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Art collaboration a triumph of the spirit

Art and poetry fight back at the scourge of what is 'normal'

It’s important to have a creative outlet when going through trying times in your life. Amy Willans learned how important it was during the time that all of her successes as a university student and elite athlete fell by the wayside. A new element had entered her life and had quickly taken it over.

“I started writing when I was unwell, and the writing really helped me come through a lot of the struggles I was having,” she said, explaining the time leading up to her diagnosis with schizoaffective disorder.

“We couldn't quite figure out how to treat the illness that I had. Every morning I would stand and look out the front doors of the hospital. For this one week, it just snowed and snowed and snowed. The morning that it stopped snowing, I was standing looking out the front doors and something just told me to write. I started writing.”

What started with her writing lines of poetry has turned into a book, a website (, and a travelling collaborative art exhibit that explores her mental illness and the stigmas around it, and more. Fighting Normal, now in its sixth year, was a longer road in creation but its scope has grown to challenge people to question what normal is and what is the impact of that definition on people’s lives.

On top of all that, the art is really wonderful: explorative, engaging, and absolutely full of great energy.

Hidden scribbles turned to powerful talismans

At first, Willans tucked her notes of poetry away in her hospital room, reluctant for anyone to find them. A diligent nurse one day did, however, and she just happened to be a published poet herself. The nurse typed up those words for Willans and then encouraged her to seek out a writing instructor named Eunice Scarfe. It was there in those classes that she found her voice, she said, and her community.

It was also there that she met former journalist Laurie MacFayden, who has also won awards for her creative writing while also enjoying a vibrant visual arts practice. The two became collaborators and friends. They decided that Willans’ words and MacFayden’s paintings needed to go together to draw more attention to an insidious and devastating presence in our society: the concept of ‘normal’.

MacFayden, a queer artist, had her own way of relating to the challenges that her new friend faced.

The problem with ‘normal’

“It's a horrible label. Everybody is different and everybody's experiences are different,” Willans began, describing her battle with the word.

“I think that we've got to be talking on some level about this feeling that I think everybody at a certain point in life has felt not normal or been labelled not normal, like, ‘Why can't you just be normal?’ whether it's because of mental illness or sexual orientation in my case,” MacFayden continued.

“We're not necessarily at all saying that this is the line of normal and we're on this side of it, and you're on that side of it, and other people are up here. We're not defining so much what normal is. We're just getting that message out there that normal is an impossible thing to achieve. It’s like perfection. You really can try and try and try. It's an old, abstract concept that you can't ever land on or stay on.”

Willans offered her poems to MacFayden who then extracted selections that were particularly resonant as inspirations for her own visual art. The results are astounding. The words variously offer the writer’s charged imagery, fragile emotions, and unfathomable personal battles. The paintings complement them with chaotic multimedia strokes that lend well to one’s own personal interpretations. “Is it a sunset or a brain scan, or something else?” one might ask of the same image that graces the cover of the book that the two published to further the work of Fighting Normal.

Ultimately, it’s all about hope, which in this poet’s case, is an active verb, not some passive activity. She has been doing the work of writing out the emotions, the thoughts and voices in her head, getting that mental illness out onto paper for others to see and recognize. The hope and the writing feed each other, she said.

“I always say that what I see hope as, is that when you come to believe there is a possibility that life could get better. Just a possibility. Just that tiny little spark… that tree growing outside the hospital window,” Willans said. “The writing has been an unravelling. It's taken years to come through a lot of it.”

“Even when we did this show, it was the first time within the literary world that I had been open about living with a mental illness. I had alluded to it in my poems… but it was the first time I really, really made a public statement about it. It was so transformative. To me, it was like, ‘I could stand in this. This is me. It's OK.’ There's a lot of shame that goes with having a mental illness.”

She, along with MacFayden, have taken that shame and transformed it into something courageous and inspiring. People have been thanking them for coming forward ever since the day that Fighting Normal was first shown to the public, and they haven’t stopped.

Fighting Normal comes to the St. Albert Public Library with a presentation by the artists on Wednesday evening. Attendance is free but pre-registration is recommended. The evening will feature a talk with Willans and MacFayden, and both will do readings. The book will also be available for sale at $25 each. The event runs from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 18. The exhibit will up until Sunday, Sept. 22. Visit for details.

Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Ecology and Environment Reporter at the Fitzhugh Newspaper since July 2022 under Local Journalism Initiative funding provided by News Media Canada.
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