Since the suicide of Robin Williams, much has been written suggesting a connection between depression and highly creative personalities. A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly cites the suicides of Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, Mark Rothko, Diane Arbus, Anne Sexton, and Arshile Gorky as possible evidence.
What has not been mentioned is the connection between art making and healing.
As a person who has been flattened by depression on more than one occasion, I’m intimately aware of the feelings that Michael Redhill so eloquently described in his recent Globe article. Feelings of paralysis and despair plague the depressed person mercilessly. I believe that more of us have been there than we care to admit.
After more than 20 years at the helm of an arts school, I can tell you about countless psychiatrists who referred their depressed patients to us, knowing how therapeutic making art can be.
You don’t have to be an artist to engage in artistic expression. Many of us think that we have no particular talent, therefore, what’s the point of even trying to make art? In fact, just the act of creating something can be a joyful and liberating experience.
How can making art have an impact on a person’s mood? Creating art can open up a space in what, when you’re depressed, feels like a seamless darkness. “There is a crack in everything – that’s where the light gets in.” That’s Leonard Cohen speaking (and he ought to know). Art making is not a cure. But it can certainly lighten the burden. Here are seven reasons why – I’m sure there are more:
Distraction – When you are making art, under the guidance of an inspiring instructor, you enter the ‘zone’ where time doesn’t matter, in fact nothing matters other than what you are engaged in. This is a wonderful distraction from the constant rumination about how low you are feeling;
Hope – When you’re engaged in an artistic activity, you are constantly making choices – how can you fall prey to black-and-white thinking with such an array of colors to choose from? Often depression comes from feeling trapped, feeling that you have fewer options in life than you would like. The moment we can make choices, in any realm, we feel more empowered and less like a victim. We all need to feel a sense of possibility – even if it’s within a small realm that forms part of our life;
Discovery – When you are making art, you are expressing something that can’t be expressed in words. Feelings come out that you might not have been aware of – this is a liberating experience, and sometimes illuminating. A wise woman once told me that when we create we discover ourselves.
Freedom – Making art involves much trial and error – a lot of playing around with ideas and approaches. In a supportive setting (not necessarily a therapeutic setting), playfulness is encouraged – there is no ‘right’ way to do it. Not having to worry about being judged is a gift to enjoy.
Action – The simple step of taking an action – getting to a class, putting charcoal to paper, is, in my experience, the best antidote to depression. It is so easy to sit in your cocoon, stare into space and think about how depressed you are. The minute you take an action you have something to feel good about. Even the smallest step forward can make a difference.
Satisfaction – You might discover that you have a talent you’d never noticed. Often when we’re depressed we feel that we’re not really good at much. It’s so important for all of us (especially children) to find one thing we’re good at. In my years of running an arts school, I’ve seen numerous lawyers, and corporate executives do an about face in their careers. One of them had written four books in Constitutional Law before turning to painting. She’s now a full time artist whose work sells well in a reputable Queen Street gallery. These ‘suits’ did not feel satisfied in the work world they were inhabiting, realizing that you don’t make a million dollars without paying for it in some other currency. So they decided to throw themselves into something completely different. Some have become full time practicing artists and couldn’t be happier, despite the fact that they are earning far less money.
Connection – Sometimes depressed people feel that no one in the world understands them. They often discover one or two kindred spirits in an art class. This personal connection is always helpful to a person who can feel isolated by their condition.
While I know psychiatrists are suggesting to their depressed patients that trying an art class could be a good thing, I can never distinguish them from other students. In class, they’re as absorbed, curious and as eager to learn as the next person. What art has to teach them is not so much what to do with a pot of paint, but how have a life worth living.