“Our little publication brings the kind of understanding and acceptance that is much needed when those feelings of isolation and shame kick in”

“Our little publication brings the kind of understanding and acceptance that is much needed when those feelings of isolation and shame kick in”

A conversation with Célia Schouteden, editor of peculiars magazine.

Célia Schouteden is the founder and editor-in-chief of peculiars magazine (@peculiarsmag). Her contribution to the artistic world has also been expressed through her passion for film photography. She is originally from Belgium, and currently attends university there to study Psychology. Her efforts to promote mental health awareness have reached all corners of the world.

Interview by Asha Douglas

Why do you think that people need a magazine like peculiars? What does this magazine in particular add to the conversation around mental health in society?

peculiars magazine was created at a time when I was feeling quite isolated and couldn’t find comfort or any sense of community anywhere in my life or online. As an artist and an introvert, I felt very misunderstood and lonely, almost ‘out of place,’ and I figured that I was not the only one. We just had to find a way to get together somehow.

At the time, I had not seen any independent magazine that specifically focused their work on bringing awareness around mental health by using art as their main medium, so, one day, I decided to create my own with the aim of doing just that. I realize now that we are so much more out there than I initially thought, and I am really glad to be a part of that important conversation.

I am convinced that many people are still shut up tight inside themselves because they fear the stigma that surrounds the whole topic of mental illness and mental struggles in general. Shame is a big part of our journey as survivors and it is quite tough to bear it all alone.

Many of those survivors happen to be artists or poets of some kind. I believe that they deserve to be seen and heard, and I think that our little publication brings the kind of understanding and acceptance that is much needed when those feelings of isolation and shame kick in. I know from experience that art can help and, sometimes, save lives somehow. By giving people a safe place to express themselves and validate their feelings and struggles, we also hope to cultivate their resilience and their strengths by giving them the opportunity to connect with each other in meaningful ways.

I think it is extremely important for people to understand that they can survive through anything that they are experiencing, and that there are people who will be there for them through all of it. As a survivor, what was your journey from your experience to founding peculiars like? How did your motivation to heal translate over to the finished product of the magazine?

I have always been a creative dreamer. All my life, I have felt emotionally connected to words and ideas. Art has been a big part of my journey. As a child, I remember writing small comic books and poetry. I used to draw and paint a lot too.

For a very long time, I was not able to connect with anyone in “real life” and spent most of my days in my head or immersed in books, falling in love with fictional characters and poets, and writing about them in my diary. In many ways, I think being an introverted dreamer has been a blessing and a curse. Always having this crazy ocean of stories and characters living and evolving in my mind probably saved me from entirely disappearing at times when the ugly outside world was acting up, but it also prevented me from making real, human connections. See, I didn’t quite fit in.

A few years ago, I was at my worst. Stuck. Instead of letting go, which was my initial plan, I asked for help. Getting me to finally reach out for help came out of a combination of things that were present in my life at the time: a loving, understanding boyfriend, my newly found passion for film photography and Sylvia Plath’s poetry. Unable to focus on anything, it had been years since I finished a book at that time. But I did finish The Bell Jar and started reading more and more of Plath’s poetry. It has been four years and I am still hooked.

My new love for poetry and film photography introduced me to so many independent magazines and online communities, I lost count. It has opened doors that I didn’t even know existed. I think that’s how it all started. From the moment I stepped into this new vivid and poetic world of film photography, I knew that I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself and really get involved. Creating peculiars magazine helped ME to heal and I hope it comforts others as much as it has comforted me.

Which artists would you say are currently the most inspirational when expressing their mental health journey?

Oh, it is always so hard to choose only one! I adore the wonderful work of one of our dear contributors, Elodie Bachelier (@lod_bach). I now consider her a friend, even though we have never met. I can relate to many of her feelings, and her paintings are truly beautiful. She’s so inspiring.

Tell me a little about the process of reviewing submissions. How long does it take you to respond to the artists whose submissions you have chosen to publish? Is the process the same for all of the different media? If not, how do you evaluate them differently?

Reviewing submissions is really time consuming but I am lucky enough to have Claire as my fiction and poetry editor. She helps A LOT. She is the most understanding and patient person I know (besides my boyfriend that has to live with me!); she knows that I struggle with ADHD and that I am (very) disorganized, and still keeps working with me. It amazes me every time I think of it. I am grateful for her.

It usually takes at least 2 weeks to get an answer from us. Claire is in charge of the poetry and fiction submissions; I am in charge of the visual art submissions and essays reviewing.

I like to immerse myself completely into the artist’s inner world before giving my answer, so it takes time. First, I review the work that was selected and sent to me. Then, I usually check the artist’s website and social media accounts. It helps me form a general idea of who this person is and if their aesthetic fits ours. I usually accept the submissions that I receive, as long as they follow the guidelines, provide basic information and start with “Hello.”

Submissions for our printed issues are reviewed a bit differently: we only give our answer after the deadline is passed so it gives us more time to put the pieces together and see if they fit well as a whole. When it comes to our printed issues, we are a bit more rigorous in our selection because there are limited spots for each category (visual art, poetry, essays,…).

In terms of the structure of the magazine, are you looking for content that describes a range of mental health experiences, or is there some particular conscious or unconscious guideline that you keep in mind?

Ideally, it would be better to keep the different types of experiences balanced but it is not something that we have been able to do so far. We receive a lot of poetry, and rarely receive essays. It is something that I would like to change in the future. I love poetry but I would also love to feature more essays and interviews.

We are currently looking for content that describes personal experiences of having to deal with an eating disorder, hallucinations, any type of anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder or personality disorders, which we rarely get the chance to feature. We are also looking for mental health professionals or psych college students that are willing to talk about their experience and what they consider to be important when it comes to mental health issues. Stories of recovery, articles on personal advices and therapeutic tools are also welcomed!

We do not have any particular guideline that we keep in mind when it comes to the writing content. I, as a visual artist, am more selective when it comes to photography because it has to fit the aesthetic that I have in mind.

Publishing the work of mental health professionals is an interesting angle to include. Can you talk about this idea and how you expect to see it functioning in the magazine?

I believe that mental health professionals are a very important part of people’s recovery process. I had the opportunity to meet a great psychiatrist in the past that finally made me realize that I was not crazy and that I did need help, that it was ok not to be ok. I never thought any professional would empathize that I actually deserved their help. At the time, it was hard for me to trust my feelings and thoughts and I just needed someone to validate what I was feeling. I think that I would like to bring more of that into the magazine somehow. To have professionals write about their experience with their patients and what they are going through as human beings, would surely be a huge asset to us as a community.

Also, many mental health professionals are survivors themselves, so it could give us some insight on how they manage and deal with their job while they are, sometimes, still struggling. It would be interesting to get them to talk about tools that they have personally used or suggested to their patients and that helped them on a daily basis. The idea would be to create some “tool kits” for a vast range of disorders (how to help with panic attacks or how to recognize a dissociative state in your friend or family member, for example).

I appreciate how much you care about the members of the mental health community. Do you stay in contact with the community that you have formed through peculiars? Are there submissions that cause you to reach out or keep in touch?

I will speak for myself here because I am not aware of Claire or Lexi’s relationships to our contributors or artists.

Yes, I do stay in contact with some of the visual artists featured in the magazine. I follow some of them through my private accounts and, from time to time, talk to them about their work, or interact with them through the comments section. Some of the visual artists that have been featured in our publication are individuals that I now consider my friends.

Some submissions are very intense so it can be really hard not to check on them once in a while, just to make sure that they are doing well. I love getting news from previously featured artists or writers; I would welcome them back anytime!

Do you eventually want to expand your staff? If so, what would you look for in a candidate?

We are a team of only 3 volunteers, which can make it hard to stay active and post content regularly. Claire, Lexi and I are currently college students so, unfortunately, we do not have a lot of free time or financial resources. As for now, I do not wish to expand our staff because we just started to find our ‘work balance.’

In the future, it would be great to add new members to the team, potentially some that are working as psychologists. Being directly in contact with professionals would give us precious insights to the field work. It would also be a real upside to have a graphic designer of some kind in our team.

It is hard to expand our staff as we do not gain money from working on this project and as it is really time consuming, so candidates must participate as volunteers.

I noticed that the members of peculiars’ staff are from three different continents. How does that affect your workflow? How do you handle most of the operations? On a similar note, how has COVID19 (Coronavirus) affected your work with peculiars?

It can be quite tricky at times (since we are in different time zones) but we make it work, mostly by sending each other emails and by using a storage Cloud (Google Drive) where everything that needs to be featured is stored so we can all have access to it. We have never seen each other in real life or used Skype, which can seem weird to most people. I guess that it is mostly a direct consequence of the fact that I have been struggling with a lot of (social) anxiety for pretty much all my life and that I am, to say the least, very uncomfortable with that kind of thing. But, of course, I would love to meet them both someday! I would rather meet them in person than use Skype. (Call me old fashioned!)

The current COVID19 situation has not affected our work with the magazine. In fact, I have been more active online lately as a result of being in quarantine. Being home gives me a lot of free time.

How do you see peculiars evolving in the next few years? Is there an ideal path that you see it going down or a goal that you would like to reach?

I have so many ideas for peculiars, it is hard for me to focus on particular ones and make them happen though, at least for now. (I am still quite disorganized, even after 3 years, but I am working on it!)

It would be a dream of mine to expand our range of actions to efficiently increase awareness around mental health. For example, I have a project of physical art exhibitions for the future. I would also love to work on small books or fanzines promoting different artists or therapeutic tools. Above all, I would love to keep releasing a printed copy of the magazine, once or twice a year, and my ideal goal would be to raise money for charities and our contributors.

For now, I am currently working on our new website and we are preparing our next open call for our third printed issue, Ashes of Life, that will come out next Fall. For the next issue, I would like to work with a local printer so I can change the quality of our final products.

The most important thing for us is to keep promoting artists, poets and writers and to validate their experience and feelings, because we believe that they deserve to be seen and heard. We are so grateful for them and for their trust in our project. Forever grateful.

Asha Douglas is a Junior at Gonzaga University. The Seattle-born spoken word poet specializes in historical persona and character poems. Her work was published in Our Voices in 2019.