When Dayna Matlin and her brother Jason were kids, they collected bottle caps, shook them all together in a bag and then carefully laid them out in rows according to their brand.
It was a way, she suspects now, of trying to impose order and control on a life thrown out of balance by her parents’ divorce. That split, unusual for the time in their Los Angeles neighborhood, came when she was 5 and Jason was 3.
Decades later, she has taken up a paintbrush and used acrylics on canvas to express her feelings and perhaps resolve some of her own turmoil from the death of her brother, who had lived a life destabilized by mental illness, at age 34.
The resulting artworks, more than two dozen, will be on display and for sale June 26-28, with 20 percent of the proceeds going to The Life Link, a Santa Fe nonprofit that provides an array of services for people with behavioral disorders.
Twenty-two years after Jason died, Matlin said it was about time she did something for the cause.
“The stigma of mental illness was an issue for him. He really wanted to eradicate it,” she said, adding that she is interested in helping raise money for local services and drawing attention to their availability.
And she also wants to humanize the brain disorders by revealing the essence of the people who have them.
Matlin, who moved with her fiancé Lee Zlotoff to Eldorado from California last October, said she had been drawing since she was a child.
But under pressure to get a degree that would lead to a job, she majored in design and worked at creating illustrations for architects, interior designers and similar professionals.
But when her kids were teens, she found herself pacing behind the sofa while they watched television, feeling the need for something else. So she started taking art classes. One instructor told her she was a painter, Matlin said, so, although she was a little scared of the medium and thought it would be too hard for her, she ventured forth on that path.
Her first series, which portrayed nude women in a number of poses, “turned out to be my process for working through a bad marriage,” which she has since ended, she said. The different women’s bodies express feelings ranging from surrender to defiance – in some cases, emotions Matlin said she didn’t realize she was portraying at the time.
When she wrapped up that series, she searched for something else to paint and turned to her deceased sibling.
Sweet and smart and gentle
“I was going to do portraits of famous people who had mental illness and include a painting of my brother,” Matlin said. “I started with Beethoven and Van Gogh, but there are limited photos of them – and I just didn’t feel it.”
But the paintings of Jason came from deep feelings. What began with a portrait of him as a baby turned into 25 to 28 paintings, with a recurring motif of zebras and their stripes to indicate the highs and lows, the contrasted extremes of Jason’s bipolar condition.
Other family members and Matlin herself make appearances in the paintings, drawn from family photos. Sometimes, shadow figures can barely be seen, again suggesting duality of the featured subjects. One depiction of Jason as an adult almost uses the zebra stripes as bars of a cage, indicating how he could feel trapped by his illness.
A diptych of Jason seated with his wife – their marriage lasted only a year and was dissolved after he entered a manic period – can be arranged so that they are seated together or to register a gap between them.
Spending so much time with images of her brother has had a definite effect on her emotionally, Matlin said.
“It’s letting me revisit and love him again,” she said. “I got to have him in my life in a way and let go of some of the pain – his pain and my pain. You don’t forget it, but it doesn’t hurt quite as much.”
Matlin said her mother took Jason to a therapist when he was only 9, thinking something was wrong when he spent a lot of time holding a magnifying glass to concentrate the sun to melt his GI Joe plastic toys. At the time, it was said he was reacting to his parents’ divorce, she said.
But family members started noticing symptoms of mental illness was he was 20. Attending college in San Francisco, he came home to Los Angeles for the holidays. It was cool, at least for people native to the area, and he was wearing a parka. But wearing that parka and all of his other clothes, he jumped into the swimming pool, she said.
After that time, he cycled rapidly between highs and lows, sometimes so depressed that it took a social worker to urge him out of bed and sometimes so energetic that no one knew how to direct or contain him.
“He would get in your face when he was manic and retreat when he was depressed,” she said.
But he was more than his illness. He was sweet and smart and gentle, she said. “His vocabulary was amazing,” Matlin said.
“He was quite a bit ahead of his time for a kid of that time,” she continued. Before clay animation was big, he would fill the kitchen with such figures, she said. He created a sidecar for filming from a motorcycle, but lost the invention in the desert during one of his manic episodes. He worked in B movies, sometimes as a lighting technician, sometimes as a grip when he was having more difficulty keeping an emotional balance.
“He was frustrated because he couldn’t move up” in the film industry, Matlin said. And his illness was what kept him from progressing, she said.
The final two years of his life, his disease seemed under control, Matlin said. She began to feel as if she had her brother back again.
But it struck again, and his doctor told him to return to the hospital. As he went about errands to prepare for his hospitalization, he died in a motorcycle accident. “He wasn’t wearing a helmet,” she said.
Some people wonder if the act might have been deliberate, but Matlin said she believes it was an accident. She read his journal, she said, and saw no indication that he was thinking of taking his own life.
She still misses him, she added.
In her bedroom, a canvas stands on an easel where she is working on a painting, taken from a picture of him sleeping with his dog, in which she was intending to refer to the crash with a large motorcycle wheel to the side.
But she’s not so sure. Instead, she was drawn to a peaceful image of him sitting alone in a boat and added it to the canvas.
“It has ended up looking to be more peaceful, more of a dream world,” Matlin said. “It’s the way I want to remember him.”