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The art of fighting the blues

There are lists of artists who dealt with depression and other mental illnesses, from Frida Kahlo to Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh to Mark Rothko. While their maladies are often described in detail in the biographies of their lives, little is written about how art helped them through their dark periods.

Rain on a window, Vlad Tchompalov
Rain on a window, Vlad Tchompalov

There is a large percentage of highly skilled artists who are or have been mentally ill. To some degree, their life’s work would help them cope with or at least express that illness. But it isn’t just artists that need help coping.

The winter blues can hit everyone hard, and creativity can help when dealing with the basic blues or even managing more serious conditions such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Blue Monday, said to be the most depressing day in the calendar, fell smack dab in the middle of the month on Jan. 15 this year. But the days following Blue Monday can be a struggle for many as well with the combination of bills coming in, taking stock of the year that was and a lack of sunlight and warmth here in Vancouver. It’s no surprise that January is Mental Wellness Month, as mental health is top of mind for many of us this time of year.

But how do people make it through such difficult periods? They make art.

Art therapy has been successful in treating mental illnesses for decades, ever since its beginnings. In the 1960s, a burgeoning Jungian art therapist named Michael Edwards met another practitioner of the new treatment, Mary Webb, and worked with her to hone art therapy at Napsbury Hospital near St. Albans, U.K. 

Image of ceramics, Anastasia Shuraeva
Image of ceramics, Anastasia Shuraeva

It is difficult to track the success rate of art therapy as it is a complementary therapy, but it is used often in areas such as cancer, depression and anxiety with reported alleviation of mental distress.

While seeing a registered art therapist is certainly an option, everyone can improve their mental health with a bit of creativity at home.

When the going gets tough, the tough get drawing—or sculpting, or painting or making multimedia projects—whatever works best as a form of self-expression.

There are many artistic avenues to explore. Keeping a sketch journal can help track the days and delve into what one is experiencing while also providing a creative outlet for dealing with those experiences. 

One of the most cathartic art forms is mosaic, especially if you get to smashing first. Break a few unnecessary plates or cups (carefully, with eye protection) and turn them into something new and inspired with a bit of plaster.

Of course, there is also the well-loved, timeless art of painting. Painting can dredge the depths of the mind and allow an artist’s work to be all the deeper for it.

A great way to make it through the dreary winter months is to pick up a pencil, a paintbrush, a lump of clay or a pot of glue. Whatever helps you make art will help you make it through the darker days.

By Janaya Fuller Evans


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