Spider’s Soliloquy - Case Study of a Girl

“It had never occurred to us to wonder how we would feel, being seen like that, being the spiders.”
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let me Go

About the Exhibition

On view in the Robert Lehman Art Center and organized by social engagement artist and curator Peter Bruun, Spider’s Soliloquy features art by his daughter, Elisif, a young woman who at one time seemed like many Brooks students today: accomplished, well-liked, outwardly confident and well-adjusted. But her healthy appearance belied a hidden world of discomfort and insecurity, one where substances were at first a balm, and then a problem.

Whereas Elisif’s ultimate fate is rare (she died of a heroin overdose at age 24), her story at its roots is not. The passage from adolescence to adulthood is a fraught one. Anxiety and depression among young people is on the rise, and with that perilous risks from drug or alcohol use. Every school across the country contends with mental distress and substance use among its students; every school has its Elisifs.

The exhibition is something of a morality tale—a case study of a young person who through her art and words offers a kind of soliloquy of pain, of feeling (like the characters in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Brooks School’s All-Community Read) more like an abhorrent spider than a fully lovable human. And as a case study, it begs a question: what might we as a community do better for the health and safety of us all? This question will be fully explored in a special opening reception event taking place Thursday, November 30, 6:30-9:00 p.m. CLICK HERE for more information about the event.

Elisif and Her Art

Elisif Bruun photographed in high school, made-up for a performance art piece

Elisif Bruun attended high school at The Park School of Baltimore. She was seen by peers and teachers alike as a highly accomplished artist regardless of medium: painting, drawing, photography, jewelry making, ceramics, fiber arts—she excelled at it all. As she approached graduation in spring 2007, however, she showed an increasing level of disengagement with academics and friends—behavior that ought to have been both obvious and concerning, but Elisif (bright, creative, and motivated) effectively dissembled.

Once in college, Elisif increasingly slid into unhealthy behaviors and habits: she skipped classes, missed assignments, and broadened her use of substances on a regular basis. By the end of freshman year, despite her prodigious talents, Elisif had failed two classes. By sophomore year of college, everything fell apart: recurring illness, academic shortcomings, a general inability to function independently could no longer be covered with clever excuses or hiding. When she returned home to Baltimore in May 2009, it became clear addiction had taken hold, and she and her family set off on a nearly five-year ride of love and pain, hope and denial, and—ultimately—loss.

Below is a preview of Spider’s Soliloquy with a sampling of works by Elisif Bruun, along with captions written by her father, Peter Bruun, who curated the exhibition.

Through early high school, Elisif did well academically and excelled at all things visual arts. Though hugely experimental with almost any media, she also had ‘chops’ academically, able to render in lifelike realism. This oil paint study was completed between 11th and 12th grades, when Elisif took a portfolio development course at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her comfort and confidence in rendering and handling oil paint is abundantly clear. At the time she made this painting, unbeknownst to her parents, she had begun drinking heavily.

Painted her senior year of high school, this self-portrait reveals much of Elisif’s affect at the time she made it. On the one hand, she looks out at the viewer, almost with a confrontational gaze. On the other hand, that gaze is invisible, hidden behind the mirrored sunglasses she often sported. The blue of her hair in this painting is not an abstraction but rather a true rendering of the blue of her hair; Elisif dyed her hair different vibrant colors almost monthly for a time. So here we have her: seemingly fully present, engaged, but also hidden from view. So much of Elisif was persona... persona of invulnerability covering up a never-dealt-with trauma stemming from an early childhood diagnosis of diabetes.

Elisif rarely worked in watercolor, but one would never think that from the mastery displayed in this simple sketch, made by Elisif in Paris during a summer abroad study program between 10th and 11th grades. Note how quick, confident, and dead-on each watercolor mark is, especially in shaping the carousel and space around it, all free of preliminary pencil marks: this is drawing on a tightrope without a net. And as a final demonstration of vision and confidence, she draws right over her watercolor with fearless lines of ink, rendering the three trees in the foreground; this final bold move makes the drawing. Shortly after this was completed, she was caught drinking with a classmate at a Parisian bar, and sent home.

Much of Elisif’s art in the exhibition is from her high school days, including this drawing. One of a sequence of self-portraits in which she is shrouded behind and within a blanket, it is consistent with how she frequently presents herself in her self-portraits: she is there, but she is not. Upon Elisif’s passing, her father found in one of her journals the following expressed fear: “that people will see through the persona I have held on to for years.”

Elisif attended the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston for college, where she made this drawing, and did not like it. By spring of sophomore year, she had dropped out, much to her parent’s confusion. It was not until Elisif visited home in May 2009 and her youngest sister came to her parents with the truth of Elisif’s addiction to opioids in that everything became clear: all the slipping and sliding and failure to launch made sense in one anguishing moment of revelation. With an intervention a few days later, Elisif went to rehab for the first time. In the five years Elisif lived with addiction, her art output diminished to an irregular trickle.

This drawing was completed 22 days before Elisif died of a heroin overdose while at CooperRiis Healing Community in early 2014. As far as anyone knows, it was the last work of art she ever made. In the drawing, she presents herself almost as a child, wide-eyed, and innocent. At the same time, she is wearing headphones, perhaps an indicator that she still kept part of herself hidden—perhaps the part still craving drugs. It was while in her third month at CooperRiis in North Carolina (genuinely working at her recovery, uncovering underlying unprocessed trauma from living with diabetes, grappling with her mental health and substance use disorders) that something triggered her. She relapsed, she used, she died. Such can be the way with substance use disorder, especially with opioid addiction.