed eagles ride the thermals above, and rainforest teeming with wildlife flows in all directions.

It’s to this place, Uki in the Tweed shire, where Matt Ottley retired more than 10 years ago. The musician, artist and children’s author lives surrounded by a raw bird choir. In this house – his refuge – he has found peace from the pain of his past.

Ottley has always had a heightened sensitivity to the pain and beauty of the world. It’s something he shares with the young protagonist in his latest release, The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness. It is a monumental project that includes not only the book, but also an accompanying symphonic score on CD, performed by a Czech orchestra, and a 50-minute animation made of the 74 paintings and illustrations of the book, which is shown in small theaters in the entire country.

Illustration of a baby and two people holding him from Matt Ottley's book
“The tree grew out of one of my own psychotic experiences where I thought something was growing inside me.” Illustration: Matt Ottley

The story follows a boy who, like Ottley, sees things differently. “His gift showed him things so beautiful it made him cry. But it also tormented him with the pain of others making him feel numb,” it reads. The story unfolds around the metaphor of a tree growing inside him: its flower is ecstasy, its fruit is sorrow. It was inspired by Ottley’s bipolar disorder, which he was diagnosed with when he was in his 40s.

“The tree really came out of one of my own psychotic experiences where I thought something was growing inside me,” he says. “It was a plant with a kind of floral character. That’s what I wanted to express.”

In the book, the tree turns into a flying cow, a reptile and then a blue bird, flying over mountains and oceans to a world of “beauty and wonder”. All stages of the journey represent the stages of psychosis – as in an ancient city, when it encounters an egocentric sovereign with the enormous bulbous body of an insect.

A painting from Matt Ottley's 2022 book The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness, the illustration is of elephants walking up a rainforest-lined river
A painting from Ottley’s 2022 book, The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness.

“She’s the kind of infantile self that is at the heart of psychosis,” Ottley says. “When you’re in that state, the other doesn’t exist. The world is so twisted and you’re trying to find your way around it.”

Flying over valleys and hills, the boy travels through the stages of vulnerability and revelation in darkness and storm – until he comes back to the world and himself with “rest” and hope.

As we sit on his patio overlooking the natural vista, freshly baked muffins are put on the table by Ottley’s partner, Tina Wilson. Ottley is a gentle man, delicate and a bit blissful with long white hair. He is one of the country’s most popular author-illustrators and has worked on more than 40 titles, including last year’s Prime Minister’s award-winning children’s book How To Make A Bird, written by Meg McKinlay.

Matt Ottley paints in his studio in Uki, New South Wales
Ottley at his studio in Uki, New South Wales.

But he says the magnitude of his creativity has come at a terrible price. It wasn’t until his mid-40s that Ottley was properly diagnosed and treated for type 1 bipolar disorder. By this time he had gone through numerous terrifying episodes of mania and depression, psychotic episodes that would end in psychiatric wards, and two suicide attempts.

“I’ve had some very high-level creative skills that come from being bipolar — but it’s a huge price to pay for that,” Ottley said. “If you had access to a magic button that would turn off this disease, most people would say no because of the creativity. But I would say yes.

“If I could relive my life without any creativity, if I could turn off this disease and live a quiet life, with a calm mind, I would.”

He hid his illness and lived a life of secrecy and shame. As a teenager “he would just go to the floor or go to my room and drive it out. Until I was 40, I felt so alone with it.”

Ottley spent the first 11 years of his life in Papua New Guinea at a time when the country was becoming increasingly dangerous for Australians. When he was nine, he was sexually abused by a man, a trauma he believes caused a genetic predisposition to bipolar disorder

“As it’s been explained to me, you actually inherit some genes that – when they’re turned on – you start to experience the disease. It could be a trauma that turns those genes on.”

In the following decades, no matter what he tried, his illness would wait to grab and drag him down. He would become unwell, crash and burn and run. He failed school – “I just couldn’t” – and followed his father and brother into the bush to work as a rancher, but said he was “not good at that kind of work”. He studied at the Julian Ashton art school, became unwell, went back into the wilderness. Returning to the bush became “a pattern”. He studied music at Wollongong University, but could not finish it either. “I don’t really have any educational qualifications,” he says.

Image of the Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sorrow by Matt Ottley, 2022
“If I could relive my life without any creativity, if I could knock out this disease and live a quiet life, with a calm mind, I would.”

Ottley also has synesthesia, a neurological disorder. “Sound is starting to get very colorful and I’m seeing a lot of shapes, and I’m starting to get hypersensitive to sound and light.” In a rehearsal with musicians, he can tell if someone is a little out of tune, “because it’s the wrong color”.

The tree of ecstasy and unbearable sorrow arose in two periods of illness. During a severe episode in 2010, Ottley lost the ability to understand speech. But music was “crystal clear,” he says, “so I started writing music.”

“The sound I heard was 97 instruments. I wanted a string family of 50 players, a bass clarinet, a bassoon.” This was to be the prelude to the book’s symphonic soundtrack, with tumultuous crescendos descending into wailing laments; recorded by the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra and the 40-voice Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, it is the sound of psychosis.

An illustration of a tree and flowers against a black background from Matt Ottley's book The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness
Ottley, who has synesthesia, says music “shows him many shapes.”

“When you start creating an orchestral sound in your head and you get unwell and you go into psychosis, you can really hear it like it’s out there. It’s a 68-part fugue that’s meant to represent the din of sound in a person’s head, whether it’s multiple voices or some other form of auditory hallucination taking place, that just becomes unbearable and you just want that it stops.”

A few years later, after another serious episode, he wrote a recovery journal and wrote the poem that would become the lyrics to The Tree of Ecstasy. “It just fell out of the universe.”

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It took two years to compose the music and the 74 works of art took three years to paint. Together it is a towering work for adults and children; a luminous, intense and ultimately beautiful journey through the stages of psychosis, and to the other side. “I wanted to create a metaphorical experience that goes straight to the emotional centers, to give people a visceral experience of what it feels like,” Ottley says.

“I think art is a direct channel to our deeper emotional thinking that bypasses logical, superficial thinking, and can get to the heart of what we feel about something.”

Ottley’s goal is to destigmatize mental illness, alleviate the experience of those who don’t live with bipolar disorder, and advocate for those who do. “Probably the message is that it can’t be about judgment,” he says. “I think anything can be achieved through empathy. I encourage people not to feel humiliated about those aspects of their lives, or the thoughts they have about harming themselves or harming others. To be really open about these things from a very early stage. Because of the deep shame that surrounds these things, people just stay closed until it’s too late.

Illustration of a Boy Sitting on the Edge of a Huge Waterfall of the Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness by Matt Ottley
“I wanted to create a metaphorical experience that goes straight to the emotional centers, to give people a visceral experience.”

“You can get a diagnosis, you can get treatment. Go out into the world and find the people you need to talk to, and ask forgiveness for your behavior, and forgive yourself too. The condition will not go away, but life goes on and you can find peace.”

Creativity has always been Ottley’s salvation – “I could always fall back on that” – but it is the love of his partner and friends that has brought him to relative peace.

Likewise, his book ends with his protagonist hearing the distant voices of those who loved him and calling him back.

“I’m here” he cried. And so he came back into the world. And still the Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sorrow was within him. And yet flowers grew. And yet it paid off.

  • The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness is available now through Dirt Lane Press. The animation will be screened on June 23 at the University of Sydney, August 18 and 21 at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and September 21 and 22 at the State Library in Perth

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