Can art heal? Yes. I believe that the creation and the consumption of art both have the power to heal, feed and improve the human soul and intellect. However, through firsthand discovery, I learned that there are indeed situations in life when the creation of art can not only lose its therapeutic power, but can be an active aid in deepening an existing wound.
2023 was an extremely difficult year for me, particularly because my depression and anxiety disorder decided to rear its ugly head after having a previous year of reprieve. And not only did it come back, but it did so with a litany of new and creative ways to cause me deep and profound suffering. Twenty four hours a day, week after week, month after month, my brain and body were reacting as though I was standing in front of a foaming-at-the-mouth grizzly bear. For what seemed like a hellish eternity, I was truly living moment-to-moment. This was chronic anxiety… spun completely out of control. It was hard. Very hard.
Naturally, as an artist, I decided to channel this experience into my work and attempted to allow for the material expression and my emotional experience to have direct contact. The result was a series of work that was direct, poignant, and a complete departure from my typical process and aesthetic. As the series began, this seemed like progress.
Unfortunately, the actual process of producing and subsequently living with the completed pieces was anything but therapeutic. While I began the series optimistically hoping it would help me point my negative experience toward something productive and cathartic, the production of each piece was difficult, uncomfortable and, at times, painful. This began to make sense as I considered that what I was producing was a visual representation of the inner suffering I felt. After this realization, I had then hoped that each completed painting hung in my studio would serve as a triumphant artifact of art’s power to heal; they did not. Seeing the completed paintings each day only served to remind me of the hour to hour and minute to minute emotional turmoil I had been so deeply mired in.
So, I decided to stop painting the series. In fact, I stopped creating all together. And this was the right decision, though a difficult one. As an artist, I find it very difficult to take time away from creation and am quite hard on myself when I do. While I am not the type who is always carrying around a sketchbook, or one who spends most nights creating until all hours, I do always need to be working on something. However, during my time away from producing work, I came to an extremely important realization in regard to my life as an artist: time away from creating is just as vital as time spent creating.
Music is not only a series of notes, but rather, a series of notes and rests. Each individual note means nothing without the spaces between them – the rests. It is the combination of notes and rests that provides the context for music to be coherent and enjoyable. Artists not only need to make time for the space in-between, but also need to respect it as part of the holistic process of creating art. After all, it’s how the “rests” are spent in life that provides an artist with the life experience to make art. Art generally isn’t about art, it’s about the subjective life experience of the creator with all of their life’s peaks and valleys. Without the rests, the work becomes stagnant, redundant, and focused only on what the artist already knows.
As with life generally, one cannot become a better, more interesting, or even virtuous human being by always living in the shallow pool of what is already known to them. We need chaos and the unknown. And more importantly, we need a strong and necessary balance between the known and unknown. By harnessing the power of what we know while being courageous enough to step into the chaotic darkness is how we push ourselves in unfamiliar directions. It is how we grow. As our exposure to the unknown becomes familiar, it becomes known and our toolkit for life grows.
As I am now on the path toward full recovery, those paintings are starting to serve the function I intended. They are indeed the triumphant reminder of my strength, resilience and creativity. They are a reminder of how I was struck by a plague, then used every fiber of my being to flip the table of my life, heal myself, and come out the other side a far better person than I would otherwise be. I am thankful that the universe pushed me into that particular realm of chaos and forced me to either grow or die. Character is forged through adversity. And though it may be difficult to stop, step back, and reassess, it’s an absolutely necessary strategic move that, like any other skill, must be refined and utilized when needed. Once one can do that, the easy part is recognizing when to employ that utility. Your mind, body, and the universe will tell you when.
Are You Fine to Walk? 60" x 30" x 2" | Oil on panel | 2023