Don’t freak out: Chicago artist Diane Christiansen invites her demons in

“Drawing Stolen from John Henley and Others” (2013)

“The deal with Buddhists is that we can observe our anger and get curious and loving with it. I’ll be working on that till they throw the first fistful of dirt on me.”

So says Chicago artist/musician/therapist Diane Christiansen in a Hyperallergic review of her latest exhibition, Cup Freaketh Over, in which the works reflect a year of dancing with aggression.

Christiansen’s energetic, surreal, nakedly honest and often extravagant and hilarious expressions have been shaped in part by nearly three decades of involvement at the Chicago Shambhala Center (Cup Freaketh Over includes works with titles such as, “Unapologetic Invocation of Drala” and “Samsara Continues to Equal Nirvana.”). While Buddhism has long been bubbling around in Christiansen’s creativity, it’s become a bit more overt in the last several years. Like with the Christmas trees adorned with skulls. Let her explain:

[That theme] comes from in Buddhism, the skulls are indicators of having slain the ego, so you’ll see, it’s like I’m fighting with my ego. There’ll be a necklace of skulls, a head dress of skulls. So I started out by playing with skulls and somehow they ended up in a tree. And my mother, who’s pretty frequently troubled by my work, she was like, “Honey, what are the Christmas trees with skulls? Is this about our family?” And I said no mom, it’s about Buddhism! And she said, “Honey, Buddhists don’t have Christmas trees!” And I said well, ah well.

Christiansen often collaborates with others for similar reasons (“You’re much freer of ego when you’re bouncing it off another person and creating it together”), most significantly with Slovenian artist Shoshonna Utchenik, a fellow Buddhism explorer. Together they evolved a sprawling installation piece, “Notes to Nonself.” It started as a whimsical but dharma-intense exchange, but mushroomed in unexpected directions when Christiansen faced a gynecological cancer crisis, and Utchenik made a raunchy joke to cheer her up. How to express that? Why, with an enormous, inwardly-lit “octopus of attachment,” of course, the eight tentacled legs representing entanglement in the “eight worldly concerns” of ego.

"Notes to Nonself"

Another theme that pops up in Christiansen’s art is a swaddled, anxious character called “Cocoon Girl,” who she says come right from her Shambhala influence:

That Cocoon Girl came out of Trungpa Rinpoche who is like the now-dead senior teacher of the Shambhala Tibetan lineage…There’s a concept in Shambhala Buddhism called Drala, it’s the manifestation of magic in the phenomenal world. And you can invoke magic through your approach to seeing and living. So you can be just walking around dead and numb or you can be invoking this. And one of the things Trungpa Rimpoche taught is that we cocoon ourselves with TV, all sorts of compulsive behavior, Facebook. I was thinking, “Oh my God, I’m Cocoon Girl,” and that’s how that image came out. I’m terribly compulsive.

"Cocoon Girl"

But it’s at this point that Christiansen the therapist kicks in. When her interviewer suggests that “cocooning is itself a self-destructive behavior, because you’re cocooning yourself from things you need to confront,” Christiansen responds, “Or that you can get more comfortable with if you actually just invite it in. And that’s sort of my approach as a therapist. Just invite it in.”

(Much of the material for this post was excerpted from a wide-ranging 2011 interview with Diane Christensen, Vanquishing the Octopus of Attachment,” at the Chicago lifestyle website Gapers Block. )

Cup Freaketh Over is on exhibit through November 16 at Chicago’s Kasia Kay Art Projects Gallery.

Images via Kasia Kay Art Projects gallery, except for “Cocoon Girl” by Michael Workman.


  1. Gina D says

    Diane's work holds the hear and now and the infinite and eternal — endless pondering. She expresses what we are invited to.
    Gina D