Interview with Toma Vagner [ENG]

Interview with Toma Vagner [ENG]

May 28, 2023 by Bram Dirven

This week was European Mental Health Week. As illustration is mostly a solitary occupation, there are a number of challenges one needs to be aware of to keep their mind healthy. However, being an illustrator also has mental health benefits: keeping your mind stimulated creatively helps keep your brain young and keep diseases such as dementia away. Furthermore, it reduces stress levels, which provides a multitude of physical benefits for your heart and mind. (Contrary, encroaching deadlines may increase stress). 

Fortunately, the illustrations you make do not only affect you, the maker, but they also affect anyone who experiences the work. This can help bring awareness, understanding and give information on specific mental health issues. Available imagery of mental health is mostly bland and uninspiring, filled with heads that have some sort jig-saw piece in their brain, or still rely on words. However, when illustrators get their hands busy on these subjects, many wonderful and inspirational works emerge.

One of those works are the illustrations of Toma Vagner, an illustrator born on Sakhalin Island, Russia, who lives and works in New York. She made a series of twelve illustrations about mental disorders. I spoke to her about this project and discussed how illustration can bring awareness and educate people about this subject.

Insomnia, © Toma Vagner

Why did you start this series?

‘It started with my own struggles with insomnia; I feel that it is best to create art based on your own strong feelings about something. Apart from insomnia, I already had a visual concept of a dissociative identity disorder in mind, with three people next to each other, their body parts shuffled. Then, two ideas spiraled into a full project of twelve disorders.’

Why did you choose to make a series of twelve?

‘It felt like an ambitious enough number for me to work with. There are still many more disorders that I didn’t include, but I had to stop at twelve, as there are still other ideas in my mind beside this project that need to be realized. It took me 1.5 years to make, as this was a personal project made in-between commissioned work and conventions.’

This was a personal project, which you can see in the illustrations, a lot of passion went into this. 

‘Yes, and it also led to a few commissioned projects after this series was finished. One of them is a book cover I just finished for Harper Collins, another – an illustration featuring distorted hands of Cate Blanchett for the movie “Tar” I did for The New Yorker magazine.’

Dissociative Identity Disorder, © Toma Vagner

Does this project bring awareness or inform people?

‘Many people come up and talk to me during conventions like Comic-Con and MoCCA fest in New York. Some of them find that my work really resonates with them, as it is something they, or someone they know, have struggled with. Some approach me not knowing what the specific disorders entail, and that leads to meaningful conversations.’

So, it works like a trigger? They are interested in it and think ‘wow, what’s that about? It seems really intense.’ 

‘It gets mixed reactions. Sometimes I see people looking at my work, and they feel uneasy and walk away. Others are drawn to my work and want to talk to me and have questions. I’m always curious to see people’s reactions when they see my work for the first time.’

Do you think these types of illustrations have an educational purpose for those who try to understand their own disorder? 

‘When making these illustrations, my intention was not to educate people as much as understand mental disorders better myself. After completing the series, I can definitely see how they can be viewed as educational in some way, but then again, I feel that most art has an educational element in it. All images have something to say, and once it has something to say, it has an educational element to it.’

ADHD, © Toma Vagner

You had to delve deep into yourself for this project, and such an assignment will be very personally reflective and can be sensitive in that matter. Does that make it a dangerous assignment?

‘It can be very worthwhile to do an assignment or personal project on this matter. When I was doing research about ADHD on the condition and the symptoms I was thinking “Isn’t it everyone that has these symptoms?”. Turns out not everyone is like that. So, it was a revealing experience, and I was diagnosed right after. On a side-note, in the USA at least, ADHD gets over-diagnosed. Which is a big problem. So, I’m still not sure if this diagnosis is correct or not. It is also in the doctor’s interest to sell medication for diagnosis.’

If you made your illustrations without the titles or labels on them, would people still recognise themselves in them?

‘I certainly feel they would.’ 

After the interview, Toma added that it is always good to seek out professional help when you think you might have a mental disorder, and to keep in mind that some disorders are over-diagnosed. Some conditions, even when diagnosed, might not require prescription drugs. Ask your doctor for more information. People can benefit from specialized help, but don’t make your disorder your whole identity.