Art and Depression
I have a student in my illustration class that had a rough day recently. In class it was obvious that he was having a hard time coping with something. It was also obvious that it wasn’t something totally to do with the class. This guy is really good, a serious student, excited about art and what the world has to offer, so it was surprising to see him in this state. After speaking with him for just a few minutes I could see his eyes getting wet and he got quieter. But he’d given me enough to go on. He was struggling with not being able to come up with suitable solutions to concepts/problems for some of his various assignments. We talked through it all and I told him that he’d loaded too high of an expectation in himself for a problem/assignment that I saw as a simple continuation or follow through of the assignment before, where I try to get the students to utilize what they learned and apply it to something of their own. Basically an open assignment wherein they would use the reference photography they’d shot the week before.
But, being an overachiever he had heaped incredible amounts of expectations on himself instead of just enjoying the use of the reference.
Anyway, that led me to write this post. Having dealt with depression pretty much all my life, and observing the amount of depression I see in so many creative individuals, I thought I’d ruminate on it all.
Depression runs in my family, though I didn’t know that until a number of years ago when my mother told me that my father struggled with it his whole life. That was news to me. My father was the backbone of our family and there were only a couple of times when I saw my father in moments of emotional pain (the funeral of my aunt — his sister, and the death of his mother and father). When I think back on my own childhood and later adulthood, I realize that I’ve been personally living with depression pretty much my whole life. Of course I didn’t know that, and in true kid fashion just figured that was the way things were. We know that depression is heritable. I wonder, too, if this put me more into a position of emotional sensitivity and more prone to “feeling” things and being drawn to the visual arts. I don’t know.
The usual perception is that art’s easy and that an artist’s life is full of enjoyment and playtime. That certain people are born with artistic skills, which, of course, is tantamount to saying that one didn’t have to work for the tremendous skills one might have. Ludicrous.
Is it fun? Yes, it is. Quite often, in fact. But it also depends on what one’s idea of fun is. Is it fun like children in a playground laughing beyond belief and running about in a fog of happiness. No, not really. At least not for me and the artists that I know. It’s fun in the sense that one’s on an exploration or safari and the journey is a good one. Lots of heady anticipation of what could come of the current piece on the board or easel. The energy level can be extremely high and you hit what my teacher Barron Storey called “Zero Time”, where time basically disappears and all focus is entirely on the piece. One wakes up from a sort of daze in these instances and wonders where all the time went. This zoning out seems to happen less for me now than it did when I was younger. But it’s an incredibly heady experience, even if discombobulating at times.
But it’s hard stuff. Damn hard. An artist friend of mine, Tommy Lee Edwards said once, “I wish I could bleed from the eyes every time I do this, so there’d be some kind of physical manifestation of how hard this shit is!” It’s not all fun and games to be sure. Anyone who says that they can’t draw a straight line with a ruler SHOULD know how hard it is to do this. The quip suggests they’ve tried to draw before and it was too hard so they gave up.
Interestingly, there’s evidence now refuting the idea of prodigies. Studies have shown that the reason one becomes a Bobby Fisher, or a Jimi Hendrix is due to an all-encompassing focus on the part of the individual to pursue their one true passion. Hendrix slept with his guitar. It was everything to him and he practiced constantly. Hence, he was exceptionally good at it. Not gifted. Not necessarily touched by angels to do this. He pursued it with dogged determination, probably ignoring a lot of other things that life offered and threw in his path along the way. It. Is. Hard. Work.
When it’s good, it cannot be beat. When it’s bad, it can be the worst thing on the planet. So much is wrapped up in these pieces that we do. You have a vision in your head and what ultimately gets put down is a pale imitation of what you wanted to achieve. Hence the need to continue pushing toward that unachievable goal. And that kind of constant letdown takes its toll. There’s also the perks, mind you, that even though they don’t live up to what you envisioned, one can still be satisfied, sometimes extremely happy even. It’s not as though the work’s not constantly getting better. It is. That’s reason for feeling good. But there’s a cumulative effect of constantly being creative, of pushing one’s own buttons over and over and over again. Riding extremely high high’s and crashing headfirst into self-doubt with deplorable regularity.
For myself, I find that regardless of how anxious I might become when I sit down to work with the intimidating white of a sheet of paper or canvas, it’s also exhilarating. I can be depressed, down in the dumps, and though I have to force myself to sit down and get started, once I do I get to enter the zone. It’s the paint that does it. Once I start laying the paint down I can get lost in it. Troubles, at least for awhile, fade, and my love of paint comes forth.
Painting and drawing can be a wonderful refuge from depression. And the effects of having a good day drawing or painting can linger for hours, maybe even days, if I’m lucky. So there is comfort in the work, which can be an incredible salve. Most times.
Interestingly, not that I haven’t noticed it before, writing does that for me too. But that’s a creative outlet as well, isn’t it. What’s also interesting is that many of my friends who are capable artist’s all, whose work serves as inspiration to legions of fans and viewers, are extremely unsure of themselves in many ways. It would surprise many people to know that. But they are generally always questioning themselves and where the work is going and have incredible self-doubts about their work. And that’s a motivator, ultimately, and they are able to work with this monkey on their backs. In fact, they soar beautifully with that monkey on their backs. One wonders if they didn’t have that leering, simian passenger if they would do as well as they do and if the work would suffer from its loss. But that’s not to say they also aren’t confident in what they’re doing too. It’s up and down.
I know I can very easily talk/think myself into sinking deeply into depressive states. I do it fairly regularly, on the inside. Outside, I can function and usually put on a great air of jocular camaraderie, but inside I’m numb, though it’s not noticeable (at least I don’t think it is) by anyone.This can go on for days, weeks sometimes. And my work suffers because of it. When I finally do sit down to work, I crank and can get a LOT of stuff done. Paintings and drawings will just explode out of me. Then another period of silence from the muse and the need. That’s when the guitar playing starts, songs get written and lots of writing gets done. Though, incidentally, all the writing I’ve been doing lately on the blog hasn’t been from that, funnily enough.
Interesting, also, is the idea of art therapy. Many individuals get lots of help with depression through art therapy, though it’s said that being an artist actually gets in the way of benefitting from this particular form of therapy. Go figure. However, many creative individuals were/are able to purge their personal demons through their works. Apparently Goethe in writing ‘The sorrows of young Werther’, exorcised his own suicidal impulses and thoughts, probably saving his own life. So it’s not as though there are no mental or emotional benefits to being creative.
Drawing and painting are forms, I believe, of meditation. And as a young man I reveled in my solitude. It was heavenly! I entered that world and was immediately gone. It was just a great, happy, exciting place to be. The struggle to get better pushed me. It was frustrating, that struggle, but one I loved, absolutely LOVED to dive into, because I could see the immediate results of the work. Yet, as I’ve grown older that alone-ness weighs heavier and heavier.
I’m a fairly outgoing person. I love to talk to people and I love to hear about people’s lives. I thrill to any stories about other’s childhoods. And thank God for my teaching because it forces me to get out and be in a social setting. Being with the students is a salve for me. It’s a way of getting to give something back and to relate to “real life” and recharge my batteries. Without it I would spend my days indoors and in my head. Not in and of itself a bad thing, but it can be bad.
I read an article early last year in the New York Times by Jonah Lehrer, “Depression’s Upside” February 25, 2010, (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/magazine/28depression-t.html) which mentions that depression seems to be fairly prevalent in the arts (Vincent van Gogh immediately comes to mind). Why? Is it that creatives are more prone to questioning so much about the world and themselves, and having incredibly high expectations of themselves? If so, why the drive to continue to push, to really reach for what seems fairly unattainable? Is it the monastic existence of so many creatives that fuels this? The article goes on to state that for some depression is a clarifying force. Again, Vincent comes to mind and one wonders if he would have produced such profound work without depression acting as this clarifying force. The article mentions Darwin’s bouts with depression and the effect they had on his work. Sometimes, Darwin wrote, it is the sadness that informs as it “leads an animal to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial.” The darkness was a kind of light. As Aristotle stated in the fourth century B.C. “that all men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus; indeed some suffered even from melancholic disease.”
The article discusses new ways that some scientists and doctors are thinking about depression, reinterpreting it. One thought that seems fairly radical, yet I believe is true, is that depression has a secret purpose and is our mind’s way of healing itself. The article contended that the mind is not prone to “pointless programming bugs.” The body is remarkably resilient and has so many defense mechanisms for healing itself. The mind is no different. In moments of great psychological blows, the mind descends into depression, circling the wagons to better deal with the situation. It enters into weird loops of thought, (what scientists call a ruminative cycle — which derives from the Latin word for “chewed over”) working and reworking the material over and over. It is known that people with ruminative tendencies are more likely to become depressed, which might explain why creatives have a higher incidence of depression.
Anyway, the person this is happening to retreats from most contact and spends quite a lot of time sleeping. The theory is that the mind is working out the problem in its own way, a subconscious healer. It will continue to work the problem until it has parsed it out and solved it.
In my own case, after going through a painful divorce I’ve gone through a couple or three years of achingly bitter introspection and depression. The ruminative cycles have been working overtime. I’ve functioned okay, getting done the things I need to get done, teaching my classes etc. But the thread of my life these last few years has been the depression and the inner struggle to understand what had happened and where my life was going now. I basically went to ground. I wasn’t calling on my friends, and, luckily, they understood totally what was happening and gave me the understanding and the room to deal with it in my own way. This was to sort of close myself off and just wallow in the why’s and wherefor’s. Not totally a pity party, really, though there was certainly some of that floating about as well. Now, after all this introspection and wrassling with my own feelings of persecution, rejection, owning my own shit, etc. I believe I’ve come out of the other end a better person for it all. I’ve got my kids and love them tremendously and they keep me grounded totally. I’ve spent a great deal of time reconnecting with the things that I was all about before getting married.
One thing that kept me sane was pursuing my photography. Whenever I spent time with my children my cameras were cranking away. It was a way to catalog the growth of my children, and how time is incredibly fleeting. It got me out of doors with them on a regular basis and we had the best times together going firefly hunting and things like that. And I got them interested in it as well — they’ve both got the eye for it.
And piles and piles of writing. Some about the things going on in my head, my feelings etc. But also just projects that I’ve invested lots of time in. They all helped.
It’s interesting to note that the things that pull me out of my depressive states are not consistent. In one case quite awhile back I fell into a pretty great depression, and what pulled me out of it was writing more than painting or drawing. I wrote every day for a very, very long time. I wrote my entire blues book (still unpublished) during this particular spate of writing. I caught hell among some of my art friends who continually prodded me to get painting and drawing. The thing was I didn’t feel the need for drawing at all. Yet, creating pictures with words, using language, was just what I needed. I had so much to get off my chest and it found voice through writing. It was wonderful. At other times I’ve grounded myself through the art. Recently, working on my show for Belgium and Paris gave me clarity and focus. I was enjoying painting in a way I had not for quite awhile.
My student was able to shift gears and get back to cranking out beautiful work, but not without having gone through a period of self-reflection and, more than likely, no little amount of inner turmoil. The prevailing orthodoxy these days is to immediately medicate. Yet with this new science one wonders if waiting for a little bit might not be better in order to let the mind try and heal itself. Of course, any prolonged period could be detrimental to the overall well-being of an individual.
For myself I’m on a small dose of an anti-depressant as I’m chemically imbalanced. I’ve taken myself off of the medication at various times to no great detrimental effect. But being on it I know it takes the edge off the anxiety I sometimes feel. But I’m one who lives quite a bit in my head anyway and rumination is part of who I am and how I work. So I’ve learned, for the most part, to live with it all.
I do see it in my son. The divorce has hit him hardest. He feels things deeply and I tell him that it’s okay to be that way. Most people hide their feelings, bury things and as a result suffer problems later on. The only problem with feeling things deeply, of course, is that you feel things deeply, and it’s not always an easy row to hoe. But better that than not to feel at all. We talk a lot and I want him to know that reaching out is a good thing. That there are people who love him and are there for him.
So, anyway, just a few thoughts on this stuff. Just know that if you suffer from depression you should seek help and know that there are tons of people out there who are willing to listen and help in any way they can. The worst thing is to just keep it all bottled up and to feel that you’re adrift on a tiny boat in an awfully big, empty sea. That’s just not the case.
Dive into the things that fire you up in a good way. Love up on the art, the creative side of yourself because there’s more light there than not, and it is a road that moves forward.
ADDITION (February 4): This note from an ex student came to my email box yesterday, rather than the comments section, and I asked if it was okay to post it as it would maybe help others. So—
I wanted to start off by saying that I have missed you and I hope that you are well. I understand what it means to need to heal and please know that I have hoped for you to get to a better place in your life.
I have always had the utmost respect for you have been a fan of yours for a long time. Meeting you and later, getting to know you, was one of the greatest things in my life. I say this only because I don’t know if I have ever told you what your friendship meant to me.
Having said that, I wanted to thank you for writing on Art and Depression. I believe, at least for me, that it is one of those topics that it really helps to have someone else bring up. It is hard to admit to yourself that you have an issue and that you truly need help. Its a bit like the Emperor’s Clothes. I needed someone else to call him out for being naked.
About 6 months ago, I left Richmond, after leaving L.A and D.C. and everything I have ever started, and went back to live with my folks because I knew that I needed help.
I was in a pretty terrible place in my life and I felt that I needed to reboot. For years, my feelings and depression have impeded me in so many ways. It has kept me from valuable relationships with others and myself. More importantly, it has prevented me from really enjoying Art.
For the longest time, I was confused. It is so easy when something has you spinning in your head to question whether or not it is right for you. This doubt would give way to further depression and you know where I am going.
All I could think about was art but the thought of doing it only made me feel worse because I would begin to think, “everyone is so much better than me”, or “it’s too hard” or whatever the case may be. But I thought to myself, why is it that I can only think about art. why is it the one thing that I feel makes me feel so miserable all of the time was the only thing that could make me feel better.
It was a very hard thing for me to think about. I wanted a way to feel better. I had felt that I had wasted my education. I wasted the vast resources that I had in you and Sterling. I was lazy, unmotivated, unsure.
It took me a long time to get to a place where I could admit that there was something wrong and I needed to change.
I packed my stuff up, went back to my parents house and found the answer. When I got home, I found on the bookshelf, the copy of Enemy Ace that I had in my room. The copy that I had from High School. It was then that I was really struck. It made me think about everything that I had squandered. I let myself get in the way.
Looking at the book, I realized why we struggle. Why we labor. Why it is all worth it. It is all we know how to do, and if it is hard that means you are doing it right.
I had decided that I was not going to fight it anymore. I know what it is I need out of life and I need art. I need to get back to what it is I love most. I need to fight the laziness, and put the time in.
I have committed to starting over at square one. Do what makes me happy.
I left my parents house and moved to Austin. I wanted to start anew. Find myself, my voice, my art.
I hope that I can call on you in the future. I will continue to read your blog and be motivated and keep my path. You have helped me so much in the past and I felt that you should know that.
I hope to make you proud to call me a student and friend in the future.
All the best,
Man, thanks for the kind words. I miss hanging out with you, too. Let me tell you, you were one of the people that made Richmond a bearable, even fun place to be. I was in my own weird world of hurt while I was teaching there, which all came to a head when I came down here. But hanging with you and a few others kept my head on straight and allowed me to function and even have a pile of laughs in the process.
I’m glad that the post on Depression found you. Sorry that you’ve been going through some tough times. The good thing is that these tough times usually end up making us stronger, you know?
The thing you need to remember is that your drive for art really will sustain you, in the long run. Sometimes we get lost along the way. Happens to everyone. Really.
Doing what you did, in the end, was an extreme act of courage. You took control, man. That’s hard to do. Most don’t have the wherewithal to do it.
I know you’ll find a ton of inspiration in Austin. Are you going to be at the TAD studio or anything? You’ll instantly connect with the guys there. Great people all. Francis and Orlando, in particular, will keep your engine running on full-tilt boogie all the time.
You can certainly call on me anytime. The reason we sort of drifted apart in communication was all my doing. Being in a sort of similar place as you are now, I just went to ground. I’m only just now getting back on my feet and feel like I’m finally coming out of the other side on all the bullshit I’ve been through. Some of it was my own doing, of course, but bucket loads was not. Sorting through it all, the only sure thing is that I’ll never understand it. Never get the answers I desperately would like to know. So, wrapping my head around that was/is tough. Now I know I just have to take what I can get and move on.
I’ve been trying to reconnect with the things that always mattered to me. Reading comics again, READING again, writing more, playing guitar again, and loving my children more than is possible. Slow going, but still — going.
Anyway, Hell, man, I’ve never not been proud to call you an ex student or friend. I tried calling after I got your letter but I’m not sure if my number is current or not.
Hang in there and get in touch. Here’s my number:
Hey, do you mind if I post your letter on the blog? I can take your name off if you want. But I think it helps others to hear what we’re all going through.
Take care, ———! Keep on cranking! Would love to see some of the new work.
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