Joshua Paulsen grew up in institutions, boarding schools, mental wards, and hospitals. At age 13 and battling mental illness, Paulsen became entrenched in a system of programs and institutions.
During that time, "psychosis really took over heavily,” said Paulsen, who uses they/them pronouns and has dealt with complex PTSD and schizophrenia for most of their adult life. “I ended up getting sicker through my life, developing further mental health situations.”
When Paulsen turned 18 at the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch in Billings, he walked out, catching a bus to California. Paulsen’s parents divorced when their child was 4, shuttling Paulsen between New York and California.
Now 32 and living back in Billings, Paulsen is candid about the experience and the “drugs and mischief” that initially landed them in the institutional circuit, which Paulsen said compounded the mental health issues. “How my psychosis was progressing and how extreme it was going, they said they were going to take away my rights and commit me. I knew in my heart that was not the way I was going to be healed.”
In institutions, Paulsen began drawing, which became a coping mechanism and eventually helped with healing. “There is so much time on your hands, and so much chaos surrounding you in those places. I was just generating what I was feeling.”
Known artistically as “Icaruvs,” Paulsen recently returned from an artist residency program in France, where many artistic forms were explored – from acrylics to paper collage, papier-mâché, and clay, among other techniques. As a self-taught artist who works with pen and ink, the experience was immense for Paulsen, whose connection to art began within institutional walls.
In the details
The detailed drawings Paulsen creates can appear ghastly, with slim black lines and rugged edges that seem to tap into a deeper subconscious that could skew into a nightmare as easily as they could a clouded landscape.
“There is so much emotion involved in it,” said Paulsen. “It comes from places that I don’t even know sometimes and deals with trauma and past experiences that resurface in my mind and dealing with my psychosis and trying to process that. What does it mean? Damn, I don’t even know.”
Art has been a constant in Paulsen’s life since those youngest days, where their only outlet was pen and paper. Paulsen likes the permanence of ink. “The things I was feeling seemed to be more prominent coming out when I used ballpoint pen,” Paulsen said. “That’s where I started. It was all I knew how to use.”
When Paulsen came across the term “outsider artist,” there seemed to be an instant connection to the idea of being outside the bounds of traditional or commercial artwork that lines gallery walls.
“People in my position in mental health institutions and the art that they build out of that, there’s a place for that,” Paulsen said. “I remember getting out and trying to do this art thing, and everyone has their niche, their thing. All I could do is ballpoint; that’s all I know.”
The self-taught artist has only recently been displaying work – in part because few galleries existed in Billings to showcase more extreme forms of art until Kirks’ Grocery opened a little over a year ago. “I’ve never been to the point of wanting to sell things. That was never really my intention,” said Paulsen. “I felt comfortable in the place that they came from.”
Paulsen has long focused on the healing process of the work, not its commercial potential. Yet, at Kirks’ Grocery, Paulsen was taken under the wing of Shane de Leon, who runs the small art gallery and performance space on Minnesota Avenue. De Leon helped Paulsen frame and price the art and begin the process of marketing and showing the work.
“The only thing I could do to process that was the only skill I had,” said Paulsen, who advocates for using artwork in mental health work. “I’m learning now what it means to utilize that stuff to share.”
Paulsen had a piece featured in this year’s annual art auction at the Yellowstone Art Museum, launched a website showcasing the drawings, and applied to a residency program in France that fellow Billings artist Michelle Dyk had attended and recommended. Paulsen said it was a shock to be accepted.
“I was expecting a really cool deny letter,” said Paulsen. “There was a lot of disbelief. I was checking to make sure my name was spelled correctly or if they mistyped something. There were lots of tears.”
After the acceptance letter came an even bigger reality. Paulsen needed to come up with $2,500 to attend, as well as flight and travel expenses. Located about three hours from Paris in the French countryside of Champagne-Ardenne, the chateau offers residencies for artists from around the world, up to four weeks at a time.
Two fundraisers took place, one at Paulsen’s work, and the second at Kirks’ grocery. “I’m only here because of my community,” said Paulsen, who was able to raise enough money to fund the entire trip. “I would not have been able to make it if it weren’t for my community.”
Paulsen left for France in late February, planning for a two-week residency at Chateau d’Orquevaux and a week of sightseeing, but due to COVID-19, didn’t return to the U.S. until May 19.
Those first two weeks of the residency, COVID-19 was very much in the background, Paulsen said. Yet the pandemic quickly ramped up in Europe as it made its way across the globe. At first, Paulsen figured it would be a week or so before things quieted down. Then the departure flight was canceled, and within a few days the trains all stopped running as well. Then, a shelter-in-place order was issued, and the country halted. Working with the program’s director, they came up with an arrangement for Paulsen to stay at the chateau until travel was permitted.
“What a cool place to be on lockdown,” said Paulsen, who was stuck in France for nearly three months. “...It was cool, but it was also really stressful.” On March 21, the day after Paulsen was due to return home, an officer from Billings called. Paulsen’s roommate had died by an apparent suicide.
“I didn’t know how to even respond. It seemed unbelievable.” Paulsen felt trapped, unable to get home and having a difficult time getting a hold of family or support systems. “Dealing with these thoughts myself, suicide has been a huge part of my life as far as my own personal experience and other people’s experience. That weight among the rest of the world that is also dealing with these larger ideas, it was that weight that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”
The shelter-in-place was reminiscent of being institutionalized, being in one place and unable to leave or move about.
This time, however, Paulsen had access to an immense collection of artistic supplies to utilize and sheltered in place with four other artists there on residency, as well as the chateau staff. They utilized clay for sculpture, painted with acrylics, made collages, discussed one another’s works, and reenacted Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Summer” in conical papier-mâché masks with bird-like beaks, inspired by plague masks doctors of the 1800s would wear to protect themselves from the Black Death.
A crash course
Paulsen, one of the only artists at the residency that lacked formal training, described the experience as a crash course in art academia. “It felt like going to school,” said Paulsen. “I am learning from all these other resident artists who have a much larger vocabulary that I do, as far as the arts go. They were all mentors to me, I had to ask really basic stuff that I didn’t know about. They were all very helpful in teaching me and helping me work with those larger materials. I felt very needy at some points.”
During the beginning of the residency, Paulsen stayed in the village and had a private studio to work from in the chateau where they focused on a large-scale pen and ink drawing of a marabou stork, known as the undertaker of the bird world. “They are gnarly birds,” said Paulsen. “I’ve always appreciated what they are about.” The bird has a wild appetite, can eat metal and digest just about anything, Paulsen described. “They hang around garbage and can eat anything. I felt that it could generate a really powerful image.”
Bartender, a napkin, please
Before the pandemic hit France, Paulsen would visit coffee shops, buy art supplies, and found plenty of tasty wines.
“I’m a wino now,” Paulsen said with a laugh, recalling the lack of sulfites in most French wines, so it’s much easier to drink than American bottled wine. “I lived on cheap wine and croissants.”
Paulsen spends a good deal of time in bars. A bartender at the Monte Carlo Casino in downtown Billings, Paulsen can often be found (when not on the clock) on the barstool, pen in hand drawing on a bar napkin. “It does give me that same sense of drawing around lots of commotion,” Paulsen said. The napkin drawings are always given away.
“When I would draw something it was always around a specific crisis surrounding me and generated toward another person and that would go to that person, or I would leave it or give it away. The bar napkins remind me of that first experience I had with drawing, and leaving it.”
That lack of attachment or possession to the work teaches Paulsen a certain flow. “It’s a good practice, and I get to interact with my surroundings. It goes where it needs to go, and it is letting go of something.”
Paulsen has been back for a little over a month now, and said it’s been a process getting back into the swing of living in America with all that has been going on. Surprised by the trajectory of their artistic life, Paulsen said, “I try to stay humble about this. Egos can destroy and get above you. I also need to recognize it’s OK to be happy about the success that you’ve had. I have a harder time with that.”