The Art of Humanity: Toby Allen

When we first saw Toby Allen’s ”Real Monsters" project, we were captivated by his unique drawing style, but also by his unusual—and uncanny—portrayal of mental illness as monsters. When we featured the illustrations on our Tumblr recently, they received a great response, and we decided to reach out to Toby to learn more about this though-provoking series and why it is so significant to his own journey with anxiety.

What is the inspiration behind your art? Why did you choose to depict mental illnesses as monsters?

Most of my work is inspired by my favorite childhood stories or fairy tales, as well as more contemporary things like video games and obscure alternative music. I love stories of magical creatures and far off lands and try to capture this magic in my own work.

The Real Monsters project originated from imagining my own anxieties as monsters and finding it to be a really therapeutic process. It made them feel weaker, and I was able to look at my own anxiety in an almost comical way. I wanted to expand upon this idea and draw other representations of mental illnesses that could help people in the same way it helped me.

How do you choose what each monster should look like, and what is your process when creating them?

I begin each monster design by researching the condition or disorder extensively, often relying on real life case studies or first person accounts of dealing with each disorder. I doodle throughout the researching process and try out many different ideas until I get something that works. I try to incorporate many different elements of the disorder into each monster which are then reflected in the descriptions, deepening the concept or understanding of each character.

Looking specifically at the Anxiety monster, its form is based on small rodents that like to hide in dark places. The dark colors reflect the heavy and oppressive feelings that I associate with being anxious, and the shock of bright pink in its design represents the intense rush of fear that occurs when I have an anxiety related panic attack.

With all of the monsters, I try to reflect other people’s experiences with their own disorder or condition to help develop a character that people can relate to. Of course, each person’s experience differs, so I try to create something that many people will find familiar.

How has your art enabled you to better understand your own struggles with anxiety? How does it challenge you?

This project has enabled me to imagine my anxiety as something I can push aside or kick around if I have had enough of it. It has allowed me to create something positive and helpful out of something that can really get me down.

I have lived with anxiety for the latter half of my life and it affects me on a daily basis, often making it difficult for me to carry about basic everyday tasks such as answering the phone or leaving the house, which can sometimes be troublesome when you own your own business. I can be very shy and withdrawn in social situations and I get extremely anxious in the lead-up to events that wouldn’t faze anyone else.

When I am creating artwork, I don’t feel anxious or worried about anything. I think about fantastical and amazing worlds filled with amazing characters that could only exist in my mind, and in this world, I can do anything or be anyone. I feel liberated from my anxiety and free from the pressures of the real world.

How do you feel about the public’s response to your artwork?

The work has gained a huge positive response from the Tumblr community in particular, and the project went viral within a week of it being published on my blog. I have received a huge amount of messages from people who have one or many of the disorders I have drawn, each telling me how much the work means to them and how it has helped them to think about their condition in a different or more positive way.

It is a real pleasure to hear from people who really appreciate all the hard work that has gone into the project and it is more than I could ever have expected. Due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, I have received a few negative responses but that’s to be expected, and I respect people’s opinions.

What do you hope your art work does for others who are struggling with these "monsters?”

I hope the work reminds people struggling with their own “monsters” that they are not alone in what they are going through and that some of these illnesses can be beaten or at least managed. I want people to laugh and smile when they see my work and feel a little less negative about themselves or their condition.

I also hope to draw attention to mental illnesses that often get ignored or aren’t taken seriously. Anxiety disorder is a very good example, the condition often being seen as trivial or not serious enough in my personal experience. I want to raise awareness of how damaging these illnesses can be and how much of a burden they can be to those who suffer from them.

All images copyright Toby Allen of Zesty Does Things, 2013-15.