Amber Rose Tortorelli is kind of ubiquitous in the Worcester arts scene. You might have seen her performing with the band Sapling, or reading poetry at the Dirty Gerund Poetry Series at Ralph’s Rock Diner, or staging her play “Drunk in a Toy Store” at starlite gallery or the Sprinkler Factory. Now, with her new exhibit, “Mani(a)c,” you can see her at the ArtsWorcester Gallery on Portland Street, as part of its “Project Spaces” program, which runs through Oct. 16.
To say the installation commands attention immediately would be an understatement. It’s an almost overwhelming collage of seemingly unrelated items, of plastic dolls and paintings and smashed guitar pieces. There’s a typewriter covered with paint and glitter, and the floor is covered with playing cards and broken glass. There is a looped video of shadow puppets, accompanied by a disturbing soundtrack, and two self-portraits: One, a painting that has the artist looking out the corner of her eye at images on the wall across from her, the other a more disturbing one, only visible from outside the room, through the window.
It’s more than a little overwhelming. For Tortorelli, that’s by design.
“I created the exhibit because I wanted to show people what it’s like to experience different symptoms of my condition,” says the 33-year-old Worcester native. “There’s some dispute about exactly what’s wrong with me. But I suffer from schizoaffective disorder. It’s schizophrenia with a mood disorder, also. … I experience mood disorders — they used to call it manic depression — where you get really, really energetic, and then just crash for no reason whatsoever.”
Tortorelli explains the mood disorder by discussing an episode of the animated TV show, “King of the Hill,” particularly the character Kahn Souphanousinphone, and his wife, Minh.
“Minh goes away and is like, keep an eye on Khan,” she says. Khan ends up accompanying lead character Hank Hill on errands, including stopping at the pharmacy to pick up his prescription, but Khan instead throws the prescription away. “It delves into the manic side where Khan’s going crazy and he’s cleaning everything, and he paints a self-portrait.” says Tortorelli. “I actually put a little picture of that up in the corner, him cleaning and really excited with his self-portrait hanging in the background.”
It’s true, and indeed, the aforementioned unfinished self-portrait seems to be looking across the installation, directly at the image. “And then he gets really depressed,” continues Tortorelli, “and they’re like, ‘Oh, (expletive). There’s something really wrong with him. Hank ends up helping him get his prescription. Long story short, it was a great depiction of what manic depression actually looks like, which is never portrayed in the media.”
Tortorelli affects a melodramatic voice and asks, “How many horror movies have you seen where a mental-illness patient escapes and goes on murdering spree! Usually, it’s the driving force for something negative happening. And I understand that. It’s a difficult thing to live with, but the stigma presented to us by media and art are from people on the outside looking in, and people who are just looking for a good story tend to make us into monsters. I really wanted to throw some media out into the world that’s like, ‘No, we’re just regular people and we’re trying to live our lives. We go through things and it’s really difficult … ‘ It’s scary to come out and say stuff like this.
Trying To Explain
Sitting and talking in front of the installation, Tortorelli seems a far cry from the feral persona she sometimes assumes at rock shows or poetry readings, a harlequin-like figure that’s an attention-grabbing mix of menace and whimsy. It’s not an affectation — it’s a definite side of her — but it’s clear as she sits discussing art calmly and insightfully that it’s not all she is.
“I can see a lot of people being freaked out by me in general,” she says, “and it’s a very difficult thing. A lot of people don’t understand it, like my own family … I got schizophrenia symptoms in my early 20s, which includes hallucinations. … I wanted to show people the relationship between the symptoms and trauma and things like that and really just provide people with information, and also confuse them, too. Because I’m confused about it. It’s not an easy thing to try and diagnose. Schizoaffective is usually wrongfully diagnosed because there’s not a lot we really understand about the relationship between schizophrenia and mood disorder, but mood disorders I’ve been experiencing for a really long time.”
Tortorelli said she began exhibiting symptoms of mental illness as early as age 2 or 3, and explains that an unstable home life did little to help her situation. She explains that she has a family history of mental illness and drug addiction, and that she suffered abuse multiple times in her youth.
“I would go through those bursts of energy and couldn’t stop,” she says. “It’s impossible to do anything, You can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you’re just on all the time. … My grandmother was a secretary and kept records. I would wake up at night and beat myself up for no reason, and tell myself how bad I am, and just weird stuff like that which I’d never remember. So I have the severe trauma, the abandonment, the genetic stuff and the trauma that I went through, so it’s all very hard to diagnose. People always accuse me of being on drugs, especially family members. My dad would say, ‘Have you been smoking crack’ when I would pull my hair out.”
Tortorelli says she would experience mood disorders and hallucinations, including formication, which is the sensation that your skin is covered in bugs.
“People that have it scratch, or try to take their skin off,” she says, “and (her father) would assume that meant I was smoking crack. Same thing with my mood disorders when I would get very energetic. So people don’t really understand that there’s something wrong with you … I was pretty close with my father, but he couldn’t really understand it. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, either. I was embarrassed. I didn’t see a therapist until I was maybe about 14. I went to three years of court ordered anger management. They diagnosed me with (dissociative identity disorder) for a little while, because they gave me all these tests to take, and I gave them to other people.”
She laughs at the memory, but admits that she is not currently seeing a therapist, and that she feels she needs to.
“It’s very difficult,” she says. “It’s inaccessible, and the stigma … whenever I go to a hospital with a problem they say, ‘Well, you’re on drugs.’ It shouldn’t be so inaccessible. It should be ‘healthcare,’ not ‘sickcare.’ That is a big part of why I wanted to talk about mental healthcare stuff, too. I can’t bring myself to get out of bed some days, or eat, or even focus on anything. It is really, really difficult for me to do certain ‘adult’ things. Making a doctor’s appointment is like hell for me, and the system makes it more difficult. With my … mental state … it makes it impossible. I have an impressive set of skills … but I can’t make myself a dentist appointment or things like that.”
An underlying order manifests itself in the installation the more time you spend with it. There are pieces of her other art spread throughout, seemingly tossed randomly: A handful of her band’s singles, the clown-themed prop box she brings with her to every performance, the book made for “Drunk in a Toy Store.” Tortorelli says it’s how you might expect to find them in her studio, with things strewn everywhere. But it becomes clear that one of the metaphoric bases of the exhibit is a survey of her eclectic artistic career.
“I’ve always been an artistic person,” says Tortorelli. “I’ve always been highly creative. I was always playing dress-up and ripping the heads off dolls, and none of that has changed throughout my entire life. I was always making these little creations and experiments. … There are also a lot of things I don’t remember from my childhood because I had to block them out, and also I have a degenerative neurological disorder. Schizophrenia kind of does that. … It’s getting worse. I have a lot of trouble communicating. A lot of the time it’s through art, because I can’t always communicate in some way that isn’t abstract.”
Tortorelli made the move to working full time as an artist after a long stint of often working two or three low-paying jobs to make ends meet
“I would go home at the end of the day and my feet would be bleeding,” she says. “It was horrible, and I was still making crap, and my mental state got to the point where … somedays I just couldn’t. I’d be scheduled to work on Friday, and on Friday I just couldn’t get out of bed. It’s not like, ‘Buck up, buttercup, and go to work.’ It’s just not like that. People don’t really understand that. If I’m going to make minimum wage and work for some (expletive), I might as well do it for myself. So I decided full-time art was going to be my gig, and I’m just going to dive into it head first. If I’m going to struggle doing this, I might as well struggle doing what I love to do.”
Not that art makes much money. She has a small regular income through her Patreon account, but the rest of her income comes strictly from art.
“Art is the first thing people fall in love with but the last thing people spend money on,” she says. “If I don’t sell art outside of that, that’s all I’m making … I find that a lot of people will keep their distance from me … I think that I’m a bit of a novelty. I’m the clown princess, I show up like, ‘Whooooo!,’ make glitter and mess everywhere, and then go home and people are like, ‘Well, she’s a mystery! She’s fun!’ But they don’t see the other side. I do this because it’s how I survive.”
ArtsWorcester’s Project Spaces program gives individual artists a space to fill with their own art. The other artists on exhibit in the program are Evan Charney, John Slepian, Jill Watts and Mark Zieff. Tortorelli says she learned of the project at a talk at the ArtsWorcester gallery.
“They said they had these walls,” says Tortorelli, “and their goal was to fill spaces for a specific project, and I was like, ‘Oh, OK. I have a great idea for a project,’ and I decided to just make it look like my home, like my studio, and also show people what it’s like to figure out what’s wrong with you, and diagnose and create and be a million different disciplines. In a given day, I’m five different things, be it performing poetry, making music, making balloons at kids’ birthday parties, going to a show, finishing a painting. I’m kind of a Jack of All Trades when it comes to the creative stuff.”
Tortorelli says she wanted to convey all that in the installation, but almost talked herself out of it, as she was busy with other projects, including writing and recording a new Sapling album. Then ArtsWorcester executive director Juliet Feibel called her, inquiring after her proposal.
“She called me up at home,” says Tortorelli, “discussed it with me, encouraged me, and helped me through the process. Looked at my proposal before I sent it. Suggested that maybe it would be a good idea to put a sketch of what you want to do or something. She helped me a lot through it. … The people here are really great. They’re so frigging nice. They’re so supportive of their community. I know a lot of outsider artists walk into spaces like this and think it’s just snooty … I was one of those people at one point. I was like, ‘I don’t bother with galleries and such, that’s not for me, I’m an outsider.” Sometimes you just have to grow up a little.
“I go to galleries and I see art that’s so expensive, and granted, I want to sell my art for a lot of money. I would be happy if one of these pieces went for” — she affects a Dr. Evil Voice — “ONE! BILLION! DOLLARS!, but I don’t expect that. … I try to balance making art that is accessible to people with fine art. Like, right now I’m working on a painting that is old Flemish technique. It’s probably going to take a year to frigging complete … The still life maybe I’ll sell for a few thousand, I hope, but I don’t want art to be inaccessible to poor folks. I know how that is.”
Moving Through the Dark
It’s apparent, as one examines the exhibit, that it is a sort of cinéma vérité: The viewer is in the middle of the story, not at its beginning and certainly not at its end. This is not a story about how the artist triumphed over mental illness. It’s about living with it in the moment. And it’s also an exhibit about living.
Two figures recur throughout the exhibition: A shadowy figure whom Tortorelli calls The Hat Man, and a terrifying old woman she calls The Hag.
“I’ve been seeing the Hat Man since I was a child,” she says, describing him as a mysterious figure who looms over her bed. “You’ve never known fear like The Hat Man. It’s the scariest (expletive) thing. I’ve had guns pointed toward my head and the Hat Man is still scarier. He manifests as a fear response.”
Tortorelli was surprised to discover a friend who suffers from some of the same issues as her also experienced The Hat Man, and that evidently the hallucination is a worldwide phenomenon, one that is remarkably similar globally, as is The Hag.
“She’s actually a lady that I see when I’m awake,” says Tortorelli, explaining that most others encounter the phenomenon when they’re asleep. Tortorelli says she usually appears on the other side of a door, entreating Tortorelli to let her in. “She’s very scary,” says Tortorelli. “She shows up outside at first, and slams her head against the window.”
Among the detritus scattered across the exhibit is a chapbook of poetry which Tortorelli wrote during the early days of the pandemic. The last chapter of the chapbook is called, “Goodbye.”
“As I started to tell the stories,” says Tortorelli, “I kind of appreciated the people in my life, that helped me through things. This is the final chapter, saying this is for the people who died, and thanks for me still being here.”
Tortorelli says she has attempted suicide twice, first when she 13 or 14. She says doesn’t remember the second one, which happened when she was in the 9th or 10th grade, except that she took a handful of pills. Her father told her that he found her on the couch with pale skin and blue lips. More recently, her father died by suicide,
“As someone who’s had close family that have killed themselves, I think it’s important to tell people, to talk about that. (Not talking about it) almost does them a dishonor, in a way, in my mind. It’s important to talk about because the whole reason they did that and the whole reason they do that is because we’re not supposed to talk about it. They suffer quietly and they die. That’s part of the reason I wanted to do this, because we need to talk about it. We need to be honest about these sorts of things.”
Tortorelli says she wants to see more art and commentary that speaks to mental illness.
“I want other people to have the opportunities that I don’t and didn’t have,” she says, “and I feel like creating the atmosphere where it’s OK to talk about things and be who you are, it’s like … It’s OK. It’s OK to be this way, and maybe other people can find some comfort in being able to talk about it. Maybe they’ll be a little less afraid.”
For more information regarding ArtsWorcester’s hours and events, visit https://artsworcester.org.