from nervous breakdown to bibliotherapy

This is a story about how I changed my mind about what to show in the Beyond the Story exhibit.

It’s a chapter within a larger tale about the BigAss Move I’ve made from the USA to Mexico.

1008 paintings project bibliotherapy acrylic collage encyclopedia lisa sonora

Bibliotherapy, 2009 1008 Meditations on the Human Condition Acrylic paint, paper and behavioral science encyclopedia page on found cardboard 6 x 9 in (15 x 23 cm) 1 of 1008 original paintings in a series by Lisa Sonora

Last summer, Christine Martell told me about her idea to produce a group show exploring the idea of visual memoir, and invited me to participate.

This is my favorite subject: how words and images come together to tell our personal stories.

Even more thrilling: Christine chose a non-traditional venue for to show this work: a library gallery. We both have a personal history with books, libraries, storytelling and writing that influence our work.

What is Visual Memoir?

While there are more established genres of memoir in literature, and documentaries in film, I’ve wondered about the role of the visual artist who is also a writer (and vice versa).

Researching this, I’ve found lots of graphic novels, but nothing else. Beyond the artists sketchbooks and notebooks many artists/writers keep (like these, from Henry Miller), how do we share our work? What do we call it? What genre does it fit in?

It was while working on a draft of one of my own memoirs, told in large part with my own sketchbooks and paintings, that I started using the term visual memoir. I just couldn’t think of a better term for the medium that I was working in. Maybe a new genre had to be invented?

Origins of my visual memoir work

My whole life, there has been another struggle: that I must chose either writing or painting, that it’s not possible to do both well. That doesn’t feel like my own idea, but rather one that is inherited from some critical source (probably not a working artist).

But I don’t know how to separate my visual art from my writing. One informs the other and it has always been that way. I got my first blank book when I was five years old. I scribbled in it before I could write. I drew pictures. It never occurred to me to stop illustrating my ideas, just because I learned how to write.

There were years during my childhood where I didn’t use words at all in my journals. I made images in my sketchbooks, and these felt like the best kind of diary. I didn’t have to explain anything to anyone. I could paint and draw things that I couldn’t talk about.

It wasn’t until earlier this year, at a writing workshop with David Whyte, that I finally dropped this question that I had struggled with for a lifetime. I no longer had to choose one medium, nor define what kind of artist I am.

This freed up tremendous energy to pursue questions that actually interest me. Such as: Where will the exploration of Visual Memoir take me? How might I apprentice myself to this new idea? How can I help others tell their stories in new ways, going beyond words?

Choosing work for Beyond the Story

After lots of soul searching and dialogue with Christine and Rebecca about what I would show, it became clear that showing pages of my own visual journal and sketchbooks would be my way of expressing the idea of visual memoir.

Since I have such a large body of work, I began to gather a selection of pages and images that created a narrative. My idea was to make digital prints of pages, plus create several large pieces from high resolution scans. I envisioned mini billboards of detail areas of some pages.

This was all in process – all the hires scans were done and I was trying to figure out the best way to get them printed, mounted and shipped to the Portland. One thing became clear: this was going to expensive to produce.

Doubt about my direction crept in.

I was planning to just show my work – not have pieces for sale. Who would want to buy copies of my visual memoir pages, is the question I asked myself. It’s not as if I would want to hang them up and see them everyday. Some yes…but that brought up different questions. Would I create works that are sellable? This would require more thinking (and expense) than I had time (or money) for.

Even keeping with my original idea, I would still be going through a lot of expense for just show and tell. Also, I was beginning to feel terribly vulnerable about showing my pages in public at all. Especially in my first ever exhibit.

Whatever was going to happen, I needed to decide pronto, in order to allow time for ordering proofs to check before making a final order. There was a very real time pressure clouding everything.

These fears and doubts swirled around my other pressing concerns: I had three weeks to empty my loft and find a long-term tenant, sort, sell and pack up my stuff, and other major projects outlined in The Bigass Move post.

Art as divination

As I went about the business of aforementioned moving chaos, I was trying to decide how to pack and ship two very large boxes of my 1000 plus paintings in order to clear Mexican customs.

What I discovered is that it’s impossible to do this without special permits (like a museum exhibit) and there is no service willing to ship fine art over 2,000 dollars. The scope and price of this little project was beyond my means, so I decided to keep storing the work until I could develop another plan.

Meanwhile… there was exactly ONE framed piece from my collection that I found in the boxes of frames.

A couple of years ago I had the idea to show the first 108 pieces in my loft and bought frames for them all in anticipation, but didn’t proceed. I had big boxes of frames that I assumed I would just scrap and let go of in my moving sale or else donate to another artist. It was just these unfinished projects that I dreaded confronting during the move.

I brought the framed piece down from storage, just thinking it would be nice to have around during the move. When people would invariably ask about my millions of boxes of paintings, I could point to a real sample.

The framed piece sat on my work table with me. After about a week, I almost choked on my tea when I really looked at it and saw the title: Bibliotherapy

Out of over 1,000 paintings, there is one framed sample – Bibliotherapy. This provided the proverbial thunderstruck moment.

Sudden clarity on what to show: Some of the original paintings already complete. These could be offered for sale. The frames for their intended purpose. No money lost by letting them go because they are too heavy to move to Mexico.

Best of all, I wouldn’t be showing my most vulnerable work: my private journal pages.

The painting series is an entire visual memoir in itself. In fact, I kept detailed sketchbooks about the process and the stories that emerged as I worked on them over three years. In addition to the paintings, I had always envisioned the monograph that went along with them – designed as a visual memoir with pages from my sketchbooks.

And just like that, several pressing dilemmas were resolved.

I got on Skype with Christine and told her everything.

She loved the idea and was happy that I’d be showing “the Buddha project” as people commonly refer to the work. She first started following me in 2010 when I started blogging about the project of creating 1008 paintings.

What if I showed my first 108 pieces? Yes. That was my original idea when I bought the first set of frames.


During the move, Bibliotherapy went missing.

On the upside, a tiny thrill: If someone wants to steal a painting, they must be valuable.

Turns out, there was a bunch of stuff stolen during my moving sale the day before. When some friends stopped by afterward to help me regroup and refuel (and retox there were cocktails involved, if I recall correctly) and they asked about the show, I went to get Bibliotherapy off the shelf, and it wasn’t there.

It wasn’t anywhere.

True, most of my shelving was gone and nothing had a proper place anymore, but how could my painting have disappeared? Ugh. I thought back on the stuff that was pinched from the sale. Stuff I knew was stolen, and…now realizing more went missing than I realized.

It was pure chaose during the sale, people who were scheduled to help flaked and didn’t show up. Strangers were wandering in and out of my loft, it was very disconcerting. I was still beyond weary and feeling violated from it all.

Packing up the show

bigass move packing the 1008 paintings

Allison the Magnificent (busy with her own July 1 move, no less) engineered the whole project of getting the 108 paintings inventoried, wrapped and packed to send off to Portland for the show.

To be safe, I decided to send 110 paintings, in order to have 2 spare.

This took…six hours.

Marin was having a heat wave so my loft was about 100 degrees inside.

I do not have air conditioning.

Perfect conditions for melt down, now that I think about it.

bigass move painting the loftIn the midst and on top of everything, my loft was getting painted inside and out.

I know, that’s just crazy.

Getting a place patched up and painted while you’re still in there packing.

I cried more than once this day.

But just for a minute. I was too busy.

Someone would ask me an innocent question: Do you have a 30 ft. extension ladder? A screwdriver? Ice? A clean glass? And that would tip me over the edge of my ability to concentrate, do ten things at once, and maintain my composure at the same time.

My crying was like a whimper: I don’t know what to do. My glasses were sold in the moving sale. There are plastic cups somewhere. I cannot deal with this right now. I have 12 hours until I get on a plane and I haven’t even begun packing my personal stuff. I don’t see this happening…cry. Go back to work.

It was all fuel for the nervous breakdown that was just begging to happen.

It’s not what you think.

Allison got all of the paintings packed up. They fit in the box perfectly.

Except for one! She noticed that somehow we had one painting too many.Weird.

Allison started laughing so hard I thought she would pee her pants.

You’re not going to believe this:

Nervous Breakdown is the title of the painting that was left out.

No way. Let me see that.

I think it’s a sign.

Now I was both laughing and crying and I did pee my pants. Well, my skirt.

A sign to chill the hell out, laugh, make a drink with ice, go take a nice cold shower and get some clean underwear out of my carryon. All would be well.

My little Nervous Breakdown Buddha just told me so.



Allison took this shot of me with Nervous Breakdown.

It’s a crappy shot, so bad not even fancy filters can fix it. But we were documenting the moment. I had just cried before this one. There were towers of bubble wrapped paintings everywhere.

So now you know my story from nervous breakdown to bibliotherapy.

Or was that the other way around?

Note to self: Don’t try to move and do anything else major at the same time ever again. Never ever! Ok?

Remember this.

paintings packed for Beyond the Story Exhbiit

The day I left town for Mexico. The two big boxes are the work shipped to Portland. The smaller boxes just some of the 25 or so that were shipped out to buyers.

I am on 1.5 hours of sleep. And there are hours and miles to go before I will have a proper rest – 24 hours from now in Mexico City.

An extra happy ending

Since Allison did a quick photo inventory of all the work, I had a record of what got sent to Portland.

This is my policy with every box or suitcase that I pack and ship – I need a picture of what’s inside. Written lists are great, but time consuming and confusing.

I didn’t have a chance to look at the photos until I got to Mexico and was selecting a piece for Christine to photograph for our show postcard.

Guess what!?

Bibliotherapy was in the box! Safe and sound and all wrapped up!

It will get it’s own special spot in the show. Next to Nervous Breakdown.

Beyond The Story: Exploring Visual Memoir, Exhibit Postcard

If you’re in the Portland, Oregon area this Fall, come see the show!

Beyond the Story: Exploring Visual Memoir

September 5- October 31, 2014

Artists Christine MartellLisa Sonora Beam and Rebecca Shapiro interpret the combination of personal narrative with image and and seek to define visual memoir.


Hillsboro Main Library Main Branch

2850 NE Brookwood Pkwy, 2nd floor

Hillsboro, OR 97124

Hillsboro is in the Portland area.

Opening celebration with the artists on September 7 from 2 – 5 PM.

The artists will give a talk about their work at 3:00 PM. They will also share examples of some of the journals, sketches, stories and other work that lead up to this exhibit.


If you’d like real-time updates, including behind-the-scenes of our show installation, follow me here:




7 Responses to from nervous breakdown to bibliotherapy

  1. Indigene Theresa Gaskin August 8, 2014 at 10:49 am #

    Wow! I would have had an honest-to-goodness breakdown, if I had to accomplish all that you did! What an amazing and courageous woman you are! I love the concept of visual memoirs, I keep looking for different words to explain my pictures with words and art journal is fine for my “pretty pictures with words” but my raw pictures with imagery need something substantial to stand on. Visual Memoirs, Visual Journals, Visual Diaries…these titles convey the feeling that you’re going to get a true picture of someone. Lisa, you always go deeper than the surface, and I so love that about you and find it so inspiring!

    • Lisa Sonora August 8, 2014 at 3:22 pm #

      Indigene – the word that stands out from me in your sharing is RAW.


      For so many of us (me being a poster child for this) who have had trauma, the first thing that can happen when we decide to paint or write or create anything is that a whole combination of raw emotion comes pouring out – often with pretty raw imagery, words, whatever the medium.

      This is so normal – but it is scary if we’re not aware.

      This is why the process needs a safe container, and definitely privacy. We can’t explain our own stuff to ourselves, it’s a bad idea to show it or try to explain it to others.

      This was my big break with traditional art therapy. That every damn thing had to be interpreted, diagnosed, medicated. (In the hospital model where I worked).

      No it doesn’t.

      I better stop ranting here…and save this all for the facilitator training. 🙂

      If any of this spark questions or dialogue for anyone, feel free to add here in the comments. Big, important subject.

      Bottom line: We all have raw, tender places within. These defy our ability to make “pretty pictures”. And this is good. And it doesn’t mean we’re not talented or can’t make art that pleases us.

      We simply have to go through this raw phase first.

      Think of it like an ugly duckling phase. It takes a while to excavate and explore and find our place of belonging.

      Inside each of us is a Swan.

  2. Kori Vincent August 7, 2014 at 8:10 pm #

    Every journey starts with a single step or one big one in your case. Best of luck with your move and your show. You continue to amaze us with your art and your writing. Blessings!

  3. Kim August 7, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

    Oh my gosh! Love and hugs and–what an incredible story! I can’t wait until September 7 to see the outcome of one part of your story. 🙂

  4. teresa August 7, 2014 at 10:59 am #

    Well, of course it was in there! And I love that the one that didn’t fit was nervous breakdown one. Fantastic!

  5. Julie Kirk August 7, 2014 at 2:45 am #

    Great post – you really carried me along with you [not in one of the boxes!]. I hoped the story was leading to the re-emergence of Bilbiotherapy, it’s good to hear everything worked out in the end. Best of luck with the exhibition.

  6. Laura in PDX August 7, 2014 at 1:39 am #

    Lisa, you are an AMAZING person. I am still in awe over all you accomplished for the move. And I can’t wait to see the show!

Leave a Reply