A sense of calm washes over Cynthia Sitton when she discusses art.
The words she uses are telling — "refuge," "respite" and "peace."
Art has been a lifeline for the San Juan Capistrano resident, and in her case, that's neither lip service nor an exaggeration.
"[The times] when I've had to spend too long away from art, just dabbling in it a little bit, have been depressing," Sitton said. "It's not that depression kept me away from art. It's that circumstances made me depressed, and not doing art added to it."
The circumstances she referred to involve her oldest daughter, Tiffany, who is severely schizophrenic. It's been over a year since her family saw or heard from Tiffany, and the disappearance isn't her first — she vanishes regularly and pops up again, Sitton said.
Recently, the 52-year-old took a seat in her home studio and poured her anger and sadness into a painting — a catharsis that she repeats often, she admitted — in this case an oil-on-linen work titled "MRI."
The 40-by-40-inch work is a contemporary take on François-Joseph Navez's version of "The Massacre of the Innocents" and a commentary on mental illness and institutions. It is also reminiscent of the mother-child relationship depicted in Michelangelo's "The Pietà."
To Sitton, the innocents are the mentally ill who turn to a healthcare system that is marred by inadequate funding and facilities. Institutions are teeming with illegal drugs and underqualified social workers, while nursing staffs are overwhelmed with unsafe patient loads, she said. Also, medical records are not passed from one hospital to the next, so many, like Tiffany, are prescribed cocktails of medication that have failed them in the past, the mother added.
Similar to Navez's original painting, Sitton's "MRI" includes five subjects — all female family members who are in some way connected to Tiffany. The artist conveyed the idea of sickness by casting a synthetic, neon yellowish-green color, which she considers "nauseating," on the skin of all those in the image. The color scheme is in line with Sitton's belief that mental illness affects everyone who cares for the patient, and the resulting anguish can spread quickly through a family.
"I always find it odd that MRI colors are so beautiful, but they're often representing things that are very abnormal in a brain — not always, but that's the case for me," she said. "Tumors, mental illness and the chemical structure of brains are lit up and it's gorgeous, and I always find that unsettling."
'I have learned how to cry'
Thinking back to her own childhood, Sitton credits her grandfather for her bone-deep love of artistry. He was a graphic artist who drew political cartoons for various newspapers, and the pair would spend hours together in his studio.
After making the decision to become a full-time artist, she began freelancing for commercial art companies, painting murals, building paper sculptures and creating illustrations. She found an amount of success despite being self-taught.
In 1997, Sitton kicked off a formal education in her craft by enrolling in Laguna College of Art + Design's undergraduate program. It took her seven years to complete the program, since she was simultaneously balancing the situation with Tiffany.
She returned to LCAD in 2010, this time to earn a master's degree in fine arts, but was forced to take a break. Three years passed before she could resume her studies — a period in which Tiffany regressed and even gave birth to a child. The last time Sitton saw her daughter, she was painfully thin from doing heroin and not eating well, and she was in a jail cell. Tiffany was then put under an involuntary psychiatric hold, which angered her greatly, and she has not contacted her parents since.
Meanwhile, Sitton will receive her degree at a commencement ceremony on May 19. She is among 21 artists whose work will be showcased at the MFA Thesis Show, which opens Saturday at the Arena 1 Gallery in Santa Monica and then moves to the Laguna Art Museum between June 8 and 29. She plans to contribute five pieces — "MRI" being one of them — to the exhibit.
"I don't go a day without thinking about her," Sitton said about her daughter. "But I have learned how to cry and be sad and let that pass. You have to learn how to cope with and compartmentalize it. Otherwise, you would just shrivel up.
"I can find joy in my other children, family, friends and in my art while still missing her and being concerned about her. Some days are better than others. That's all I can say."
A frustrating search
An estimated 2.4 million Americans, equal parts men and women, are afflicted with schizophrenia. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the illness typically appears in men who are in their late teens or early 20s and women in their 20s or early 30s.
By contrast, Tiffany's hallucinations started early — spiders crawling beneath her skin and red-eyed dogs gnashing their teeth. Ghosts, calling her stupid and ugly, demanded that she kill herself. She would twitch and jerk in response, curling into a ball as the light in her eyes was replaced with wild fear.
When watching the local news on TV, she would become convinced that she was a participant, commenting, "Oh, I know them" or "I was with these people," her mother recounted. She also shaved her eyebrows while at Aliso Niguel High School, declaring that she had joined the Slick 50s, although there was no proof that she knew anyone in the gang.
Tiffany was 13 at the time of her diagnosis.
"It's really a degenerative disease, so they get worse as they go," Sitton said. "In her case, it's much more severe since she came down with it young."
Initially, Sitton used the power of her naïveté. Determined to figure out what was going on, she pledged to get her firstborn the best help around. A "bulldog" is what Sitton called herself. Slowly, the realization set in. It wasn't going to be that simple.
The fact that Tiffany is a strong-willed person who also suffers from bipolar disorder and extreme paranoia has complicated her treatment, Sitton said. She flat-out refuses to believe that she is living with a chronic mental illness.
"There's nothing that can be done," the mother said resignedly. "If the police find her, they will ask if she wants help, and if she refuses, there's nothing they can do. I can't make her get treatment. I can't bring her home because she is sometimes violent or using illegal drugs. She wouldn't come home. She's sick enough and so paranoid that we will put her in a hospital."
And since hospitals won't divulge if Tiffany has been admitted, Sitton has taken to calling patient telephone numbers inside various facilities and asking whoever answers if they have seen her.
Tiffany, who would be 31 this year, has been treated at 30 hospitals and institutions over an 18-year period with a six-year stretch of institutional living. She has also lived on the street and in halfway houses and been attacked.
"There are such depths of grief," Sitton said. "I am not only grieving for my daughter who isn't going to have the life that she or I thought she would. Watching her slip in and out of lucidity is terrifying and heartbreaking."
Her despair got to the point where she was forced to seek counseling in order to keep it together for her husband, Michael, and their two younger children, Matthew, 24, and Jessica, 21.
Seeking joy where possible
And that's where art came through for Sitton. It's a place where she can channel troubling emotions, work through problems, find happiness in colors and creation and tuck herself into brief interludes of quiet and self-reflection. The artist's goal is to connect with viewers universally through shared experiences so her work contains, but is not dominated by, autobiographical elements.
F. Scott Hess, her mentor and an LCAD faculty member, says Sitton's issues with Tiffany are evidenced in her work.
The two have known each other going on 15 years, and Hess has noticed her not only demonstrating incredible discipline and patience but also working painstakingly to polish her skills. Although it's not uncommon for people in their 50s to return to school, the instructor finds that Sitton is a class apart.
"Technically, her skills are well polished, and she is fearless as a painter," Hess said. "In terms of content, Cynthia has suffered through many things in her life, and this has enriched the emotional depth of her work. Most people would collapse under the pressures that [she] has faced daily for the last 20 years. Somehow, she has managed to turn all the pain into art.
"It makes the work both difficult and very human. They are not easy paintings to look at because of the emotional intensity and what they make you feel, but they are really fantastic paintings."
"MRI" was painted for a color composition class, in which Hess' students were asked to push color boundaries and think of hues as metaphors.
Hess called Sitton's approach "extremely gutsy."
"If you were trying to make a pretty picture, you would not choose these colors," he said. "Cynthia wanted to express something that was emotionally charged and a difficult subject matter."
Sitton admitted that it was excruciating to accept that she had no say in Tiffany's well-being after the girl turned 18. So she relishes controlling what her art expresses and welcomes every opportunity to infuse her life with even a little joy.
"In the depths of despair, when you don't feel like you could possibly hurt any more, there's suddenly these profound, beautiful moments when everything's torn away and I'll just see how beautiful Tiffany is to me," she said softly. "It's so contrasted to the despair that it becomes beautiful. A lot of my art is me trying to express those kinds of things that have carried me through.