Pen to paper

By Aaren Madden, November 2015

Amy Frank’s art practice encompasses creative expression, advocacy and powerful coping tools in her struggle with mental illness.

In Amy Frank’s illustration “Changing Seasons” (see this month’s cover), a crisp maple leaf floats on the surface of the Goldstream River. Rendered in pale yellow, brown, green and gold pencil crayon with a black ink line whispering around each of its interior veins, the leaf emerges from the picture plane due, paradoxically, to its simplicity. Below the suggested surface of the water, a cacophony of colour and pattern causes the eye to dance from one visual target to another. The fine detail is thereby temporarily contained, pulling the leaf toward the viewer. (Fun fact: this common phenomenon is called saccadic suppression.) Simultaneously, the intricate patterns in the background evoke the rush and babble of the river and create a multisensory capsule of place. 

In time, however, the eye wants to settle on the detail. The fine pen and ink dots, circles, concentric swirls, lines and crosshatching are sectioned off and combined, then filled in with coloured pencil and watercolour pencil. Hues range from cool purples, greens and blues to vibrant oranges to form the pebbled riverbed and suggest cool flowing water, perhaps salmon eggs, and the multitude of miniscule life forms with which the water teems. The viewer is lulled into a quiet, contemplative interlude.

These areas of fine detail and pattern are ubiquitous in Frank’s work. In some, like “Memories of Merlot,” (page opposite) the patterns in the leaves, vines and especially the background suggest the warmth of textiles. In others, they remain stark black and white, heightening the relief of the subject while adding visual interest in counterpoint. Over time, this has become an intuitive process for the artist: “I see a balance in it—balancing out the colour with the black and white— and I know the balance in myself, so I can feel it when I look at it,” she says.

The feeling Frank gets is more than the gratification of a pleasing image. For her, art-making has become an important way to understand, communicate and manage the bipolar disorder she was diagnosed with at the age of 18. On her website, she explains, “Art is a source of conflict for me. It eases my depression while in contrast it can stimulate my manic symptoms. The feelings of creativity that I experience can be overwhelming, and I can become over- stimulated when playing with composition and colour. In contrast, the black and white patterns I create put me into a meditative state, relieving the mania into a stream of quiet thought.”

As a child Frank loved drawing. “I started by copying comic book characters—Archie comics, Marvel comics. X-men, that kind of stuff. I was a bit of a tomboy,” she laughs. Born in 1986 in Saskatoon, Frank’s family moved to Victoria when she was a year old, and she has lived here since. Her parents nurtured her emerging talent, enrolling her in courses, including at the Vancouver Island School of Art when she was 13 years old. She learned techniques with charcoal and pastel, and basics of drawing and composition.

This was when Frank also began to struggle with her mental health. “Before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I suffered from depression,” she shares. Frank turned to art and writing—journalling and poetry—as outlets. In school, she would escape into the soothing patterns she would doodle in her notebooks. Art and writing helped her cope for several years, but a darkness descended when she was 18 and she did neither until she was 24. 

On her website, which highlights her artwork and advocates for mental health while candidly sharing her story, it states, “Mental illness created tension and discord in all areas of her life. Teachers and school administrators labelled her a troublemaker, her friendships were fractured, and she became the target of school bullies…” She spent time living on the streets, involved with drug abuse, as well as having extended stays at psychiatric care facilities.

She’s not exactly certain what prompted her to put pen to paper once again, but events coalesced in a way that let in some light. Part of it was coming across a drawing she had done when she was 17 called “Afghan Girl” and realizing it was not half bad. “That’s a piece that’s very meaningful to me,” she says. While it used to signify despair, she now sees it as a hopeful image.  

The patterns she used to doodle in her schoolbooks have evolved. She started by incorporating them into tree designs in black and white, then adding colour. A series of wildlife illustrations followed, combining realistic, colourful animal images with her design motifs. Predators depicted in calm repose are offered as stigma-busting metaphors for the perceived dangers associated with mental illness. Her subject matter has expanded to include landscapes, flora and still life, and charming scenes of domestic animals.

Key to Frank’s current stable and happy life are a strong support network, medication, cognitive behavioural therapy and a healthy lifestyle—she avoids caffeine and stimulants. “I also find that acupuncture has been very beneficial,” she adds. 

Her art practice, though, has been essential. “It’s a reason to get up and keep going. Even if nobody was buying [my work], I would still be doing it because it’s given me meaning and purpose. I would still have my website and I would still be trying to get out there and promote awareness around mental illness because stigma is something that has affected me greatly in my life,” she says.

That is why the originals, giclée prints and cards she markets at some local shops, fairs, by commission or on her website always include a message about her personal experience with mental health. Recognition of both her artwork and advocacy are growing. Her website received a Heart Award for building awareness and understanding around bipolar disorder. 

A member of the Island Illustrators Society, Frank was in both the Sooke and Sidney juried fine arts shows this year, among others. About a year ago, she started a mental health awareness group on the Fine Art America artist’s website. It now has over 300 members, many of whom have messaged her with thanks for creating that safe space. Through these gains she has learned, “I don’t have to be perfect, I don’t have to be completely stable, but I want to show that I keep going. You don’t give up; you just have to keep going through the bad days, through the good days.”

So whether viewers choose to exalt in colour or find respite in pattern, each time Frank puts pen to paper she offers a triptych of creative expression, advocacy and outlet that contributes to the ongoing journey toward understanding of mental health.


Amy Frank will be selling her artwork at the First Chance Craft Fair at the Mary Winspear Centre in Sidney on November 7 and 8, then at the Last Chance Craft Fair, same location, December 12 & 13. On December 3, see her work at the “Artists with Disabilities Showcase” at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Find her online at, where she also lists mental health resources.

Aaren Madden is a Victoria writer and mother of two young children. She has an academic background in art and architecture.