Betty Spackman: Creativity and Depression
CREATIVITY AND DEPRESSION
by Betty Spackman
I had the privilege of participating in this year’s CCCA Annual Arts Symposium put on by the Center for Christianity and Culture at BIOLA University in La Mirada, California. One of the workshops I was invited to help facilitate was “The Dark Side of Creativity: Creativity and Depression”, with Dr. Kevin Van Lant, a clinical psychologist and professor at BIOLA, and an artist from the Los Angeles area.
Dr. Van Lant first gave some statistics of the correlation between creative individuals and mental health, siting various artists who had suffered from severe depression and who had committed suicide. His list included in the percentage of suicides in the US at a given time, those who had committed suicide in different creative disciplines: actors 3.9%, dancers 2.3%, musicians 2.1%, photographers 2.8%, visual artists 3.0% and writers 4.5%.
This of course opened up the many questions surrounding the myths and actual correlations between mental health and creativity, some of which are addressed in part of the new book Wired to Create by Dr. Scott Barry Kauffman, who was the keynote speaker for the symposium. Dr. Kauffman has done extensive new research on the brains of creative individuals and I would recommend his book to anyone interested in how the creative mind operates. He talks, for example, about discoveries of various networks in the brain that are related to imagination and discusses things like how dopamine production is linked to not only creativity but psychotic symptoms.
The visual artist who came to share did so very openly about his very personal journey as a creative person who wrestles with clinical depression. His candid sharing included how his artistic practice suffered and stressed that, though his art making is now part of his process of managing the depression, anyone suffering in this way needs professional help. Art therapy may reveal problems, but is not always enough to heal them.
I came to this session as a non-expert mostly with questions and a passion for those many artists I know personally who are suffering from various levels and types of depression; from bouts of sullen moodiness that stop their creative flow, to the darkest side of emotional despair that brought them to a place of contemplating suicide. We have had many discussions in my studio about these issues.
I examined myself before I went to the symposium as someone not clinically depressed, but who, as other artists, other humans, suffers times of what I’ll call ‘fog and bog’, when I am miserable and I can’t work well or at all. In reflecting on these things I realized that for me there are two basic reasons I become ‘unhappy’ and find myself in varying degrees of dysfunction.
What I want
The first source of my occasional bouts of ‘depression’ has been not getting what I want – be it anything from attention to materials to opportunities. This is a very common human problem and one that as a Christian I have very real ways to deal with if I choose to do so. Scripture tells me to “wrestle with every thought until comes under the authority of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:5) and that there are choices I can make against self-pity, jealousy, anger, greed, and so on. I need to learn continually, with God’s help, “to be content in whatever state I’m in” (Philippians 4:11). The bottom line is after all, according to 1 Timothy 6:8, having food and clothing to be content. Although I have been without a home and have had to live in my car on more than one occasion, I have never been without food for long and never without clothing. And although my 20-year-old wardrobe does make me yearn for something new, it is certainly not life-threatening and my desire for more is mostly about my pride. Compared to so many people who genuinely suffer severe poverty and homelessness, my problems are minor. But our ego is strong and selfishness is a constant temptation we need to wrestle to its knees.
Desires are not a bad thing; they are part of our being able to dream and find our way in life. However, when they come before my desire for God, they can actually prevent me from getting what I need. I think of Solomon’s dream where God asked him what it was he wanted. Instead of asking for something for himself, Solomon asked for wisdom to lead the people. Because of this God gave him everything he needed as well (1 Kings 3). And Jesus tells us: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
When I am miserable because I don’t get my own way, or don't get certain things I want for my life or my work as an artist, I need to examine my heart and pray that I would have the humble, unselfish mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5). Even when it is not something unhealthy I want such as the ‘deceitful lusts’ mentioned in Ephesians 4 (and I’ve had my share of those), I am aware that desiring anything – good or bad – with misspent energy and greed distracts me from living freely. I expect, it also prevents God from fully blessing me as he did Solomon.
What I need
The second reason I can become ‘depressed’ in different ways and for different lengths of time, is that I don’t get what I actually need. Talking to artists who suffer from depression at different times in their lives I know this is often the case for them as well. And as some of us compared notes before I went to the symposium, there were some common things we identified as particular needs of the creative person.
There are of course basic practical needs that differ with each visual artist and artists from every discipline. Needing space to create for example, which usually is even more important than money, is often a prerequisite to being able to produce work. Although sometimes being restricted in space and other resources helps us rethink projects for the better, sometimes it can prevent them from happening at all. And not being able to make art when every fiber of our brain and being is wired to do so, can make us ‘soul sick’, for lack of a better term. These problems are fundamental and extremely difficult, but there are more basic human needs that can cripple us as artists.
The more personal needs, the things that can bring us to a place of despair, are more about how we are actually ‘wired to create’ neurologically, as Dr. Kauffman addresses in his book. He mentions ten traits of highly creative people: imaginative play, passion, daydreaming, solitude, intuition, openness to experience, mindfulness, sensitivity, turning adversity into advantage and thinking differently.
If the ten things Dr. Kauffman mentions in his book as characteristic of creative people are true:
1. That they engage in, must engage in, ‘Imaginative Play’ in a world that regards play as a secondary activity to something we call ‘work’, and that
2. Creative people have ‘Passion’ in societies where following the status quo is considered more efficient and proper, and that
3. They ‘Daydream’, which is considered by most to be just a complete waste of time, and that
4. They ‘Require Solitude’, which to many just proves that ‘those artist types’ are unsociable geeks and weirdoes, and that
5. They often depend on their ‘Intuition’, which is mostly considered by the academic world unreliable, even ‘flaky’, and that
6. They are ‘Open to New Experiences’ – sometimes way too open in some people’s opinion, and that
7. Creative people are ‘Mindful’ and
8. ‘Sensitive’, sometimes translated moody and in a misogynous way, and that
9. They can basically make lemonade out of their suffering by ‘Turning Adversity into Advantage’, which often really annoys people, and if
10. They continually ‘Think Differently’ than others…
Then there are bound to be problems!
I watched a bird crash into a patio window once and I thought: he was doing nothing wrong flying the way he was built to fly. It was the glass that was the problem. This is related to something I heard an architect once say. He shared that after he builds a building, he waits for several months before he lays the sidewalks. First he watches where the path is worn on the ground as people find their natural route to the door. He then lays the sidewalk under their footsteps!
Whether we are aware that we are creative beings or not, we are so often forced to walk on straight paths that are unnatural or fly into walls that shouldn’t be there. And when our whole being is wired to fly outside the box and to not walk in straight lines, life can become a very big challenge. To carve oneself into a square peg for the square holes of society, when you are a round peg, is painful to say the least.
Some of these traits are echoed in the things my fellow artists listed as challenges to their sense of wellbeing. Although any creative human can have similar issues, these are needs sited by some visual artists I know.
- Time and Solitude: Artists often require a lot of time alone to conceive and daydream and problem solve creative ideas. When this is not possible there is frustration and with prolonged lack of time in solitude depression.
- Expectations: There are usually high expectations to produce something unique and new, especially if the artist is connected to a commercial gallery. This pressure interferes with a more natural flow in the creative process.
- Acceptance and belonging: Because artists tend to think outside the box we are not always accepted in the various communities we belong to. Feeling marginalized or even rejected is an emotional drain and a constant discouragement. Although mature artists need to be able to not depend on praise or criticism all of us need some sense of belonging. Artists face various kinds of censorship and persecution in different countries and communities, because they do not follow the status quo in their thinking or expression and therefore do not fit into the standardized packages of particular social systems.
- False Identities: Artists live with the myths and clichés about being an artist: lazy, licentious, hysterical, druggies, etc. or the romanticized identity of being an inspired genius or even prophet.
- Gender Issues: Women in the art world still struggle for equity and suffer various forms of misogyny. Also sexual orientation can become a handicap for being able to make work or show work freely in some places.
- Being devalued and disrespected: Artists don’t always get paid for what they are trained to do, but have to do other jobs or teach in order to keep working at their art practice. Because they don’t make money at something they may even have high university degrees for, they are often not given credibility by even those in their community or family.
- Sensitivity: Artists are often very sensitive and therefore very vulnerable.
For me, something I have learned I need in order to be ‘well’ in my mind and emotions is something I will call ‘beauty’. To explain this let me tell you three incidents in my life…
Once when I was living in a very northern city in Canada where the winters lasted for about 8 months, I was setting up a Christian bookstore with some friends and we wanted flowers for our opening. When I went to the florist they had just received all the spring flowers – tulips and daffodils and hyacinths – and when I opened the door of the shop the assault of colour and smell on my senses was overwhelming and I burst into tears! I had been deprived especially of colour for so long, my whole being felt as though I had just seen someone risen from the dead.
Another time when I was going through a particularly dark time in my life, struggling to know if I was even an artist or not and not knowing what God wanted me to do, a friend, who was herself suffering from a major depression that kept her in bed for three months, gave me a large amber glass fishing float. Holding this glass ball in the light and looking through it was for me like taking a long drink of water. I could feel it physiologically. It lifted me out of my depression, refreshed and inspired me.
And once, in my Toronto studio when I was sick in bed and not knowing if I was psychologically or physically ill because they are so closely connected, I woke up one morning knowing that I needed, really needed, yellow. I was painting in oils at that time and gathered every tube of yellow paint I could find in my studio – from deep ochre to bright yellow and I painted all day on a very large canvas – yellow! At the end of the day I was completely well. And although I know the very action of painting helped to pull me out of myself, I still believe the actual colour was something my psyche needed. And as an extra bonus, I ended up doing a series of these yellow paintings that I later sold.
Beauty is such a difficult thing to define of course, but people living in poor conditions with no colour or light do suffer psychologically. As an artist I am particularly sensitive to these things and without them for too long, I become lethargic and depressed.
There are so many kinds of depression and so many myths about creativity and emotions. As more research is being done on the brain, we begin to understand more about the relationship of mental health and creativity. In the meantime, as we sort this out, it would be good to have more open discussions about these things. So many creative young people are taking their lives or are so despondent, so discouraged, they cannot reach their potential and learn to, or even want to, invest their creative gifts.
I know from experience (teaching for 20 years and running community arts programs) that even the most basic support and encouragement can change lives, even save lives. We all need to be reminded that we are valuable. Perhaps we as artists just need it a little more often!
One last thing I was considering, when I attended the symposium and knew I would participate in the workshop about depression, was the question of happiness. Is our aim of not always being depressed to become that we are always happy? The desire of post-humanism to eliminate suffering from the world is wrought for me with questions about balance in this regard, and about the value of suffering. Although fighting against the things that bring suffering to the world is also the Christian response of compassion, should we expect a utopia in this life?
All of the genuine people I know have gone through different kinds of suffering. Though suffering itself is not always helpful or necessary (like aching muscles are necessary when one is training for a race), our response to our suffering can make us more human, more humane. And there is a promise that having suffered and known God’s comfort, we are more able to understand and comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
But to think life is good only when we have no suffering is problematic. How then does one deal with a verse such as: “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake…” (Philippians 1:29)?
It is not productive to be depressed, especially to be severely depressed and dysfunctional whether you consider yourself creative or not. However, perhaps our ultimate goal is not just to be ‘happy’. Perhaps there are deeper, more wonderful treasures to be found in the difficult places in life. I hope the conversation about these issues continues and we can all find balance and health, no matter what stage of life we are at, as artists and as creative human beings.
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this too was a gift.”
â€• Mary Oliver
Betty Spackman is a Canadian multi-media installation artist who has exhibited internationally and taught at various universities in Canada and the USA. Her collaborative video and installation projects have been shown at major venues throughout Europe and Canada. Spackman is the author of A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch (Piquant Editions, 2005) and a forthcoming mentoring manual and personal journal about her own struggles as an artist/Christian/human being and the cost of saying yes to the creative process.
The website for the CCCA Arts Symposium put on by the Center for Christianity and Culture at BIOLA University in La Mirada, California, is http://ccca.biola.edu/conference/.
More:23 September 2019 / Dal Schindell Tribute
While Dal’s ads and sense of humour became the stuff of legends, it was his influence on the arts at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada that may be his biggest legacy.Read more...
04 September 2019 / The Aesthetics of John Calvin
Calvin stated that 'the faithful see sparks of God's glory, as it were, glittering in every created thing. The world was no doubt made, that it might be the theater of divine glory.'Read more...
31 July 2019 / The Legend of the Artist
by Beat Rink
The image of the 'divine' artist becomes so dominant that artists take their orientation from it and lead their lives accordingly.Read more...
02 July 2019 / Quotes by Tim Keller
Many “Christian art” productions are in reality just ways of pulling artists out of the world and into the Christian subculture.Read more...
08 June 2019 / The Chaiya Art Awards
by Jonathan Evens
The Chaiya Art Awards 2018 proved hugely popular, with over 450 entries and more than 2,700 exhibition visitors.Read more...
29 May 2019 / Art Stations of the Cross: Reflections
by Lieke Wynia
In its engagement with both Biblical and contemporary forms of suffering, the exhibition addressed complex topical issues without losing a sense of hope out of sight.Read more...
03 May 2019 / Marianne Lettieri: Relics Reborn
Items that show the patina of time and reveal the wear and tear of human interaction are carriers of personal and collective history.Read more...
27 April 2019 / Franciscan and Dominican Arts of Devotion
by John Skillen
This manner of prayer stirs up devotion, the soul stirring the body, and the body stirring the soul.Read more...
13 March 2019 / Makoto Fujimura and the Culture Care Movement
by Victoria Emily Jones
Culture care is a generative approach to culture that brings bouquets of flowers into a culture bereft of beauty.Read more...
08 January 2019 / Building a Portfolio of People
by Marianne Lettieri
Besides hard work in the studio, networking may be the single most important skill for a sustainable art practice.Read more...
01 December 2018 / ArtWay Newsletter December 2018
ArtWay has Special Plans for 2019!
After London, Washington D.C. and New York the city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands is now the anticipated location for a prominent art exhibition with the title Art Stations of the Cross.Read more...
11 October 2018 / The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe
Book Review by Jonathan Evens
The significance and spirituality of the work is made clear in ways which counteract the stereotype of mass production of a static style.Read more...
13 September 2018 / A Visit to the Studio of Georges Rouault
by Jim Alimena
Everything we saw and learned reinforced my picture of a great man of faith and a great artist.Read more...
09 August 2018 / With Opened Eyes: Representational Art
by Ydi Coetsee
How do we respond to the ‘lost innocence’ of representational art?Read more...
13 July 2018 / True Spirituality in the Arts
by Edith Reitsema
Living in Christ should lead us away from living with a segregated view of life, having a sacred-secular split.Read more...
17 May 2018 / Beholding Christ in African American Art
Book review by Victoria Emily Jones
One of the hallmarks of Beholding Christ is the diversity of styles, media, and denominational affiliations represented.Read more...
23 April 2018 / Short Introduction to Hans Rookmaaker
by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker
On the occasion of the establishment of the Rookmaaker Jazz Scholarship at Covenant College, Chattanooga, Tennessee, 12 March 2018Read more...
04 April 2018 / International Art Residency in India
Art for Change, a New Delhi based arts organization with a vision to see art shape society with beauty and truth, will be running its 6th annual International Artist Residency in November 2018.Read more...
15 March 2018 / The Stations of the Cross at Blackburn Cathedral
by Penny Warden
Perhaps the central challenge for the artist in imaging the body of Christ is the problem of representing the dual natures of the doctrine of the incarnation.Read more...
23 February 2018 / Between the Shadow and the Light
By Rachel Hostetter Smith
In June 2013 a group of twenty North American and African artists from six African countries met for two weeks of intensive engagement with South Africa.Read more...
30 January 2018 / Sacred Geometry in Christian Art
by Sophie Hacker
This blog unravels aspects of sacred geometry and how it has inspired art and architecture for millennia.Read more...
01 January 2018 / Jonathan Evens writes about Central Saint Martins
Why would Central Saint Martins, a world-famous arts and design college and part of University of the Arts London, choose to show work by its graduates in a church?Read more...
06 December 2017 / ArtWay Newsletter December, 2017
ArtWay's Chairman Wim Eikelboom: "The visual arts cultivate a fresh and renewed view of deeply entrenched values. That is why ArtWay is happy to provide an online platform for art old and new."Read more...
14 November 2017 / The Moral Imagination: Art and Peacebuilding
In the context of conflict transformation the key purpose of creative expression is to provide a venue for people to tell their stories, and for their stories to be heard.Read more...
24 October 2017 / Bruce Herman: Ut pictura poesis?
For the last couple hundred of years the arts have largely been in "experimentation mode"—moving away from the humble business of craft and service toward ideas, issues, and theory.Read more...
04 October 2017 / David Jeffrey: Art and Understanding Scripture
The purpose of In the Beauty of Holiness: Art and the Bible in Western Culture is to help deepen the reader’s understanding of the magnificence of the Bible as a source for European art.Read more...
08 September 2017 / David Taylor: The Aesthetics of John Calvin
Calvin stated that 'the faithful see sparks of God's glory, as it were, glittering in every created thing. The world was no doubt made, that it might be the theater of divine glory.'Read more...
23 August 2017 / Reconstructed by Anikó Ouweneel
A much talked-about exposition in the NoordBrabants Museum in The Netherlands showed works by modern and contemporary Dutch artists inspired by traditional Catholic statues of Christ and the saints.Read more...
04 July 2017 / Pilgrimage to Venice – The Venice Biennale 2017
When I start to look at the art works, I notice a strange rift between this pleasant environment and the angst and political engagement present in the works of the artists.Read more...
24 June 2017 / Collecting as a Calling
After many years of compiling a collection of religious art, I have come to realize that collecting is a calling. I feel strongly that our collection has real value and that it is a valuable ministry.Read more...
02 June 2017 / I Believe in Contemporary Art
By Alastair Gordon
In recent years there has been a growing interest in questions of religion in contemporary art. Is it just a passing fad or signs of renewed faith in art?Read more...
04 April 2017 / Stations of the Cross - Washington, DC 2017
by Aaron Rosen
We realized that the Stations needed to speak to the acute anxiety facing so many minorities in today’s America and beyond.Read more...
07 March 2017 / Socially Engaged Art
A discussion starter by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin
Growing dissatisfaction with an out-of-touch, elite and market driven art world has led artists to turn to socially engaged art.Read more...
01 February 2017 / Theodore Prescott: Inside Sagrada Familia
The columns resemble the trunks of trees. Gaudi conceived of the whole interior as a forest, where the nave ceiling would invoke the image of an arboreal canopy.Read more...
03 January 2017 / Steve Scott tells about his trips to Bali
In the Balinese shadow play the puppet master pulls from a repertoire of traditional tales and retells them with an emphasis on contemporary moral and spiritual lessons.Read more...
09 December 2016 / Newsletter ArtWay December 2016
Like an imitation of a good thing past, these days of darkness surely will not last. Jesus was here and he is coming again, to lead us to the festival of friends.Read more...
01 November 2016 / LAbri for Beginners
What is the role of the Christian artist? Is it not to ‘re-transcendentalise’ the transcendent, to discern what is good in culture, and to subvert what is not with a prophetic voice?Read more...
30 September 2016 / Book Review by Jonathan Evens
Jonathan Koestlé-Cate, Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace - Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art, Routledge, 2016.Read more...
01 September 2016 / Review: Modern art and the life of a culture
The authors say they want to help the Christian community recognize the issues raised in modern art and to do so in ways that are charitable and irenic. But I did not find them so. Their representation of Rookmaaker seems uncharitable and at times even misleading.Read more...
29 July 2016 / Victoria Emily Jones on Disciplining our Eyes
There’s nothing inherently wrong with images—creating or consuming. In fact, we need them. But we also need to beware of the propensity they have to plant themselves firmly in our minds.Read more...
30 June 2016 / Aniko Ouweneel on What is Christian Art?
Pekka Hannula challenges the spectator to search for the source of the breath we breathe, the source of what makes life worth living, the source of our longing for the victory of redemptive harmony.Read more...
09 June 2016 / Theodore Prescott: The Sagrada Familia
Sagrada Familia is a visual encyclopedia of Christian narrative and Catholic doctrine as Gaudi sought to embody the faith through images, symbols, and expressive forms.Read more...
19 May 2016 / Edward Knippers: Do Clothes make the Man?
Since the body is the one common denominator for all of humankind, why do we fear to uncover it? Why is public nudity a shock or even a personal affront?Read more...
27 April 2016 / Alexandra Harper: Culture Care
Culture Care is an invitation to create space within the local church to invest our talents, time and tithes in works that lean into the Kingdom of God as creative agents of shalom.Read more...
06 April 2016 / Jonathan Evens on Contemporary Commissions
The issue of commissioning secular artists versus artists of faith represents false division and unnecessary debate. The reality is that both have resulted in successes and failures.Read more...
24 February 2016 / Jim Watkins: Augustine and the Senses
Augustine is not saying that sensual pleasure is bad, but that it is a mixed good. As his Confessions so clearly show, Augustine is painfully aware of how easily he can take something good and turn it into something bad.Read more...
11 February 2016 / H.R. Rookmaaker: Does Art Need Justification?
Art is not a religion, nor an activity relegated to a chosen few, nor a mere worldly, superfluous affair. None of these views of art does justice to the creativity with which God has endowed man.Read more...
26 January 2016 / Ned Bustard: The Bible is Not Safe
Revealed is intended to provoke surprise, even shock. It shows that the Bible is a book about ordinary people, who are not only spiritual beings, but also greedy, needy, hateful, hopeful, selfish, and sexual.Read more...
14 January 2016 / Painting by Nanias Maira from Papua New Guinea
In 2011 Wycliffe missionary Peter Brook commissioned artist Nanias Maira, who belongs to the Kwoma people group of northwestern Papua New Guinea, to paint Bible stories in the traditional style for which he is locally known.Read more...