Brattleboro artist's mental illness is her palette

BRATTLEBORO — Since the age of 19, Karen May Sorensen has lived with a form of schizophrenia called schizoaffective disorder. As she tells the story, art saved her life.

"At the onset of a mental illness," Sorensen said, "part of you is aware that your mind is not functioning correctly, and it's really frightening."

Sorensen knew she needed a safe place, and asked her brother and sister to take her to the Institute of Living, a division of Hartford (Connecticut) Hospital, where she lived for two years.

"I was so low and had so little hope," she said. "My brain had always been the engine or tool that got me what I wanted out of life: a good college, good grades, recognition, awards. Then my mind sort of crashed, and I couldn't read or write. When I couldn't be a student, I didn't know what value I had."

One of the ways Sorensen worked to build her battered self-esteem was to write "I love you" on a piece of cardboard, which she propped up on a cabinet.

"It was the first thing I saw in the morning," she said, "a message to myself."

After two years of hospitalization, Sorensen was able to obtain a volunteer position at the Hartford Atheneum. Sorensen lived at the hospital and walked to the museum. Her first assignment, staffing the information desk, meant she had to interact with the public.

"At the Atheneum, people treated me as a normal person," she said, "not like a person who is mentally ill."

In one of her blog posts (her blog contains mature content) dated Feb. 10, Sorensen described her duties at the information desk: "Visitors could check in their coat and backpack with the security guard, and then they would talk to me. Sometimes our transaction was only a matter of paying the entrance fee. But about half of all the people who walked in had a question. They might ask directions to a special show. We provided maps of the museum and helped people find what they wanted to see. And when we answered the telephone, we directed calls to curator's offices, or helped with traffic directions and parking. In rare occasions we would be asked where to find a specific work of art. Quickly I discovered that in order to do my job well I needed as much education about the Wadsworth as I could get. When a new program of docent training began I applied and was accepted."

Every Monday, Sorensen's blog post continues, when the museum was closed to the public, the docents received 90-minute lectures on new exhibitions or other museum-related topics. During one of these talks, Sorensen realized she was jealous of the artist being discussed. That's when she first thought about going to art school.          

"I went to art school at the University of Hartford," she said. "Art school has two kinds of classes: the classroom, where you do assignments, and the studio, where for three to five hours, you're doing work with other students and the instructor. I just couldn't do it. (My) disability affects my concentration. After one semester, I had to leave."

Nonetheless, Sorensen pursued her goal of being an artist.

"I come from an ambitious line," she said.

She is, in her words, "self-taught," and considers herself a visionary artist.

"I have visions," she said. "Sometimes I 'see' the work, and I'm driven to make it a real thing. I'm trying to give my vision its freedom, its existence. It's like pulling a rabbit out of a black hat. Being creative is fun."

Sorensen's creative process is labor-intensive. Using a work-in-progress, she demonstrated her pastel technique, showing how she builds up layers of lights and darks, enhancing the detail and color saturation.

"I want three layers," she said, "with a couple of weeks in between (for it) to dry. Working on the face is my favorite part."

The drying time allows her to get away from the work, she said, and go back to it fresh.

"I'm chasing these visions in my mind," Sorensen said. "When I'm done, I say, 'Good. Now I can go on to the next one.'"

Sorensen is a member of ArtRageUs1, an artists' collective located at 57 Elliot St. in Brattleboro, and has work for sale through the collective.     

Art supplies are expensive, and Sorensen said her husband works very hard so that she has money for materials, particularly her favorite medium, oil pastels, with their bold, bright colors.

     "He makes life really easy so I can concentrate," she said. "In return for his devotion, I work as hard as I can. Gosh, I work until I'm exhausted. (Because of my mental illness), I am disabled, which limits my production to four or five large paintings a year," in addition to the smaller works.

The morning hours are her most productive time for her art, Sorensen said, adding, "I'm jealous of someone like Gustav Klimt, who could work from sunrise to sunset, as long as he had light."

On one level, Sorensen hopes telling her story breaks through stereotypes people have of the mentally ill, that they're "homeless, stinky, and dangerous crazy," she said. "I've never been in that category. I'm intelligent and driven. I think of myself as an artist first."

On another level, Sorensen wants her story to serve as an inspiration to others who struggle, as she has, with mental illness.

"I hope my blog shows others that 'You can do it, you can get through this and have a good life.' I want scholars to say, 'Wow, these people are so much more than a diagnosis.'"

Nancy A. Olson can be reached at


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