‘The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness’ is a groundbreaking, large-scale multi-modal project weaving the worlds of literature, music and visual art together in the story of one boy’s journey into mental illness. Please join us for the screening of this 50-minute film is followed by a Q&A with its creator, intermodal artist Matt Ottley on Thursday, June 23 from 6pm at the University of Sydney.


“I think the arts are a direct conduit to our deeper emotional thinking that bypasses logical, superficial thinking, and can get right at the heart of what we feel about something.” 

Matt Ottley, 2022, The Guardian


Award-winning artist, composer, author and musician, Matt Ottley is one of Australia’s most acclaimed artists and creators. He has written and/or illustrated more than 40 beautiful books for children and young people. His art is inspirational and he has won many awards, the most recent being the 2021 Australian Children’s Book Council’s award for Picture Book of the Year and joint winner of The Prime Minister’s Award for Children’s Literature for ‘How to make a bird’  (with Meg McKinlay). This book has been described as a “paean to creativity”.

Matt is also a composer and musician and has composed music for some of his work as part of his initiative ‘The Sound of Picture Books’.

In a ground breaking, multimodal book with music, ‘The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness‘, published by Dirt Lane Press, WestWords, Matt has chosen to share his  journey and experiences of living with Bipolar Disorder through metaphor, music and image. He writes:


“I wished to create a narrative, in the form of a fable, that, through the combined art forms of literature, visual art and music, gives audiences an aesthetic experience of a psychotic episode. Embedded within this is a metaphorical work that explores the cultural boundaries of difference, tolerance, acceptance, and belief systems.”


In doing so Matt has created a unique and significant contribution to our understanding of mental illness. Through his chosen artforms, the reader/viewer is helped to better understand the huge challenges, issues and isolation that  face those suffering mental illnesses. The integration  of words, sensory images and powerful music provides incomparable insights about debilitating illnesses, especially psychosis, and the feeling of being judged because of being different..

Given this story includes a visual and aural representation of a psychotic episode, this beautiful and, at times, immensely sad and harrowing work is not for the very young or the fainthearted. The sophisticated themes are most appropriate  for young and more mature adults.


The visual art

As with all picture books, including those for adults, the artwork is central to the story. There are 74 works of art that bring together traditional media with digital. Initial sepia tones give way to brilliant colours and very complicated, sometimes distorted images that reflect heightened imaginings.

The music

The music is integral to our understanding of the story. Matt and guest composer Alf Demasi composed the 50 minute musical work for a typical modern symphony orchestra and a choir. In one section there is 68 part fugue that aims to provide audiences with a glimpse of the noisy, confusing and chaotic dimensions of mania and psychosis. Matt focused on instruments that have deep range because ‘The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness’ shares both light and dark times in his story. He writes:


“Music has a way of bringing a deeper emotional experience to words and images, and for me is an essential part of my artistic practice. The music adds to, enhances and sometimes works paradoxically with text and images, creating a more visceral experience.”

The music is included with the book in CD format.

The film

The 50 minute film draws together Matt’s artwork, narrative and symphonic composition recorded by the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir in the Czech Republic.

A brief synopsis

The story is not constructed as a traditional narrative and the text, images and music should be experienced wholistically wherever possible. It centres around the metaphor of a tree whose seed begins to grow from conception. As the boy grows, so does the tree. From an early age the boy feels different and wonders if there is something wrong with him. He is teased and bullied and friendships don’t seem to last. While the tree’s flower is ecstasy and gives him great insights, it also causes him to bear the ongoing sadness and grief of others. In a interview with The Guardian, Matt says:

“The tree really came out of one of my own psychotic experiences where I thought I had something growing inside me,” he says. “It was a plant that was sort of floral in nature. That’s what I wanted to express.”

The medicine doctors prescribe initially helps control the tree and for a time the boy’s life appears normal. Ultimately the tree overpowers the medicine and becomes all consuming, surrounding the boy physically but releasing his creative energies. He journeys through a ‘fantastical world’ and is confronted by the power of his imagination and creativity, the many absurdities and incongruities of this world and his own destructive potential.

The themes in this work range from joy and beauty to confusion to great pain, sadness and suffering to the need for empathy, acceptance of difference and the charge to challenge belief systems.

It is Ottley’s aim in this  work that his story helps us better understand mental illness. There is no doubt that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown experiences have contributed to deepening mental health issues for many Australians with 2 in 3 believing that their lives have deteriorated during 20-21. Ottley urges us not to judge. Instead, acceptance and empathy can help those who suffer be open about mental illness and seek help.


Matt Ottley

The CREATE Centre will host a FILM SCREENING of Matt Ottley’s ‘The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness’ on Thursday 23 June at the Old Geology Lecture Theatre, Camperdown Campus, University of Sydney

In addition to a showing of the film, Matt will hold a Q&A session where there will be an opportunity to ask him more about his experience of creating these breathtakingly expansive and deeply personal artworks.

Running order:

  • 6:00 pre-event refreshments at the venue
  • 7:00 film screening
  • 8:00 creator Q&A
  • 8:30 finish

Date and time

Thu 23rd Jun 2022, 6:00 pm – 8:30 pm AEST


Old Geology Lecture Theatre
Edgeworth David Building, Camperdown NSW 2006, Australia



All images supplied by the artist used with permission.  Post by Ian Thomson