The Cripsters: Zavisha Chromicz on Process and PTSD
Every day, when I’m living my life or just walking around, I can sometimes go into a state where a movie of the past will relive itself and I cannot make it stop. It is just there. When I’m cooking or when I’m feeding my dog or whatever. It’s like a movie that’s playing, and I have to make it okay at that moment. I have to tell myself, “This is 2022. I’m here right now. This is not the past.” Usually a trigger happens, a sound or something, and I have to say to myself, “It’s not in the past. I’m not going to get hurt.” I grab something that’s around me. Like a cork. Anything that’s lying around. I pick up a lot of debris, garbage, things people discard or I find around the house that really make no sense at that moment. Like, how is that going to be in the art? But in that moment it’s like a talisman.
Usually it’s about the size of my two fingers. I breathe into it, look at it, and center myself in it. And then I’m okay. I look at the color and see how it feels, and it can take me out of the PTSD trigger. When I have that peace, I go back to my studio and put the object somewhere. I don’t necessarily go, “I’m going to make artwork out of this.” I just keep it around. There’s a collection, a shit-load of tubs and tons of stuff I have. When I start creating, those are all cleansed pieces that I stored some kind of energy in or passed memory into. Then I create and it just comes out by itself. It is the thing that moves. There must be some connection between that and rewiring my brain. There’s a plasticity to learning. You can rewire yourself from trauma. I think that’s how it happens for me with art. Through that process of creating.
I’m a complex person. I am disabled. I am queer. I am mixed race Roma. I don’t create disability art. I’m disabled and it’s just one aspect of me. I wouldn’t say I’m a disability artist and it’s hard for me to say that I’m a disability activist when at this time I can’t provide an accessible way to experience my work at the gallery. One day I wish this could change. I eventually would love to have my work shown in a place where most disabled people can go.
But right now, part of my disability is that I’m slowly emerging as an artist even though some people say my art looks like something a mid-career artist would do. I’ve given myself permission or a shield enough to be able to handle the intensity of releasing this artwork. I’m also fighting accessibility myself because I never had any formal education. I have a lot of learning disabilities and had a hard time in art school. I went for six months and then I had to quit because of my learning disabilities and PTSD. That was thirty years ago.
The first show I had at Paul Petro was just last year in their accessible first floor gallery. I was stuck during COVID and having to homeschool my kids. I had very little time. The only way I could survive was to wake up early and create. That started snowballing. When I did over fifteen pieces, I thought, “It’s time to show my stuff.”
My current exhibition is called Mother Load: The challenge of suturing the mitochondrial tear. Basically, it’s about my severed relationship with my mother. The tear happened at the beginning of my relationship with her, but I can’t continue to have a relationship with her. This is my way of giving thanks to her without actually having contact with her. My mom comes from a lineage of disability. She’s blind and has complex mental health issues. She just wasn’t the most amazing parent. I had a really hard time, and my brothers and I got complex PTSD from it. That’s where it all comes back to. It’s not easy for a woman who’s physically disabled and lacks mental health stability. And she was an immigrant to Canada. We are Eastern European Roma. I came here at ten and there wasn’t a lot of support. But my mom comes from a creative family. Even in Poland, I always knew that that’s who I was.
Every day is a way of sewing and healing myself. It took me a long time to have enough mental health stability to be able to handle producing art and having art shows and believing in myself. If I didn’t have art, I would have offed myself a long time ago. Both of my brothers developed intense mental health systems to survive our household. All of us have our own coping mechanisms. I would say that because of the queer community and my relationship with art, I’ve been able to be successful enough to have a relationship that I’ve been in for twenty years. I also have children and have been able not to repeat the same shit that was done to me.
Making art is basically like prayer. I feel like I can do ten years of therapy in one hour. I try to get out and go back into myself. I also tap into some sort of ancient wisdom that helps. Sometimes it’s “I hate the piece, I hate the piece.” Until I love it. Sometimes I love it and sometimes I feel tormented by it. All kinds of big emotions come from it. I always have this feeling or a vision of something I’m going to create. But the process is what leads me more than actually being rigid or obsessed with how it’s going to turn out. The process brings me through all the emotions and I just leave it in the artwork.
[This article was distilled from an interview with the artist.]
Zavisha Chromicz self-identifies as a queer fat trans mixed Roma self-taught artist who has been making community-based mixed media and fibre art for over twenty years. They have consistently made art as a medicine for survival. Their work explores disability in throwaway culture and the joy of queer debauchery, and honours the survivors of childhood and ancestral trauma. Their exhibition Mother Load: The challenge of suturing the mitochondrial tear is on display at Paul Petro Contemporary Art in Toronto until December 23.