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Australia’s nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Award 2024, Matt Ottley, talks to us about his new work The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness, which explores experiences of bipolar and psychosis through art, word and music. 

Matt Ottley is an internationally acclaimed and multiple award-winning neurodiverse artist, author and composer from Australia, with more than forty picture books to his name.

You can find out more about The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness by following these links
Matt Ottley’s website
Publisher: One Tentacle’s website

Follow @livelymindspod on X, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and more at https://www.bio.link/livelyminds

Please note that this show does not constitute medical advice and is not a replacement for seeking professional help. You can find our more about the show and get signposting to support on our website anyamedia.net/livelyminds

Transcript

W: Hello everyone, it’s Will here. Just to give you a heads up that in today’s episode, there will be a brief reference to a suicide attempt, but we don’t go into any detail. Take care whilst listening and for signposting to support, please visit our website, anyamedia.net/livelyMinds.

 

E: Hello my name is Ellie.

 

W: And my name is Will.

 

E: You are listening to Lively Minds, the podcast about mental health challenges that go beyond the ebb and flow of the everyday.

 

W: The podcast that looks at how developing and understanding of our mental health challenges influences how we address them.

 

E: In this episode we are talking to Matt Ottley about, well many things, but including about his new work, The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness, which is a multimodal work that explores experiences of bipolar and psychosis through art, words and music.

 

W: Matt Ottley is an internationally acclaimed and multiple award-winning, neurodiverse artist, author and composer from Australia with more than 40 picture books to his name.

 

[music]

 

W: Welcome Matt, and I believe that congratulations are in order as you are officially Australia’s
nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Award 2024.

 

M: Thank you Will and hello Ellie, thank you.

 

E: Hello

 

M: Yeah, yeah, we’ve just been in Bologna for the announcement of the winner, which of course I wasn’t. I was on just one of the nominations, Australia’s nomination. But yeah, it was a huge honour. Thank you.

 

W: So Bipolar forms the background to this work that we’re going to be discussing with you. Can you begin by explaining from your own perspective what Bipolar is?

 

M: It’s called a mood disorder and there are loosely two major types of bipolar, often referred to as type 1 and 2. There are other variants as well. But in type 2 bipolar, a person may have periods of elevated mood, you know, getting very excited about life, you know, thoughts speed up, their speech patterns may speed up, they may have a sense of grandiosity, you know, able to do things which, which may be slightly outside of their capabilities.

 

W: And is that sometimes referred to as positive symptoms, is that right?

 

M: Yes, yeah, absolutely. And then there are the negative symptoms which is often a long period of very deep depression. Then there’s type 1 bipolar which features most often longer periods of mania. So I’ve had manic episodes that will last up to a month.

 

E: Gosh

 

M: You know, you can feel it coming on, it’s sort of hypomania and then it spills over into full blown mania in which you can become delusional as well. That can spill into psychosis where you start hearing voices and seeing things that, that aren’t there. I also experience psychosis in very deep depression as well.

 

E: Yeah, I’ve been really looking forward to speaking to you. You kindly sent me a copy of your latest work, “The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness,” and I just absolutely adored it. I found it really moving, really beautiful, really scary at point, it was just an amazing experience, really resonated with me as someone else who has also experienced sort of bipolarity and psychosis. So first I just wanted to say thank you so much for that.

 

M: Well, thank you very much, Ellie.

 

E: Matt, you’re not only a visual artist, but you’re a music composer and a writer. And the work as a whole is a combination of all three. So I thought to start with for any listeners who are wondering what on earth I’m talking about, [laughter] if you could just talk through the format a little bit.

 

M: It’s, as you said, it’s a multi-modal work, which is the common term that’s often used for works that go across artistic genres. I, however, like to call my work intermodal because each of the artistic modes is really dependent on the others working with it to tell the full story. This is a work that’s literature, visual art and music. So just to give you an example, there’s a section in which I wanted to describe the cacophony, the absolute confusion that can occur during a full manic episode. And particularly if you are psychotic and you’re hearing things in your head, there’s a metaphor throughout the book of a tree that is growing inside the main character, a boy who, beginning the story is a child and he becomes a young man by the end of the story. He has a tree that’s growing inside of him whose flower is ecstasy, but his fruit is unbearable sadness. And at one point the, the words tell us that the medicine he’s been taking is no longer working and he, he just cannot contain this tree and it grows out of him. You can see its branches coming out of his eyes and his nose and, you know, that kind of imagery is quite horrible.

 

E: mmmm

 

M: But I wanted visually to describe this sense of being taken over by this illness, this condition that he’s surrendering to it. He just can’t fight anymore. The tree completely encases him and his mind, however, is now free. So this is the sort of a start of psychosis. So the images will er, show us the distress. You can see the distress in the, in the character’s body and face. The words describe how he just cannot keep up the fight. The music, however, describes the noise, the cacophony inside of his head.

 

E: Yeah

 

M: At that part of the music, I’ve written what’s called a fugue. If you remember the rounds you sang as a child, you know,

 

E: Yeah

 

M: row, row, row, you go gently down the stream and people come in at different points.

 

E: Yeah

 

M: That’s basic fugal form, a melody that, that overlaps, that comes in at different points, the same melody. In a fugue proper, the melody itself develops and all iterations of it develop. It gets very complicated once you’re getting up to six or seven parts. The largest fugue in Western music history is seven parts, that’s in J.S. Sparks, B minor, Mass. But I decided in this section of the music to write 68 parts.

 

[music fading in]

 

E: Wow.

 

M: Because that is just going to sound like cacophony.

 

[cacophony of music playing]

 

M: So that’s how the music is working with the images and the words all together to create the full experience, if that makes sense.

 

E: And there is a film, isn’t there, which is a more obvious way of thinking about how people might experience words, music and visuals at the same time. But the intention is that people will listen to the music whilst reading the book and it’s printed form as well, isn’t it?

 

M: Well, yeah, I’m not prescriptive about that. In the back of the book, there’s a line that says if you’ve just read the book, perhaps now sit back and reread it and listen to the music.

 

E: Yeah, that’s how I did it.

 

M: Yeah. And I assume that’s how most people do it. Some people will just listen to the music.
Some, some people may not even listen to the music at all. And hopefully they’ll get the full message, what the book’s about just through the book. I’ve tried to make each part of the work work on its own as standalone, but you get the full experience by experiencing all three. And we’ve discovered that the film is the way to do that because obviously the music is paced at, at, at the rate at which I conceived it to go with the images. Making the film, I was sort of fully in control as to how people would experience this work. And we’ve discovered that the film is where people are really getting exactly what it’s about.

 

W: Amongst other things, Matt, you experience synesthesia. Can you tell us a bit more about what that is and how it relates to your work?

 

M: There are lots of different forms of synesthesia. So to put it really simply, it’s a cross-wiring of senses. So some people for example might read a newspaper and all of the letter S appears yellow even though it’s printed in black and white. Not all people experience synesthesia the same way. So not everyone who has that form of synesthesia will experience the letter S is yellow. That was just you know the top of my head. I have a form where sound particularly pitched sound elicits shape and color in my visual cortex

 

E: Wow. So shape as well.

 

M: Shape as well, yeah. And it can be a bit disconcerting if I hear very loud noises in the environment. I will sometimes flinch because I see this thing coming out of the left side of my vision, a shape and I just automatically flinch. But it works most strongly with pitched sound, so, so music, and for me it is also an early warning sign that a manic episode is approaching because suddenly the world starts to become a lot more colourful, sound starts to become really strongly colourful. When I’ve been at my most unwell, and this has happened three or four times, I lose the ability to understand spoken language. So what comes out of people’s mouths is just gibberish, but I see the most beautiful colours and patterns swirling around their heads.

 

E: You’ve just put it very beautifully about the bits that I think people don’t always see or think about bipolar, which is the fruit of ecstasy and how very beautiful that particular moment can be, these beautiful colours, apart from and alongside all of the other things that are not so great that happen as well. But I do remember that that was one thing that particularly when I was listening to the music and reading it, I felt that you’d really captured that kind of ethereal heavenly feeling that can happen.

 

M: Yeah, that sense of ecstasy that, well you know exactly what that feels like Ellie. Unfortunately, most of my episodes have been mixed episodes. I’ve had a few episodes where I’ve been distinctly manic and totally in love with the world and done some absolutely, err, outrageous things as one tends to do. You know, I’ve sort of been typical bipolar in that sense and that I’ve had to have someone take my credit card from me and,

 

E: Right yeah

 

M: and all of that sort of stuff. But, but I will often experience mixed episodes. So my mind is racing and I will experience something that just makes me weep. It’s so exquisite. But then within minutes be in absolute despair as well.

 

E: Yeah.

 

M: So, but

 

E: it’s like rapid cycling, isn’t it? When it’s that kind of, when the turns are quite quick.

 

M: Absolutely. I, the last time I was hospitalised was because of rapid cycling. So about three or four o’clock in the afternoon, I’d be absolutely fine. That was when a sense of peace would settle on me and I’d go out and do whatever shopping I had to do, whatever. By about 6.30 PM, I could feel myself starting to arc up by about two o’clock in the morning. I was as high as a kite and all of this is just my own brain chemistry. I’ve never done drugs, you know, I’ve never,

 

E: Yeah yeah yeah

 

M: I’ve avoided that whole scene because I know how dangerous that is for bipolar people. So yeah, I’d be just as high as a kite and really speedy by about two, three, four in the morning. By about six, I’d feel myself starting to come down. I would then sleep maybe for an hour or so wake up in an absolute sort of pit of despair and depression and be sort of just lie in bed feeling absolutely dreadful until I’d start up feeling lifting about 2-3.30 in the in the afternoon and by again 4 o’clock I’m actually in that in between and that was going on for weeks until I, I just had to be admitted to hospital.

 

E: Yeah.

 

M: So that that’s called ultra rapid cycling.

 

E: Yeah, i’ve not experienced that level of intensity, I couldn’t imagine it’s exhausting amongst other things.

 

M: Yes. Yeah. Well, as you know, it’s exhausting anyway. There’s those moments during extended periods of mania where your body is just screaming out for rest, but you can’t because your mind is going at a thousand kilometres an hour.

 

E: When I’d read it, I think one of the things that I found so moving was that I felt the story had been crafted and told with such a level of care. Could you tell us a bit more about the story in the book and how the story and the tree relate to these experiences?

 

M: I wanted to craft a work that is aesthetically beautiful. I didn’t want to delve fully into the horror and the fear and the trauma that can come with bipolar. I wanted to create an Alice in Wonderland like magical journey that does delve into the darkness, but in a way that is aesthetically beautiful. And I wanted people to feel it really at a visceral level, which is why some of those images of the sovereign, for example.

 

E: I was just thinking about the sovereign.

 

M: I was going to do her as a giant baby because she represents that persona that is at the center of psychosis where you’re so utterly self focused it’s almost infantile and it’s a survival mechanism. Nothing else exists but you in this experience you’re having. But I also wanted to hang the whole story around a traditional fable form, which is why I chose the sovereign as she’s almost like a chrome-like figure.

 

[music with voice over]

 

Voice over: The tree’s flowers glowed like lanterns, and a melody, ethereal and mysterious, shimmered up its trunk to resound from the flowers in a thousand voices.

 

[music choral singing]

 

[Music fades]

 

M: She’s wicked but she is ultimately the path to healing as well.

 

E: Yeah.

 

M: Because he goes right to the heart of this place, this fantastical place to her and she is at the centre of psychosis.

 

[Music loud and then fades]

 

M: Her skin is transparent and she has this giant bloated body where you can see all her internal organs.

 

E: Yeah.

 

M: I did that in a way that hopefully isn’t gratuitous and gruesome.

 

E: No, it’s the right amount of gruesome because for context it’s kind of juxtaposed by this beautiful palace, fairy tale palace that she’s in.

 

M: Yeah and that it’s quite simply literally I wanted people to really feel this work at a visceral level, hence the, the references to viscera.

 

E: Yeah. And were any of these particular images, or any in the book not just the monarch, but with any of the visual imagery drawn from things you had experienced during any of your periods where you’ve been on well or through synesthesia?

 

M: Yeah, the tree itself. I had a particularly severe episode where I ended up basically trying to
take my own life. I was so terribly unwell. I, I thought that I had been invaded by some kind of alien being that was growing inside me like mycelium, you know mushroom mycelium.

 

E: Right. Yeah.

 

M: So it was plant-like and it was growing inside of me. I could see it moving under my skin. And eventually I just felt it had got so far into my brain that I couldn’t exist anymore. And it took me about six months to recover from that episode. And during that time I kept a journal, a diary, and I wrote a poem called The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness, that was the very first line that came to me, and it was about that experience.

 

E: Wow.

 

M: And it was years later I was talking about my experiences to a friend who was an editor who I’d worked with on many of my other picture books, and she said, “Could she please see some of the poetry I’d written in that recovery journal?” So I showed her that one and she said, you know, this would make a wonderful picture book for adults. And that was the birth of the whole project.

 

E: So we have her to thank as well as you.

 

M: Yes.

 

W: Can you speak a little bit more about the synesthesia and the interaction that it has with your experiences of being bipolar?

 

M: In normal everyday life, it’s not mild ,mild, but it’s not particularly strong. I get so used to it, it just becomes a background experience. I know if I’m starting to become unwell because people’s voices start becoming really colorful around me and I start seeing things, shapes. I just notice, like even the wind when it’s blowing through grass and you can hear that rustle, I will start to see colours bouncing off the grass.

 

E: Wow.

 

M: So I know it’s an early warning sign and that I have to start taking measures.

 

E: Yeah.

 

M: Which I do. I haven’t been seriously unwell. I have been unwell in the last few years. I was quite unwell last year, but it was a very short lived episode. I haven’t had one of the extended true type one bipolar experiences for about 12 years now.

 

E: Those warning signals, does that happen only on the manic trajectory or do you also have
an increase in synesthesia symptoms at the more depressive lower emotions?

 

M: No, it’s mostly on the manic but because I do have mixed episodes, it can be a little hard to untangle what’s what. So I have been in states of quite severe depression where I’ve had very strong synesthetic reactions to things, but that’s obviously because the mania is also running at the same time.

 

E: Yeah. I also experience synesthesia in a slightly untypical way but less so since I’ve had a change in medications I think actually. Never as significantly as you’ve described it but I would really love to know when you’re creating a work like this because the work is for all of these different senses for the region of the listener, the viewer, who was all one person. This isn’t the first piece of work you’ve done that’s in that form, and so with your synesthetic experiences, have they always been part of you creating in this multi-way when you’ve been doing the projects that are aimed more at children?

 

M: That’s a great question, Ellie. I started really combining the music with the words and the images about 10 years ago in a sort of a formal way. I’ve often worked this way anyway. So for example, going right back to the beginning of my career, if I want to create the look of a character, I might write a piece of music about them and then the sort of forms of their face will just emerge from that and I’ll know how to draw them.

 

E: Wow.

 

M: And often because I have got so used to experiencing sounds as particular shapes and colors, I have often reverse engineered that. So,

 

E: Yeah

 

M: I would often, for example, write a music score as a series of patterns and colors and then later on just translate that into dots on, black and white dots on a page for other musicians.

 

E: Gosh, that is so amazing.

 

M: So I’ve always worked that way, but I’ve only really formalised it in the last 10 years with an initiative I call the sound of picture books in which we have an ensemble of musicians who perform live on stage with an animated film of the images from the book playing on a large screen behind them. They’ve all got earbuds in or a conductor, so they sync with the images. And either an actor or the author, because I’ve done a lot of collaborations, or Tina, my wife, who has a beautiful voiceover voice, she, she reads the text, the narrations. And then, and those pieces of music range from sort of six minutes to half an hour, but we have an hour’s show, so I will then talk about how the music and the imagery sort of works together with me. So I’ll draw, so for example, I’ll ask someone from the audience to come up and draw their portrait and then on, on music staves on a whiteboard I’ll turn the lines of their face into melody and harmony lines and then direct the musicians to sight read and play that. So you end up getting a musical interpretation of the person in his portrait I’ve just drawn.

 

E: That is amazing. [laughter]

 

M: We’ve been doing it for the last decade in Australia, but we’re really hoping that we can get someone, someone interested in the UK and start doing some of these performances in the UK in the next few years.

 

E: That would be incredible. I would imagine that it would be packed out wherever you did a show like that.

 

W: Yeah.

 

E: If this is always how you’ve created, was it a different experience when you were now writing, drawing and composing things based on your own experience? Like, was the creative process
different for The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness?

 

M: Yeah, it did because I was so deeply invested. I mean, because it’s a metaphorical story and it isn’t absolutely based on, on me. There’s no references to the events of my life, just sort of artistic references to what it feels like to be psychotic. You know, it could be someone else’s experience of psychosis as well. But because it comes from my lived experience, it was at times challenging, you know, but, but I felt the time was right to, to create this work because, because I had been relatively stable for so long and I felt that the time was … and I do know what it feels like to experience quite brutal stigma as well. That I thought, I want to add my voice to the general conversation about empathy and compassion for people who think differently and, and, and just basically operate a little differently in this world, but still need to be loved and feel like we have a community around us.

 

E: Thank you so, so much for talking to us. I feel like there’s a million little questions about bits in the work that I would also continue to ask you about for hours. So we know that you’ve been doing this in Australia and you’re currently, I think we’re talking to you in Prague, aren’t we?

 

M: Yeah, we’ve just been to Bologna for the children’s book fair. We’ve got this sort of extended trip to Europe. The film of the Tree of Ecstasy Unbearable Sadness is being screened at the Curzon Bloomsbury in London on the 16th of May.

 

E: Yes, I believe I will see you there, I think.

 

M: That’s wonderful.

 

E: Which is great.

 

M: And that’s also going to be the night on which we launched the book in the UK. the 16th it will be on sale throughout the UK through you know bookstores etc they’ll be able to get it I’m pretty sure through Amazon and all the usual online outlets.

 

E: We’ll put a link to the website in the show notes as well.

 

M: Okay fabulous thank you so much.

 

E: And what’s next for you now Matt? After you’ve launched in the UK is this sort of is that sort of the main focus for now is to launch in the kind of UK/Europe?

 

M: That is the main focus, but I’ve started work on a few other projects as well. I’m writing another big choral symphony about, it sounds very grim, it’s about the history of warfare and its connection with religion.

 

E: Oh wow.

 

M: But it’s not going to be entirely dark and it’s not going to be militaristic, it’s more of a very contemplative philosophical look at it. I’ve got four picture books on the go as well. I’ve done preliminary work and I’m just about to begin work on those and I’ve got 60,000 words into a novel as well.

 

E: Firing on all cylinders.

 

M: Yeah, part of the reason that I’m doing that, deliberately doing that, I mean that sounds awfully manic I know.

 

[laughter]

 

I in the past might have been a tad worried that I’m trying to do so many creative projects, but I do manage my condition well these days through medication and lifestyle. So I’m taking things very gently as well. But one reason I am focusing on these projects is because I do actually find the focus on The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness can be challenging at times because it was, in its creation, drawing from some fairly horrific life experiences of mine. So I kind of need, while we’re focusing on this, to be looking beyond it as well, if that makes
sense.

 

E: That makes a lot of sense. But yeah, thank you so, so much for speaking to us, Matt. And I really loved the Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness, and I will be telling everyone about it and I really look forward to seeing the live performance on the 16th of May. I think that will be amazing.

 

M: Oh, thank you, Ellie and thank you, Will. It’s a huge honour to be asked to come onto your
podcast. I’m very grateful. Thank you.

 

[Music]

 

W: And thanks everyone for listening.The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness is published by One Tentacle Publishing and will be available from all good bookstores.

 

Make sure that you keep up to date with our shows by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts, and follow us on social media at Lively Minds Pod.

 

E: Please note that this show does not constitute medical advice and is not a replacement for seeking professional help. You can find signposting to support on our website anyamedia.net/livelyminds. Take care and bye for now.

 

W: Bye

Lively Minds is an Anya Media //// Still Ill OK co-production

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