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Fierce Catalyst: Artists, the Creative Life & Fighting the Stigma of Mental Illness


Post of Feature Catalog Essay for Mindful:  Exploring Mental Health Through Art:


Fierce Catalyst: Artists, the Creative Life & Fighting the Stigma of Mental Illness

Wellness is best envisioned along a spectrum, having at one end mental health and the other mental illness. When thinking on the status of the mind, however, most people have a strong connotation only of the latter. How to address mental health? And what is the connection between it, mental illness and creativity? Mental dis-ease remains “hidden behind a wall of secrecy and isolation,” states the exhibition statement for Mindful. Abolishing that stigma should be inspired by the spirit of creative artists, that segment of the population whose way of being in the world brings them variously close to both ends of this spectrum.

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There’s a fixation on health in this country– but the wrong focus. In attempt to fix the body and eradicate illness, ‘wellness’ visits are made up of tests and screens as precedent in a culture of doctoring… to dispel fear of cancer, heart disease, infectious disease. But what is feared the most is avoided. Mental health is utterly terrifying to most folks. Mental illness is vilified and the proper nature of wellness along a mental health spectrum is misunderstood. Yet mental health, which affects the somatic, is the most crucial aspect of individual and societal overall health.

Wellness has to do with the mind, far more than any physical debilitation that’s occurring due to imbalance. Wellness is acceptance, comfort, ease, connectedness to self. It is balance, and an arching toward wholeness defined at the mental health end of that spectrum…where at the other lies illness, lack of ease.

Art allows for ease.  

“My motions are cathartic,” says Mindful artist Grace Kubilius, of the creative therapy that is the process of making art. On the very Self being hewn with one’s creative work, Jennifer Ling Datchuk offers, “I stitch together my individual nature.” Even therapeutic is the sharing of one’s creations. Meredith Grimsley speaks for all artists when she describes, “To my audience, I whisper about my search with the physical, indelible mark” of the created work.

All creative artists have sensitivity. They are hyper-attuned to beauty, compassion, healing, openness. It is born out of their very nature but also often a response to dysfunction and dis-ease in family, environment, society. Artists “forever experience pain in search of perfection,” states Datchuk. The creative process as balm is eloquently pondered by Kaitlyn Evans, who “seeks respite from emotions” she “[does] not fully understand.” Her works contain her state of unease, much like Alison Saar’s boxed-in figures. “The unfamiliar becomes manageable in my hand,” says Evans. Having at its core the Self, art allows for reflection on what makes one well and whole and functional.

Grimsley tells of her creative expression: “Each object made reflects moments of meditation and a longing for grace.” Within a body of work titled Same Old Wounds, she “contemplate[s] pivotal experiences which permanently alter a person’s path.” With her “unsettling and alluring imagery,” she reveals the “psychological impact of family dysfunction” that bound her up much like artist Rose Clancy. Being “the child of a parent with an untreated mental illness,” Clancy tells of cyclical sadness affecting generations, perpetuating societal ill. Her mother’s dis-ease “swallowed her whole,” as she was “forced to bear witness to it with hands tied.” Her work, “deeply rooted in the experience of a powerless child trying to save a parent,” examines “neglect and nurturing.”

Artists certainly exhibit a stronger sense of self in the world than most people. Lyn Godley expresses it keenly: “I make things. It is who I am.” Her work deals with the symbolism and profound affect of light. As with all the exhibit’s artists, “mindfulness” in its psychological term of being present with feelings is eloquently explored. Michael Janis uses that beautiful metaphor for the Self, glass, “as a way of seeing through ones actions and intents.” He comments, “We live so often in a condition of being obscured from ourselves and others.”



Along with throwing themselves into the fire of creativity, all artists exhibit diligence to their craft, and courage and resiliency in disregarding convention and commerce. Their lives and work have hope and courage. This despite continual misunderstanding by society, mismanagement of their interests by the cultural establishment and even periodic neglect by artistic compadres. Though they exalt in creating and it redeems them, artists face consistent stress. They struggle. Their noble determination to deal with their pain and determination to make a living creatively can make for emotional problems interfering with healthy functioning. Mania, anxiety, depression, mood or personality disorders can inordinately pervade their lives. Creative artists know too intimately the delicate balancing act on that spectrum.

Are artists crazy? Or profoundly the opposite?

Amazingly strong individuals trying to weather a storm that defines their life in their urge for creativity, their urge for wellness. They put their pain, their ill, their full feeling into the transformative fire of creation but poverty looms around every corner of artistic choice. It’s a terrible predicament to be good at something, to know you have a unique ability… but to see little respect and prospect of work. Yet weather this storm– of creation and hardship brought on by self-identification– artists do. Strength, resolve, spirit and downright defiance are needed to propel one’s creative message and identity into the world.

This essay is certainly not suggesting that those diagnosed and living with chronic, significant mental illness can not feel well. For in the courageous acceptance of struggle, and with the same unabashed self-identification that artists have, can such individuals pull to the pole of wellness, recovery. As mental dis-ease affects each of us at various points in our lives, its stigma should be attacked and finally eradicated with the same fierce energy that defines the transformative life struggle of the creative artist.

A small portion of this piece came from This Fantastic Struggle: The Life and Art of Esther Phillips (Miles, 2002) and was included in a 2013 article for PsychCentral entitled “Are Artists Crazy?”

Lisa A. Miles c 2015  All Rights Reserved
Glass & Charcoal /Pen & ink Images:  Jan Vojta  c 2015

Tags: artists Creativity mental health Self Development

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