The Arts and Healing (Part 4 of 6)

Guest Blogger: Samuel Hoskins

This blog series will examine the many roles the arts have in healing. Today we hear from Samuel Hoskins, freelance artist and studio assistant at Akron ArtWorks.

The blog content and images address issues of gender dysphoria, suicidal ideation, self-harm, body horror, depression, transphobia and may be sensitive to certain audiences.

Interruption, by Samuel Hoskins

It’s taken me longer than expected to sit down and write this.

I accepted this guest blogging spot on one of my better days when I felt like the fog of depression was beginning to clear. I then promptly fell back into a deep slump, remembering that depression is not a fog, it’s the Lost Woods. Everything looks the same and navigating your way through to a clearing is a lesson in patience, perseverance, and turning the TV volume up extra loud so you can focus on which direction the music is coming from.

The last few weeks have been exceptionally difficult for me. Obviously, they’ve been difficult for everyone. The holidays during a pandemic can only be difficult. What I mean to say is, on top of everything else, I’m having some pretty stressful medical concerns and I’m also working through the aftermath of a sudden and soul-crushing breakup with my fiance. Lately, I haven’t felt like drawing or painting or writing or even leaving my bed. To be fully frank and transparent, I’ve been playing the same video game all day, every day, for about three weeks. It’s all I can manage to focus on.

Depressed as I may be, the cool thing about time and space as it relates to humans is that the past is real. Feeling like a soggy garbage bag right now does not negate my past experiences and my qualifications to talk about the healing nature of creating. It also doesn’t negate the potential for my experiences to aid and educate others who may be struggling. As van Gogh once said to his brother in a letter lamenting his lack of art sales, “If I am worth anything later, I am worth something now, for wheat is wheat, even if the farmer thinks it grass at first.”

So here’s a bit of my story and how I use art to explore my sense of self and heal.

I am a transgender man, meaning I was assigned female at birth and lived as such until 2016. I was 23, deeply depressed and anxious, filled to capacity with self-loathing, and unable to understand why I hated living in my own skin. After some deep introspection at my desk at work, I realized very suddenly that I was the lead role in an elaborate performance of womanhood. It turns out no part of me was ever female and I didn’t actually hate myself. I hated the version of myself I felt I had to pretend to be. This realization, as you might imagine, was a lot to take in. I wish I’d made more art around that time. It would’ve been interesting to see my feelings in visual form. But I did make one piece, just a couple of months after figuring out I’m trans: a self-portrait.

This piece, done in ink and watercolor, was meant to express my feelings of constantly killing and remaking myself mentally and emotionally, shown visually by the act of suicide while sewing the body back together after an autopsy. I was going through an enormous upheaval of personality and sense of self. Note all classic indicators of biological sex are obscured. The view of the chest is covered by a cattail plant, a remnant of my early childhood. The groin is obscured by a python, a symbol of rebirth and transformation, as well as a flame, a nod to my own intense sense of sexuality. The piece also references my actual suicide attempt from years prior in the form of the cut along the arm. The caption “please disregard” is a simple request among a violent scene: “I’m just sorting myself out, don’t mind me.”

Over the course of the next year and a half, I spent most of my time dealing with divorcing my abusive ex-husband and moving 400 miles away from my Tennessee hometown to Ohio for a different relationship. That relationship fell through and I ended up homeless in a city where I knew nobody and had nothing. Interestingly enough, it was while I was homeless that I was able to sort out who I was. It turns out you have a lot of time to reflect on yourself when you have nothing and live in a motel room.

During this time, I painted one of my favorite pieces.

I vividly remember painting ​Where Am I? ​on the motel room table a few days before I moved into my new apartment. I was desperately trying to “find myself.” Here again, the chest is obscured as I try to read the roadmap under my skin. I am exiting a dark doorway, one that leads to the backward sense of womanhood I was leaving behind. It is framed by poppies, my favorite flowers. Eagle-eyed viewers may recognize the roadmap as being that of northern Ohio. By this point, I knew I could feel at home in Ohio, but I was struggling to find my place here.

Around a year after I moved into my new apartment, I lost my job and was forced to leave again. I was worried I would once again be on the streets. Instead, a friend from my regular Dungeons & Dragons group and his wife took me in, giving me the spare bedroom in their house. They’ve given me space to really work on myself and on my art. Last winter, I spent the frigid months writing and illustrating Born Again: Depression, Homelessness, and Finding My Identity​a 30-page zine about my time spent homeless and how it helped me to better understand who I am. In illustrating the mental and emotional labor of being a homeless trans youth, I was able to put form to the feelings I was experiencing but struggling to express. I was able to articulate the rage and desperation of finally realizing who I am in a world and in a situation that was actively trying to murder me. When you ask me in person about my transition, I am generally upbeat and softspoken. But that manner of expression says nothing of the violence that occurs internally when you realize you’re transgender. Writing ​Born Again ​allowed me to fully impart onto people how painful, difficult, and frankly, traumatizing, becoming myself was. It also allowed me to articulate how ​worth it all of that pain was and continues to be.

Born Again ​was my way of self-empowerment and finding beauty and purpose in an otherwise terrible situation. I have passed off physical copies of it to many folks and I’ve heard through the grapevine that young trans people have used it to explain how they’re feeling to their parents. To me, that is the highest honor I can imagine. It is also validating to know not only am I not alone, but neither are those young trans people. I hope their experience of reading and sharing ​Born Again empowers them even fractionally as much as making it empowered me.

Right now, I don’t feel so great. Just as I was finding my peace, everything was interrupted once again. It feels as though I am a tipped over flower pot, my once comfy roots now upheaved from the earth. Or a zen garden ripped apart by a wind storm. When my fiance and I split up, it took several weeks before I could pick up a paintbrush again. But it’s not the first time I’ve been interrupted, and it certainly won’t be the last. And when it comes down to it, nothing eases the burden of the soul quite like creating an image of it. At least, that’s how it’s always been for me. So when in doubt, make art about it.

Samuel is an Ohio based artist, writer, and fantasy curator. He works both digitally and traditionally, with mastery of programs such as Clip Studio, Photoshop, and Illustrator, and traditional mediums such as watercolor, ink, pencil, marker, etc. He has four years of formal art training, including two years in the art program at East Tennessee State University. Additionally, he’s been a selling artist at multiple anime/comic conventions and has 10 years of experience as a freelance/commission illustrator. Currently, Samuel lives in Akron, Ohio with his two dogs and is writing and illustrating the first volume of an upcoming graphic novel series titled “Give Up The Ghost”. Learn more about his work on his website.