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Artists create art, cope with depression

It seems like a stereotype—the artist struggles through emotional turmoil, the struggle feeds the works of genius—but there may be more than a fabled link between mood disorders and art. According to various separate studies, artists have up to 18 times the rate of suicide seen in the general population, 8-10 times the rate of depression, and 10-20 times the rate of manic-depression.

Artists create art, cope with depression

By Veronica Winters

It seems like a stereotype—the artist struggles through emotional turmoil, the struggle feeds the works of genius—but there may be more than a fabled link between mood disorders and art. According to various separate studies, artists have up to 18 times the rate of suicide seen in the general population, 8-10 times the rate of depression, and 10-20 times the rate of manic-depression.

Depression and its effects are also difficult to categorize. Mood disorders that include both depression ( unipolar disorder) and manic-depression ( bipolar disorder) have vastly different intensity levels. Some artists are affected by it mildly a few times a year while others experience depression daily throughout their lifetime. Depression can even be genetic.

The number of persons in creative fields believed or known to suffer or have suffered mood disorders is staggering. Over 50 percent of the 15 abstract expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko had mood disorders, suicidal thoughts and alcohol abuse. 18th and 19th century poets including Emily Dickinson are thought to have suffered from depression. An artist doesn’t have to be internationally known to struggle with depression. Five local artists running the gamut from a rock musician to a landscape painter speak frankly here about depression and the arts.

June Ramsay is a multi-media artist with twenty years’ experience in hand-dying fabrics. She is also an oil painter whose works have been featured in the Arts Fest “Images” show.

Cole Hons is a rock singer, band leader, and poet who also has worked as a journalist for CDT and now is a New Media Writer/Producer for the Center for Sustainability at Penn State.

Roxanne Naydan is a pastels painter with a bachelor’s degree in fine art and a masters in visual art. She has illustrated the book of poetry, Selected Poetry of Lina Kostenko: Wanderings of the Heart (Garland Publishers, 1990), and her painting, “Eerie Orchard”, appears on the cover of the book of poetry The Narcoleptic Yard (Black Lawrence Press, 2009).

William Snyder III is a mixed-media artist with an MFA in printmaking from Penn State (2005). Snyder serves as the president of the SoVA Alumni Group and on the College of Arts and Architecture’s Alumni Society Board at Penn State.

Susan Nicholas Gephart is a landscape painter who works from her studio/home in Bellefonte. As a full-time, committed artist Gephart has fascinated viewers with her moody depictions of clouds, water, and rural land in oil and pastels. Gephart has worked for over two decades coordinating exhibits for the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association and served on the Board of Directors of the Art Alliance of Central Pennsylvania.

Suicide is painless?

For some artists who deal with depression, a downturn in mood can lead to thoughts of suicide.

June Ramsay is genetically predisposed to depression and said she thought of killing herself for the first time when she was just 5 years old.

“I was sitting beneath the sink, looking at all sorts of cleaning products thinking ‘which one would do it,’” she said.

Those occasional suicidal thoughts did not simply vanish.

“Yes, there have been several times in my adulthood when thoughts of suicide have plagued me,” wrote Ramsay. “Sometimes, I can visualize hurting myself and that can lessen the urge, another time I actually did cut myself and that was enough to ease the desire to kill myself, and another time I called a friend at 2 a.m. and she talked me through it. She battled depression and anxiety too. She also survived a gang rape at a fraternity party during her first week of college, which is surviving a hell of a lot in my opinion. If she could get better and move beyond her pain, then so could I. It really helps to have someone to talk to, who really gets where you are coming from.

Psychological studies of artists demonstrate that Ramsay is not unusual among artists for her suicidal tendencies. A. Preti and P. Miotto released a study in 1999 that included 3093 eminent international artists from the past two centuries: 1300 writers, 692 poets, 267 dramaturgians and comedians, 210 architects, 531 painters, and 93 sculptors. Fifty-nine suicides were recorded from this sample. A suicide rate of 1.9 percent among artists was only slightly higher than that measured in the U.S. population in 2010 (1.24 percent) but that statistic did not include deaths from drug or alcohol abuse.

The Preti and Miotto study found that poets and writers were more likely than any other group of artists to commit suicide, but some subsets of artists have been found even more likely to struggle with suicidal tendencies. In 1995, three scholars in the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry put forth a study that showed half of the 15 20th-century abstract-expressionist artists suffered from mood disorders; with a suicide rate over 13 times higher the national U.S. average (1995).

Musicians were not included in the Preti and Miotto study, but they too can be deeply affected by mood disorders and fight off suicidal thoughts.

“To be honest, I have had flashes of suicidal imagery run through my mind in the past...just images, though,” wrote Cole Hons via email. “Never any serious planning or attempts. In my late teens & early 20s I had a romanticized idea of death--I used to dream of having some perfect night with a lover and then dying at the end.

“Looking back, I see that my adolescent self really bought into our culture’s idealized self-destructive artist bullshit-- you know, the whole Jim Morrison trip...during that time, I was such a perfectionist that if I played a show where I didn’t perform my songs perfectly, I thought I deserved to die. I guess I was just so pathetically self-absorbed at the time, I honestly couldn’t see how stupid that would be. There’s this song I wrote later in that phase of my life called “See the Light” that is essentially about staring into that abyss and choosing to live.”

Hons revisited these feelings slightly later in life, and at that point, conquered them.

“I also went through a really dark period after my band and my long-term relationship broke up,” wrote Hons. “It was difficult for me to transition to being a parent with a regular day job. During this phase, I was plagued with dreams about hanging myself. I actually had a very vivid dream in the year 2001 where I was hanging by the neck in my attic for a long, long time—days and days—but just couldn’t seem to die. So I finally untied myself, stepped down and got on with my life. Since that time, I’ve been completely free of any suicidal thoughts and & feelings—thankfully!”

Hons made a short video called “Forgiving” for a contest in 2008; it is now being used by a Canadian health organization to help treat youth with depression, and part of their mission is suicide prevention. “They just stumbled across my video about 6 months ago and contacted me to ask permission to use it,” wrote Hons. “It made me really happy that it’s being used for this.”

What sometimes saves the artist’s life is concern for those who would be devastated by his or her death.

“Yes, I contemplate it even to this day, on occasion,” wrote Roxanne Naydan. “What prevents me is the negative IMPACT it might potentially have on my daughter Lilja.”

Down the rabbit hole

Spiraling into depression can be brought on by a variety of triggers—financial strains, hormonal changes, challenging life events, even the strain of living as an artist.

William Snyder III experienced depression for the first time as a freshman in college. Worrying about his finances and relationship anxiety overwhelmed the artist.

“I was lonely, self-focused with the loss in direction,” he said. “I experienced anxiety and tried to prove myself through drawing because it was the only thing I knew.”

Depression is thought to be linked to hormonal changes since twice as many women as men in the general public are effected. By the age 15, girls are twice as prone to depression as boys. Traumatic events in an artist’s life, coupled with depression and hormonal changes, can lead to a persistent change in mood.

Landscape painter Susan Nicholas Gephart was shaken by her brother’s death when she was 11.

“There was no counseling, just an effort to live on as if everything was ‘OK,’” said Gephart. This seemed to create a feeling of a security blanket being removed. I felt fearful and very shy about anything new, even into my 20s. As the years went on I became very interested about understanding the root of emotions, feelings, and what caused them. I read magazines and studied psychology in school. Poetry and painting became a regular way for me to express myself and try to relax.”

Depressive moods are also often tied to the seasons. Many artists experience picks of creativity during spring and fall, while winter blues are characterized by manic periods or melancholia. Changes in mood can be traced in both the amount of completed work and personal letters written by artists in the past. Artists’ correspondence is well documented in popular books. Early American poet Emily Dickinson’s spikes in creativity were recorded and dated in her numerous works; the winter seasons were marked with a prolonged absence of creative output.

“It’s a struggle that is deeper, harder, more intense. It’s a big grey cloud coming from nowhere often in winter,” June Ramsay said.

Just the act of engaging in the arts as a career can lead to depressive periods.

“There is indeed a constant struggle of feast and famine in the art world,” said Gephart. “The uncertainty of sales and even filling a class enrollment are never a for sure situation. The general public also perceives art as a game and not a ‘serious career.’ An artist can exhaust herself just trying to juggle so many balls to pay the bills. There is also the reality that once you create something wonderful, for you to continue to grow and gain respect in the art world, you must keep doing it over and over....forever.”

This state can become so exhausting, according to artist William Snyder, that artists seek work outside their field just to ease not just the financial but emotional burden.

“It came down to the time ratio between drawing and money,” said Snyder. “Drawing was so time-consuming it was equal to simple waste of time. My solid job changed that ratio. I found fulfillment [doing something else I enjoy besides drawing]. I began to think outside myself. I noticed that my art work shifted when I was no longer depressed.”

Working as an artist also means facing rejection, which can start the process of self-doubt, self-denial, heightened vulnerability and despair. Some self-medicate, abusing alcohol and drugs, while others like Gephart strengthen their knowledge of art as a business.

“Art is certainly an insecure job, but it can be balanced by the love of creating and believing things are possible,” said Gephart. “As an adult who has taught art for over 30 years to all ages, I have come to believe art can heal and should be for all to experience, just like reading a book or riding a bike. I was fortunate to stay home with my 3 children and raise them while I painted and did volunteer work hanging shows, etc. I learned more about the business of art on my own than in college during my BFA. Now, as a mentor to teen artists, I always encourage them to understand marketing or consider a duel degree with business and art.”

Easing the pain

A career in art may be the problem, but can also be the solution.

Cole Hons is a rock musician who sees his performances as an addiction to the experience of intense emotional release.

“Musicians are often extremely sensitive people who, just like anybody else, are exposed to suffering and pain,” said Hons. “Being so sensitive, many go looking for medicine. That might be alcohol and drugs. But in my view, the music itself is the biggest and best medicine of all.”

Because feelings of loneliness and emptiness are prevalent, some artists become obsessed with understanding human existence, think of life, death, and spirituality, and often find meaning in depicting these obsessions in art. The Abstract Expressionists were consumed with depiction of tragedy, death, and timelessness. By painting these themes artists find temporary relief from loneliness.

“I struggle every day. We are loners. We deal with some sort of pain. When I’m hurting I use reality to create that world through painting,” Roxanne Naydan said.

By painting what’s meaningful in their lives some artists also find psychological relief in the act of painting. Living on the edge of life, artists experience a positive influence of sudden mood changes as well: they imagine and create easily, capturing rapidly moving thoughts and emotions.

“Creative artistic people have deep emotions that just toss them for loop! As a mentor to teens and college age artists, I have come to see many of them struggle with feelings of sadness,” said Gephart. “Nothing they can pinpoint, just there. It has to make me think that partly the way their brains are designed opens doorways to struggle. I’ve also noticed that when they are creating, they seem at peace. Makes me wonder if we could all just paint, may be the bad stuff would slip away.”

In 1989, Johns Hopkins Hospital professor Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison interviewed a group of artists, 90 percent of which said that very intense moods and feelings were either necessary and integral or very important to the creation of art. Art is created in response to the environment and to the artist’s own emotional struggle. Art also has an undeniable therapeutic effect on our brain. May writers stated that they write to relieve themselves from a burden and communicate through their work.

June Ramsay created a poem and a painting using compost as a metaphor for depression. She worked her way out through painting. Experiencing serious health problems with her foot, Ramsay came to the point of acceptance through painting and finds release from her struggles.

“At the time, I was trying to think of ways that depression might have some positives, like what gifts could it bring to its sufferer,” said Ramsay. “I know there have been times in my life that once I got through the darkness (often with spiritual help, light, and encouragement of others) that I felt I had gained some type of enlightenment or awareness that I could have never gotten otherwise.”

“When the need for a cry is over I let myself back into reality by painting Nature,” Naydan said. ”I love my relationship with it. Nature calms and inspires me. I love painting the light. When there is a loss, there is a wish to recreate what you had and I resolve my longing through painting.”

Musicians and other performance artists also heal themselves through their arts.

“When people sing, play, or dance to music it’s similar to being in love. It’s the act of reuniting with others and experiencing healing together,” Cole Hons said.

Artists often use themselves as essential material for creativity. Some artists have said that they feel they have a heightened sensitivity, and that the energetic moods of a manic phase lend them the capacity to convey unusual thoughts and visionary ideas. Artists have heightened sensitivity and take risks that contribute to the creation of artwork.

“There is some type of heightened awareness, spiritual connection looking at nature and seeing the world differently,” June Ramsay said describing her her experiences during painting retreats.

The depressive phase also serves its purpose to the artist. It gives a chance for contemplation, self-analysis and search for life’s meaning. Deeper comprehension of feelings like love, sorrow, and pain leads writers to create characters with real emotions.

“Depression was the muse, the inspiration for me back then [during depressive phases],” said Snyder. “I didn’t see how great life can be.”

“It’s healing to paint. It’s like a private language where people can glimpse at your soul without speaking,” Naydan said. “There are moments when you are longing for something and I fill that void through painting.”

Depressed people can be intense, have erratic sleep patterns and experience persistent feeling of loneliness even when they are surrounded by numerous people.

“The insecurities that developed in my preteens transformed into a serious problem with insomnia into adult life,” wrote Gephart. “I would wake and think for hours unable to return to sleep. Writing and painting helped. There was often a weight of deep sadness. Partly the past experiences deeply hidden, some of it perhaps being hereditary with family depression, and diet and seasonal light sensitivities.

“As an adult with children and being an artist working at home, I paid special attention to eating right, getting sunshine into my eyes with walks out side, or reading by a sunny window. Most certainly the thing that I noticed most was when I painted, I felt happy in just a few brush strokes. It was in the mid 80’s that it became clear to me that the mere action or process of creating caused some kind of positive chemical change in the way my brain perceived my life in the moment!”

But medication is necessary for some artists to take the edge off and bring temporary balance into artistic life. June Ramsay relies on a combination of medication and therapy.

“I’ve got to find something to keep me stable for my kids’ sake,” she said.

Concern for their children has even brought some artists out of their depression.

“You can’t be selfish when you have kids,” Snyder said. “I don’t hold on to depression anymore as I think outside myself.”

Feelings of hopelessness among artists often come from daily struggle and elevated stress levels associated with the artistic profession.

Many artists are solitary by nature and it becomes enormously hard to succeed when so much “success” depends on developed relationships with clients. Creative personalities must be persistent, driven, and self-motivated to make a career. Yet, reaching success in an artistic career proves to be irrelevant in many cases.

According to some studies famous artists in various fields had continued experiences of melancholia despite having gone through years of hard labor and rejections. Thus, the artist must seek another avenue outside of success, to find acceptance within himself or herself.

“I’ve developed a philosophy of ‘Fear No Art,’” wrote Gephart. “I am art and it is me. We are one in the same. The tears and fears of my past are still in me, but by living through it, I have developed coping strategies that help me when I’m down. I am lucky to know that it will pass if I keep moving forward towards my hopes as an artist.

“Part of my daily comfort comes from God or a ‘Higher Power’ than me. As a mature adult I know that I at times am fragile and weak. When I feel overwhelmed, alone, or sad, I speak openly to God who loves me as I am. In times of joy and especially when I paint Plein Air, I revel at the beauty of this Earth and have an attitude of ‘gratitude’ for this gift of air, land, and water. I guess this is my bottom line of support during depressed times. Being able to focus on gratitude or know that you are loved as is, helps so much to recover from the fragile state.”

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