He always used art to deal with depression, anxiety and abuse — then one thing changed everything

It's Mental Health Week in Canada. By sharing his own experiences, Toronto's Bryan Espiritu makes art to be "a voice for others."

By sharing his own story of mental illness, Bryan Espiritu makes art to be 'a voice for others'

Bryan Espiritu. (CBC Arts)

Some basic stats on Bryan Espiritu, this week's featured artist on Exhibitionists: He's 36, born and raised in Toronto. He's an artist, a designer — even a Juno-winning record producer — and he currently has a variety of projects on the go, including a May 13 pop-up project called "Cheap Art For Sale" that he's presenting with Legends League, the streetwear brand he launched 10 years ago. You won't get any of those Wikipedia-ready facts in these three new videos produced for CBC Arts, though. Instead, prepare to go way deeper.

In these stylistic shorts by Toronto director Karena Evans which capture the artist at work, Espiritu introduces himself by sharing stories so personal, some people would never confess them to another soul — never mind the camera. In the voiceover, he talks about growing up in an abusive home and attempting suicide four times before he was 22. He alludes to his own violent past and trouble with substance abuse. It's disarming — and maybe even a little disorienting — but as Espiritu tells CBC Arts: "It's not new to me to share these stories." In a way, sharing his life experiences with the world is how he discovered the power of art — and what it can do to help not just himself, but others.

Watch the videos.

To deal with his difficult childhood, Bryan Espiritu started writing in a way only he could read

6 years ago
Duration 1:06
"I was put into centres, experiencing things I shouldn't have at 12 years old. At school, they put me in a storage room. They shut the door the door and I'd have to stay there until everyone was done school."

Bryan Espiritu paints so traumatic experiences can live somewhere other than his chest

6 years ago
Duration 1:07
"I needed those pictures and those memories out of my head."

Despite everything that happened to him, love now motivates Bryan Espiritu's life and work

6 years ago
Duration 1:04
"Love informs all that I do now. I'm motivated by it. I feel that love and people matter. I just want to be happy. I'm getting there."

"A lot of times when somebody says, 'Oh, what do you do on the creative side? Are you a writer, are you a painter?' All I'm really thinking about is the next outlet that I need that is the most useful for the pressure that I'm under right now," says Espiritu. The artist lives with mental illness — that's the pressure he's talking about. "Depression is a big one, and anxiety is a day-to-day, like every single day," he explains, saying it's something he's experienced since the age of seven or eight.  As a kid, he says, "art was really an outlet for me," whether that meant drawing, graphic design, writing, etc. "It was a means to get these emotions out."

But there was a time when that wasn't enough. About 10 years ago, Espiritu was in a bad place, to say the least. "I was on house arrest for a few assault charges," he says. Trying to get sober and working on taking care of himself, he thought writing might help, and because it was the mid-2000s, he started a MySpace blog. "I was writing a lot about my experience with mental health, mental illness, suicide, being a young father, domestic violence — being an abuser and also being abused — and also my experiences with the police," he says. The people who read the blog began sharing their own struggles with him — leaving comments, writing letters, calling him up and even stopping him on the street.

That's when I started really creating in a way where I could be a voice for others.- Bryan Espiritu, artist

"When the blog happened, that's when I realized [art] could help other people. And that's when I started really creating in a way where I could be a voice for others," says Espiritu. According to stats from CAMH, Canadians have a one in five chance of experiencing mental illness at some point during their lives. "There's more to this than just doing it for myself. It's really affecting people positively."

Though the blog is long gone, much like the MySpace of old, Espiritu still writes about his mental health and how it affects his artistic process. Beyond "super long captions on Instagram," he just launched a monthly column for the Creator Class. But his life stories are also in every piece of his artwork.

"It kills me on a day-to-day basis to have images in my head of some of the things I've done to people. You stomp a guy's face in, you never forget what that looks like. When you hurt somebody, it doesn't — it doesn't go away. And so I have to paint it. I can't just tuck it away," he says.

"And I do feel that creating and painting or writing, it helps take the weight off a little."

That's the message he hopes he can share with other people. For him, the outlet is painting or drawing or dancing or design. But it can also be as simple as talking — just sharing your story with someone who'll listen.

"I think a lot of people feel that pressure we're under is something that's never going to go away, and if you find it by even just vocalizing what's happening to you, you can get out of it, you can offload that pressure in one way or another." 

Watch Exhibitionists online or catch it on CBC Television. Episodes air Friday nights at 12:30 a.m. (1 NT) and Sundays at 3:30 p.m. (4 NT).

Bryan Espiritu. The Legends League and Espiritusucks Present: The "Cheap Art For Sale" Pop-Up Shop. Saturday, May 13.  The LL Sweatshop, Toronto.


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