In a world that struggles with vulnerability and self-doubt, local Claudia Cuellar (JJDM) feels like people cannot talk about mental health enough. Diagnosed with her own disorders, she strives to be a voice that makes mental health and state of mind a regular conversation.
JJDM: Three years ago I was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome. It’s a rare pain disorder where your brain can only focus on one pain at a time constantly so you really feel that pain. Then I got diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis) but come to find out I don't have MS. I have what’s called peripheral neuropathy and my left side -my left arm and leg- are affected by it. I have nerve damage in both of them so they can give out at any moment. It’s kind of like when your foot falls asleep, but it never goes away. Because they diagnosed me incorrectly, I developed schizophrenia from the medication. The type that can cause a lot of mood bursts, depression, insomnia. I get little, I wouldn’t say hallucinations, but I get where you know, where you're saying something to yourself in your head? I get a lot of that. I’ll hear myself in multiples. It's very loud and can be very hard to deal with. I have children, we’re homeschooling now, and it can be a lot when you're getting, “Mom, Mom, Mom” and then somebody trying to have a conversation with you in your head. I can manage it a lot better now than I could have this time last year.
Do you ever run into misconceptions?
Absolutely. When I first got diagnosed with schizophrenia I didn't tell anybody. I told my brother first, then I slowly explained it to my mom. I showed her the paperwork with the diagnosis. I had to stop taking her to the doctor with me because every appointment she’d be praying... When I first let everybody know, the misconception was that schizophrenia is hallucinations and you’re seeing or talking to somebody all the time. I think cinema has done that to people where they think that’s the norm.
My other two disorders are so rare that I always get, “What is that? I've never heard of that.” Which I had never heard of either. With CRPS the doctor that I went to literally printed something off of Web MD. He didn’t have something to give me because it’s just that rare. My peripheral neuropathy also. I'm usually having to explain those. My mental health is where I get misconceptions.
Peripheral neuropathy? Yeah. My leg and my left arm constantly feel like they're asleep. I used to have to rub my arm or hit it to make it to where I can feel it. It's gotten a lot better because I’m on the correct medication now. The medication is an antidepressant but for some reason it helps my nerves not have so many flare-ups. Sometimes my arms and legs would flare up and give out. I’d just have my arm hanging there -same thing with my leg. Not since starting that medication. I thank my doctor all the time for putting me on it because it’s changed my life. Last year I was in the ER like every other day, at least twice a week.
But since it’s an antidepressant it does affect me when I’m off of it. COVID has impacted that because sometimes I can’t get my medication on time. It takes them like a week to fill it now. When I’m off it I’ll decline really bad and my family will see it. They kind of have to snap me out of it. My mom will call me more because she knows and it sucks. It sucks because there’s nothing I can do about it. I don't want to change the medication because it's working. I'm learning to live with it.
My son is the one who deals with it the most. If I have a random seizure he knows when to call the ambulance. He knows to leave me alone, let it pass, and to put the girls in their room so they don’t see me having it. Somehow he says he can tell when I’m about to flare up on my left side. I don’t know what he sees but he has caught me from falling twice. Last year my mom had to deal with leaving work all the time to take me to the ER.
The other thing they’ve had to get used to is bad news. We have to take it with stride and move on because it’s a progressive disorder. It’s only going to get worse, there’s no cure. CRPS affects the whole body eventually. Lately it’s been affecting my jaw so I can’t open it all the way. Sometimes it’ll lock and I’ll have to eat soup because I can’t open my mouth.
It’s a lot they’ve had to get used to. They’re gonna see me go through things, get over it, and move on. My aunt always used to say, “This too shall pass." I kept that with me, especially when I got diagnosed and was told I couldn’t work anymore. I think that’s what we're trying to be all about this year.
Where did the name JJDM come from?
I have four kids. JJDM. They're my life. I named them Juliani, Javian, Delilah, Milani. When my brother and mom were pushing me to create the page I was like, "What am I gonna name it?" My kids are my world and art is my world so it was fitting. I get that question a lot. You're literally the first person I answered it to and it feels weird, haha. But it's time. This year has been really good for JJDM so it's fitting.
How would you describe your art?
An extension of myself, like a leg or an arm. It's literally my mind, mentality, my opinion on certain things going on around me. My mom says I've been drawing since I came out the womb. Anytime anything happened, if I got grounded or something, I'd always reach to it to express myself. If I had an emotional issue, I would draw.
When I went to college I took an art class and tried to pick up painting and I kinda sucked at it. I could not, for the life of me, get the blending down. I tried to paint a tree and it came out like a male... organ, we'll just say that. So I went back to pencil sketching, and when the Note phone came out I started drawing on that. That was my first experience with anything digital. I took to it like a moth to a light bulb. From there, every single phone that came after, I'd get and do that. Then I got the iPad and did that. Then I started graphic design school and got better and better. You can tell the difference before and after college. Now digital is really my go-to. I've dabbled in Photoshop and Illustrator but I couldn't draw with a mouse. The stylus tablet is what's grown on me. I don't think I can go back to pencil and paper. I mean I can still draw, it's like riding a bike. I just don't see why I would.
What's one of the earliest memories you have of drawing?
In 5th grade I drew this awesome donkey based on some book we were reading. My teacher, Mrs. Chapa, was SO MEAN. She was one of those teachers who just scared you, you know? She complimented me on it and I can still remember it clear as day. Her coming up to me and complimenting me, pulling me aside. "That is very impressive. You're going to do something with this one day." I went home, told my mom. That's like the earliest memory I have of my drawings.
My mom has an earlier memory which she says was in kindergarten. I had drawn the whole family and we had a two story blue house at the time. The teacher pulled her aside like, "Hey, look what your daughter is drawing. This is awesome." I don't remember that but I'm going to hold her to it.
What has been your favorite part of drawing?
Going digital, learning that, and sticking to it has definitely been a fave of mine. This last show I was a part of at K Space was probably my favorite show. The response to it, speaking to people, saying "I did this because I felt this or that that day." Helping somebody else looking at it feel normal. One girl knew I had a show at K Space, came to meet me and everything. She told me that I inspired her because I spoke out about my depression. I made her feel normal. She didn't feel like she was carrying it alone on her shoulders. Now I'M carrying it with you. My favorite thing about my artwork has been being relatable.
Has anyone helped you in ways you feel like you'll never be able to repay?
Mmm.... No. But you know what? I'm lying. You're gonna laugh, but you know who really helped me? One of my favorite shows to watch was with Robert Ross. Every Sunday morning he would have that special and he'd paint something right there for you. He'd say something like, "There are no mistakes, just happy little accidents."
Yes, the homie! That man made me want to be an artist. I thought, "One day I'm going to be like that. I'm going to paint and people are going to watch me paint." My parents were more like, "Art isn't gonna pay the bills. You need to focus on school or go this other way." They're very traditional like, "That guy's lucky to even be on TV. He's probably not even painting that, Claudia!" I was like, "No, he is painting! It's beautiful!" Sunday morning I wasn't watching weekend cartoons. I was watching him paint!
Have you ever wanted to give up drawing?
No. Never. Never ever. I think one of the fears when I got sick was that I wasn't going to be able to use my hands. My hand took such a bad... I mean sometimes I can't even close it. I was praying like, "God, you can take everything- just let me keep my hand." If anything else goes it's fine but I need my right hand. Like I said, it's how I express myself. When other people get frustrated they might scream in a pillow, take a cruise, journal... And me? I draw. That's how I let out my anger, my depression, my fears. I don't think I could give it up even if I wanted to. My mom says it best, "You were drawing since you came out the womb." It's literally part of me. I can't live without it. It's like a limb.
Has anyone ever challenged you?
Yes, all the time. Because it's digital work there's a stigma. A lot of people think it's simple and a lot easier than drawing on paper or painting. I have been challenged several times like, "I bet you can't draw this on paper." Like hold on. I actually did that with a dragon. I posted it in digital then was challenged to draw it. The digital took about two weeks to draw all the details, the scales and everything. As far as the drawing, it took me like 3 weeks. I posted it like, "See?" That's why I do progress videos now. I didn't use to but they want to see what you're doing or how you're doing it.
How long does it normally take you to complete a piece?
It varies. My longest piece took about 2-3 months, an older work of mine called Alicia. That piece took me so long because I would get emotional just creating it. The shortest piece I've worked on took me maybe 3 days. It can range anywhere from 3 days to 3 months. I'm pretty sure if I was perfect and mentally stable I could probably knock out a piece in a week. I used to give timelines but I stopped because on a mental decline, like dude, I can't promise anything. Without a doubt, it takes me and anybody else with a mental disorder or physical incapability longer.
JJDM surrounded by her works: Feathered Feelings (left), Mad Science (top), Alicia (right)
Is commission work harder?
Yes and no. I had this amazing opportunity this year to work with somebody in the UK who was coming out with a perfume line. He wanted me to create the artwork that would be on the bottles. He was amazing, he was nice, it was like a dream come true. And then I got a decline like a week later. It was sad because I kept telling him I should have it by this date and kept having to push back the date. My health is very iffy, changes from one minute to the next. He didn't want to, but because of personal insecurities, I said, "I think you should find another artist." I refunded him even though I had done some pieces for him because I felt so bad. That was the biggest commission deal I ever had.
I was gonna have a couple of pieces at The Exchange but I wasn't able to get it there on time. I'm a starving artist for a reason. I hate to take on commissions with a timeline. If they have a hard timeline, I'll reject them. I'm afraid I won't be able to get it done and I don't want that hanging above me. If I do commissions it's usually because you aren't in any rush to get it. A person coming to me already knowing what they want shouldn't take too long to do. The thing though, is they're an expression of myself. If I have somebody that comes up to me say, "I want this, this, and that," it's really hard for me to get in that vibe. It's a little harder to do a piece so specific because they're based on my moods. I'm open to commissions, but I prefer commissions where I'm left freedom.
Has there ever been a time where somebody said, "Full creative control!" you gave it to them and they were like, "Mmmm but can we change this or that?"
The commission from the UK was like that. I feel like that's why I let the opportunity go too because he wanted eyes and NONE of my artwork had eyes. None of them. There's a specific reason, it has to do with my medication and how I react to them. I tried, sent him a piece with eyes, and it felt weird. Itchy. I hate seeing my work with eyes. He said, "Eyes are natural!" But if you can't look at it and say that's a JJDM, why would I want to do it? I want you to be able to look at it and say, "I know that's a JJDM piece."
JJDM eyes usually reflect the effects of the medication she's on.
What would you say to somebody who may feel afraid to share what they have?
You created it, you should share it. Let go of fear of rejection. Remember why you created it in the first place, the feeling that you had when you created it, and let go of anything else. At the end of the day you know what you felt, what you put into it, and you shouldn't let other people's opinions bring that down. You might be surprised about how people take it.
Haters gonna hate. For example, I did a piece the other day and probably 20 minutes after I posted it I lost about 20 people off the top. I posted this noose that had butterflies all around it. I titled it, When It Looks Like Peace. My following who knows what my page is about, mental stability, they're ride or die. They already know my page comes from a dark place. I wanna say that was new following that didn't know that. That kinda scared them off.
Post it and somebody may be able to relate to it. Following is not important. What's important is to continue making people feel better about what they're thinking. Sometimes people do get in their thoughts and think dark things and that's ok. The point is to get over it and express it into something like I do. Not everybody is going to understand where I'm coming from, what I'm doing, or why I'm doing it. I took the piece down because it was, I dunno, I guess the title too... I'll end up posting it again at one point but the way the world is working right now... I took it down out of respect.
Ah, yeah there are subtexts that could be seen there.
Yeah my brother was the one who pointed it out to me and said, "Sis, you need to take that down." I didn't even think about that and maybe that's some ignorance on my part but it was a piece that meant a lot to me. I'm going to remain with that message, doing artwork that's by me for me. This was never supposed to be something that I sold, made a page for, or wanted a following for. I'm a selfish artist. I'm still gonna do what I do.
Would you consider having posted that a mistake?
An ignorant mistake. My brother sees all of my pieces before I post them. I don't show it with the intention of him telling me whether to post it or not. I kept it a tradition because when this all started it was me sick at home doing artwork and just sending it to my brother and my brother getting so annoyed he just said, "Start a page, stop sending it to me!" Haha. Maybe that's where I make my mistakes because I don't think about what it would do to other people in a negative way. It may come from a dark place but I never have the intent of my audience having a negative reaction to it. Like I said, I'm a selfish artist. I'm going to post it regardless.
My piece Two Wars In June actually got recognition by Beautiful Bizarre Magazine and was posted on their site because of the message that was behind it. But I also got hate for it because I have her in a colorful afro and some people are like, "Hey, are you saying that's a clown? Are we clowns?" Man dude, no. Read the title. It's all about the title.
Two Wars In June
It's crazy. Things get taken out of context, but I don't really let it get to me. While I'm doing my artwork I'm in my zone. I almost get mesmerized by my own artwork. Perfect example. Dr. Dre's wife says that he would go into his cave and she could walk next to him, say something in his ear and he not hear it because he is that focused on his work. That's how I get. I don't think about, "Oh I'm gonna draw this because this is going to get someone's attention."
At the end of the day, I'm not creating for anybody. I'm just creating.
I'm a selfish, starving artist for a reason. When you're doing it and it's a part of you you feel like you're selling yourself. That very first show I did at K Space felt like I was naked on the wall. I could look at every piece that I've ever done and could tell you what I was doing, why it was created, how I was feeling. Whether I was crying, mad, what music I was listening to. Some of these pieces were from really messed up times so seeing these on the wall, I'm reliving those emotions. When I look at these pieces sometimes it is very painful for me. That's why sometimes I don't want them to be in a show, sometimes I don't want to post them. I don't want to have to explain to you that two days ago I was trying to off myself and I created this to represent that. That first show was crazy. I went home physically tired because it was draining to me. It was a whole bunch of emotions. With every show it still is but I've gotten better.
Listen, I got diagnosed in July 2017. By August my brother was telling me to share this stuff, then December was the show at K Space. My brother and my mom pushed me to do it. I know they meant well but that very first show I definitely wasn't ready. I didn't talk to many people. I had people go and look up at my artwork and I didn't introduce myself as the artist. This last show I did, I talked to as many people as I could, answered as many questions as I could. That's where I met the one who went to meet me too. I definitely have gotten better at it.
What makes the best art?
If I'm not making you double-take, have a conversation about it, make you think about it when you're walking away from it, or make you stand there staring at it -I'm not doing my job right. Artwork should make your audience feel something or ask themselves something.
What are your strengths?
Resilience. I get off the escalator. If the escalator were to stop, I keep climbing it to get where I need to go. I figure out a way. I've been through a lot and I get that a lot too. "Oh my gosh, I don't know how you do it." I became a mom at a very young age and that strengthened me.
Do you downplay your struggles?
Yeah, but I do it on purpose. I'm not one of those with a big head and I don't want my kids to be that way either. It makes life a lot easier. A part of me is wanting to keep going. At the same time, physically my body could be like, "Nope. You need to sit down." My mom tells me I downplay my disorders. She always says I'm in denial. But who would want to harp on that?
Is there something you learned along the way that you wish you would have known before?
The relatability part. That was one of the things that stopped me because I didn't want people to look at my art and think I was crazy. When I shared it more and actually expressed myself about it and got more people to understand it, that pushed me to do it more. I was afraid people were gonna think I was nuts. Once people related to it, it boosted me. I feel like I'm helping.
What would you say the key to being yourself is?
Oh bro, I don't know. That seems redundant because I would just say be yourself. Uhh… learn to learn to let go. I’ve had to learn to let go of self-doubt but I've always been the same. There's people who go to work and act a certain way, come home and act a totally different way. I've always been me. I’ve always had colored hair, I’ve always had tats, I’ve always done art. I think it's important to just always be yourself because at the end of the day if you're not being you how can you even help yourself? I think about it from a mental health perspective because I have to be myself. If I’m not myself I’m pretending, if I’m pretending nothing’s ever gonna get fixed.
What are your dreams?
Oh man. I want to see my daughter walk down the aisle and get married, be successful. I want to see my son go to Michigan and see him graduate from there because that's where he wants to go. Then I want to see my youngest two daughters finally get along and be best friends, get in high school together. I want to be that soccer mom, you know, take my son to football games, his friends. My dreams really don’t involve me dude. My dreams are my kids. I want to be able to be healthy enough to see all that. I want to be able to make it to that, you know? I… I fear that a lot . That I won't make it and that I won’t see those things... So my dreams have nothing to do with me or my artwork. I want my kids to be proud of me, to be able to brag about me and themselves- I want them to be successful.
My son wants to be an entomologist, it’s the study of bugs apparently. My daughter wants to be a beautician, do hairs and nails and whatnot. My other two daughters, well they’re young so their dreams are a little ridiculous right now. Obviously she can’t become a princess or something like that but really dude my dream is to be healthy enough to make it there. I just want my kids to be proud of me. And they are right now.
So you’re living your dreams?
Right now, yeah. Hope it continues. They have seen me at my lowest and right now they’re seeing me overcome that. They’re seeing my work be in a magazine and getting a shout-out from another magazine and now I’m talking to you.
You can support JJDMs dreams and learn more about her work here.