Ryan Smoluk’s art work provides insight into mental illness

Ryan Smoluk "Hello? Is Anybody There?

“Mental illness is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, until they absolutely have to.”

By Ryan Smoluk

It’s a cold winter day in Manitoba, Canada. My art show “WAKE UP CALL” at the ArtBeat Studio has just come to an end. My mom and I have been busy packing and transporting all my art work back to my studio. My anxiety is through the roof and I am exhausted. I always feel this way at the end of a show. Apparently, many artists have this same experience. I’ve been told that creative people are very sensitive by nature, and often struggle with their anxiety and depression. I’m worried sick about what’s going to happen to me when the grant money expires in March. I am trying to stay positive and keep moving forward.

As a young child I was diagnosed with autism. Communicating was very difficult for me. I learned to communicate by drawing and handing out my pictures. I think that was the beginning of a very interesting career as an artist. I guess you could say art chose me.


Today as a public speaker I can talk to hundreds of people with no problem, but when I’m at home and my phone rings I get serious anxiety. I don’t like talking on the phone either. This anxiety was the catalyst for one of my paintings “HELLO.” The phone has a deep and personal meaning to me. It’s symbolic and represents communication. I strive to create art that illustrates unconventional ideas through conventional or well recognized cultural symbols. My inspiration comes from my life experiences and searching the internet for current new stories. I always begin with very detailed coloured sketches. Often the concept evolves as I continue working on the piece.


I wanted to create an art piece that represents mental illness. I wanted it to be visceral and surreal encouraging more dialogue about mental health. On first impression the viewer will connect with a pleasant memory from childhood, when they played with a toy phone and chatted endlessly into the receiver assuming the world was listening. As you look closer you will notice the human faces. This piece has now taken on a more macabre sinister feel. It now has a different meaning – it’s more chaotic and confusing. The phone cord adds another dimension to this piece. It’s a collection of haircut from people in our community who struggle with mental illness; it represents the frayed ends of sanity.

Community Project

In my last show “WAKE UP CALL,” I created a large sculpture to represent mental illness. I also wanted it to have a community connection. Mental illness is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, until they absolutely have to. I got together with my friend and mentor and renowned artist Diana Thorneycroft. Diana was my art professor years ago at the university. Diana is awesome! Unfortunately the prototype I built was too top heavy and kept collapsing in on itself. I phoned my buddy Bruce, a master carpenter at Manitoba Institute for Trades and Technology. He told me to bring the piece over to him and show him. He explained the piece needed to be enforced and the angles were not square. Lucky for me they had all the specialized equipment there that I needed.


You might be asking yourself, how did he manage to collect hair from only people whom have struggled with their own mental health?

My mom and I put out a call to the local hair dressers, high schools and community colleges. We explained the project. They loved the idea and said “absolutely, we are on board.” I said there is one criteria, the hair can only be donated by people who’ve struggled with their own mental health and the clients needed to know about the importance of their hair donation. I asked that they be told that I will honour and respect their contribution. I personally invited them to the opening night of the show. It was a very rewarding experience to see that a very personal piece of mine was impacting others as well.

Community Project

I’m currently working to produce art for another show at Great West Life, April 21st to June 6th, 2018. I’m looking forward to sharing my life’s purpose with others. I feel extremely grateful that I was awarded the Canada Council for the Arts Award earlier this year. It’s been awesome to have my own art studio and have a place to work on my art projects.

To view more on Ryan visit www.ryansmoluk.ca

One reply on “Ryan Smoluk’s art work provides insight into mental illness”
  1. Ryan,

    the Fisher-Price telephone grabbed me immediately. It had a heightened clown feeling – thinking of feeling embarassed or ashamed or over/underestimated.

    It seems good for R U OK days and other campaigns.

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