BEFORE SHE CAN even close the door, Elise Mravunac is already apologizing for the state of her tiny downtown apartment, which, truth be told, is a total disaster.
Piles of clothes cover the carpet; a makeshift bed of old blankets and a sleeping bag lies in the middle of the floor. She explains that, because of the cramped space, she had to choose between a proper place to rest her head and a proper place to create her art. Obviously, the latter won out. Considering that Mravunac has spent the last few nights sleeplessly preparing for her first-ever show of drawings at Portland State University’s Littman Gallery, the maniacal clutter makes sense. The pill bottles dotting the room—medication to treat her anxiety and depression—tell a more sobering story: The 25-year-old artist suffers from debilitating Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). The disease was first diagnosed when Mravunac was in elementary school, and it has cost her relationships and jobs; it also left her stigmatized in school as “that girl who’s always in the nurse’s office.” If the disease is one constant in Mravunac’s life, her art is the other.
“Some days it’s like waking up and feeling half dead,” Mravunac says, her eyes glassy from the recent succession of late nights. “Other days I’ll be so focused. That’s why I kill myself to be productive—I never know when I’m going to waste five hours doing nothing.”
If that’s the case, then lately Mravunac has been using her time wisely. In addition to having a prominent show at Portland State (titled A Brief History, it ended in October), she is one of just 15 artists nationwide to be recognized this year by the Washington, DC-based VSA Arts, a 34-year-old organization (founded by former ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith) that supports artists with disabilities. As part of the honor, VSA awarded Mravunac a $10,000 prize and placed her creations in a few very high-profile buildings around DC. Her acrylic and oil piece called You’re Doing It Wrong now hangs in the venerable Smithsonian Institution, while an intricately detailed black-and-white drawing titled I Wouldn’t Worry resides in the Kennedy Center. Both works will remain there through the end of this year.
“This award’s forced me to disclose my condition to people in a way I never have before,” she says. “It’s also an affirmation that I’m not stupid—I actually have potential as an artist.”
Though Mravunac is predominantly a self-taught oil painter, the majority of her work on display at the Littman Gallery is pen on paper. Most of the drawings depict photo-realistic human figures in various poses symbolizing struggle—a common theme in her work. They start as sketches drawn on multiple layers of paper; then Mravunac cuts out various pieces and designs from the drawing with an X-Acto knife and places them elsewhere on the piece to create a multilayered, 3-D effect. Scattered throughout are printed phrases such as “Let me put it to you this way” and “It’s not your fault.” Mravunac says the vague sentiments are open for interpretation yet extremely personal. “My work is very self-absorbed but also the product of a culture where people are increasingly isolated,” she says. “It shows how hard I’ve had to try to understand the world around me, and also what we all must do to survive in society.”
Painting and drawing have always been a necessary escape for the Lake Oswego native. Mravunac was taking Ritalin by the time she hit elementary school, and the drug’s main side effect, intense stomach pain, often landed her in the nurse’s office. In high school, being labeled as the “weird girl” didn’t make things any easier; nor did her inability to hold down a job after graduation. Life at Portland State is better, mainly, she says, because she’s able to accept being “the girl who’s always late and unshowered.” She’s currently one geology requirement short of a BA in liberal studies.
A few days after our meeting, at the opening of A Brief History, Mravunac looks rested as she catches up with friends, family, and colleagues. Her paintings and drawings are placed in thematic succession, the last of which is a series of antique frames, each containing one of the words in the phrase “Let’s put it all behind us.” It’s a fitting theme for the evening.
“I was always worried that if I took my ADD diagnosis seriously, I would use it as an excuse,” she says, studying this final piece with a tiny smile. “I haven’t, and my art is proof. For the first time, I feel like I have a shot at making a better life for myself.”