Ideas: Dog Years
by Kaye Blegvad
‘This is a story about owning a dog’. In October 2017, New York-based illustrator Kaye Blegvad published Dog Years on Buzzfeed, a visual essay about experiencing depression. It relates depression to owning a bad dog, learning to live with it as a companion but also the experience of thriving with it. Well known for her work exploring femininity and sexuality, Dog Years was the first time she tackled her own experiences of depression, ‘I've made work about depression, self-image, identity, anxiety - but they were sort of subtle in displaying what they were really about. Dog Years is the first really explicit narrative piece I’ve made about mental health.’ After a wave of positive responses from anonymous readers through to psychologists, Kaye has just launched a Kickstarter to make Dog Years into a physical book.
The project started out earlier this year, as part of a series of talks on the theme of Survival at the Society of Illustrators in New York. Finding it too blunt to describe her experiences of mental health as it is, she used the metaphor of the black dog to pick apart the ways it has affected her life and work as a freelance illustrator, ‘it felt natural to talk about depression's impact on creativity…I wonder a lot about what work I could have done if I wasn't depressed, if I hadn't been concentrating so hard on surviving.’ A folkloric symbol related to ghostly apparitions in the night, the black dog has been used as a metaphor to describe melancholy and the supernatural throughout history. At the same time, the dog has been seen as a guardian, a companion and a best friend. Dog Years reflects on the complex, give-and-take relationship between a person and their depression, and how even though it will likely always be there, you find that there are also many other people, with all types of dogs, around you to be there for you.
Kaye’s reflections in Dog Years is perhaps most poignant for women, ‘A lot of the issues that come along with being a woman are also issues that depression feeds off of. Feeling inferior, exploited, unsafe, judged - that's just the delicious treat depression needs to gain power. Of course men feel those things too, but it seems increasingly clear that there's a dramatic imbalance in the way men and women get to navigate the world.’ Although the story was not specifically designed for women, the book arrives at a time where supporting women and sharing methods for self-care is particularly urgent.
The book will turn the visual essay into a beautiful, hardbound book, and rewards also come in the shape of special edition pins, prints, drawings, and jewellery. Darkly humorous and yet full of hope, Dog Years can act as a go-between for you or someone you know. As Kaye says in her campaign, ‘You can show it to your friends or family or partners who don't seem to get it when you try to tell them how you're feeling...You can lend it to a friend who's going through a rough patch. You can just look at it on your bookshelf from time to time and remember that you are not alone in this. We are a legion of dog owners.’
Words and Interview by Vivien Chan
Images by Kaye Blegvad