How Art Saved My Life, With Bipolar Artist Karla Pearce

pearce“On Fire” – Pearce would project healing energy into a painting, and the painting would in turn fill her any time she looked at it. Painting became a type of relationship for Pearce. One that would always give back. 
Karla Pearce is a visual artist. She has had her paintings shown in many commercial and public galleries throughout western Canada. She has worked as a muralist, painter, teacher, author, publisher, producer, screenwriter, television presenter, art gallery owner and market manager.
She has worked with children in local schools and completed art projects throughout the Kootenays. She is known and admired by many.
But there is something the world doesn’t yet know about this brilliant artist. After a year of tremendous upheaval in her personal life, Karla is opening up about her experience with childhood trauma and her very recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
Karla survived horrible child abuse at the hands of both her parents. She had three near death experiences before the age of eight due to parental neglect. She is unable to remember parts of her childhood because her brain tucked away the memories to protect her.
“The thing about parental abuse, is it goes on until the abused party stops it. It took me until I was 40 to end it. Then I worked on my addictions which were alcohol and tobacco.
I eventually ended my 25-year long marriage. I have no contact with my mother and very minimal contact with my father. It’s heart breaking as neither of them acknowledge that they did anything wrong and blatantly lie about events that happened: abandonment, lack of food, no medical care, and mental and physical abuse.”

karla4Self portrait at 27: Pearce painted this portrait on the stoop of her rented top floor of a 100-year-old house in Nelson, BC.  She had managed to land there after meeting her first husband.  She tried to take refuge in her father’s home but he refused.  She learned she could care for herself and her toddler. It was a time of grief and self medication.

Recently, at age 51, Karla was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after surviving three suicide attempts in one week. She went to a doctor at mental health and he decided to take her on as a patient. He was very interested in Karla’s connection with art and eventually diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. Medications and counselling made her feel better. She is positive doing art saved her. Here she explains:
“Art gave me purpose and a life long friend that would talk back to me. I suppose you could say I’m in a relationship with my art. The doctors are fascinated by how art affects the brain and heals depression.

The doctors don’t know the cause of bipolar, it might be genetic but they don’t know for sure. But one thing they do know is that it’s caused by trauma. Being bipolar means that I’m on a swing moving from depression to manic. When depression hits I’m in bed with flu-like symptoms and often a migraine. The migraines can last for months and are linked with the depression so I can literally be bedridden and suicidal.
The only way I can function is with lots of pain killers, which is another addiction risk. When I move into my manic mode I don’t sleep much. At this time I feel really good. It’s like I’m on happy drugs. I can feel how smart I am and can achieve a lot in a short period of time. Unfortunately that also comes with auditory and sometimes visual hallucinations.
Doctors have given me medications that take the edge off of the manic and depression on both sides, but in stressful situations I can still have hallucinations, mostly auditory. It can get tricky at times because sometimes I’m guessing if what is going on around me is real or not. The doctors could up my dose but that would take a bite out of my creativity, so I put up with the hallucinations and keep creating my art. It is and has always been my passion. It’s what keeps me alive.”

pearce2“Soul Sucking in My Garden” – Sketchbook Series 2002. This sketchbook piece illustrates the feelings of pain and depression that were lurking just below the surface of every day life.


People with bipolar disorder typically have 10 to 20 years shaved off their life expectancy. The brain burns itself out and the frontal lobe becomes dormant. All organizational thoughts move to the emotional centre of the brain. The good news is this can be reversed with medication. But the bad news is the medications are hard on the liver, kidneys and heart. Karla has already gone to the hospital for drug induced angina.
Despite the chaotic parts of her life, and just one year since her diagnosis, Karla is currently quite happy.

pearce3“Tree Faces” sketchbook series 2017- The theme of many faces is reoccurring in Pearce’s work. It became a point of interest for doctors that were treating her. Through dedicated art therapy, Pearce managed to heal some of her brain. 

“My outlook now is filled with joy. I live in the moment. I have no money or house anymore but in many ways it’s liberating. I have nothing left to prove to anyone and have the time to dive into my creative self for myself. It has been my art and my kids that have kept me going all of this time.
Through the dark and the good times there has always been the art. It has physically changed my brain for the better. The doctors believe that art has changed and healed my brain. I have gone from bipolar 1 to bipolar 2 from the use of art and my will to make my life better.
Art is so important to me. It is always been there for me. It has been my life’s work to share that knowledge and ability with others. I truly believe through accessing our creativity that we become healthier and happier humans.”

Karla makes jewellery and toys and sells them at the Kamloops Farmers Market on Saturdays and Wednesdays. She enjoys connecting with others. She currently lives with two of her children and is moving forward in this new time in her life filled with love, happiness, and, of course, art!
You can follow her at Karla Pearce Gallery on Instagram and Facebook!


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