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An Open Discussion About Art and Mental Health

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This post is part of a series called A Beginner's Guide to Art History.
Art History: African Art
Art History: Neoclassicism and Romanticism

Does Pain + Art = Greatness?

Artists are masochists. We revel in the beauty of pain more than any other profession in the world. It's an experience we create for our viewers that is almost palpable. And it is in this experience that we connect to each other, creating everlasting bonds with our audience.

Some of the world's greatest artists have documented their own struggles with mental health. From depression and anxiety to a wide range of psychological disorders, these are all real themes that will always remain in art.

Vincent Van Gogh Self PortraitVincent Van Gogh Self PortraitVincent Van Gogh Self Portrait
Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh

So why does pain make for some of the best art ever created? Let's explore this topic, as I dive a little into some art history while featuring the work of a few of today's talented artists.

A Not So Starry Night

From mouse pads to laptop skins and even desktop wallpapers, it's safe to say that The Starry Night is one of the most widely known and reproduced works of art. But did you know that its beloved creator, Vincent van Gogh, struggled with depression and psychotic episodes for most of his life?

The Starry Night by Vincent van GoghThe Starry Night by Vincent van GoghThe Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh
The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh.

In fact, The Starry Night was created after a massive breakdown where he mutilated his own ear. He admitted himself to the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum where he would later create the famous painting from his bedroom window.

But to him, the painting was a failure.

Today, it is estimated to be worth well over $100 million, and yet Van Gogh died poor.

Many artists today struggle with this profound realization. Must we die in order for our art to live? It's a thought that weighs heavy on our hearts because it mixes our passion and sense of purpose with our ability to take care of basic human needs.

A Hard Existence

The world doesn't make it easy to be an artist. It never has. And yet, we prevail. Despite the naysayers and nonbelievers, artists are still changing the lives of people around them with their beautiful creations.

Burnt Out

But even with their never ending persistence, many artists find it hard to making a living through their work, often taking little to no pay at all. This can, in turn, lead to mental health problems or intensify an ongoing battle if you're not able to seek treatment.

That leads me to wonder... could we have saved Vincent van Gogh, and the many artists like him, by making art a more sustainable profession? And can art be a guiding light to understanding more mental health problems?

This inner battle of being overwhelmed when things get too tough is perfectly depicted in Burn Out, an illustration by artist Thomas Gutteridge.

Burn Out by Thomas GutteridgeBurn Out by Thomas GutteridgeBurn Out by Thomas Gutteridge
Burn Out. Art by Thomas Gutteridge.

Thomas writes:

I've seen firsthand the struggle of depression of one of my closest friends and it has really left an impression on me on how fragile the mind is. I created a piece that wasn't a cliche of a struggle against yourself, but rather something that we could all easily relate to, having had those times when it all gets to be too much. Every thought and emotion cannot be contained and we all experience these moments in one way or another.

Depression is a serious condition that many face. And artist Yi Pan illustrates the dangers of this illness in her work, Holding onto Depression.

Holding Onto Depression by Yi PanHolding Onto Depression by Yi PanHolding Onto Depression by Yi Pan
Holding Onto Depression. Art by Yi Pan.

The setup for this piece is actually from a story about Aladdin where he ventures into an underground castle to retrieve a magical lamp, only to get diverted by an evil treasure. Riddled with greed, he picks up the treasure and the castle collapses. Yi shaped her symbolization of depression around this story, saying:

A hand holds the poison diamond within a dark atmosphere, indicating that people’s hearts erode and become vulnerable if they can’t let the sorrow go.

The True Costs of Mental Illness

Once a person finally seeks help, it becomes a juggle to retain treatment. And with the ever growing addictions associated with common pharmaceutical drugs, it often seems as if they're exchanging one illness for another.

Dutch artist and designer Van Lieshout Vl does a wonderful job of shedding light on this topic with her piece, Mandala of Pills.

Mandala of Pills by Van Lieshout VIMandala of Pills by Van Lieshout VIMandala of Pills by Van Lieshout VI
Mandala of Pills. Art by Van Lieshout VI.

She writes:

I'm currently working on several pieces with medicine on them. A mandala, or "wheel of life" is used for ritual ceremonies. It has a geometric pattern that depicts the cosmos and symbolizes the quest for inner peace and mental stability.
Medication is at odds with this idea; the naive look of this mandala shows how easily we ignore the fact that pills are not as innocent as they seem to be.

Fighting Back With Art

After experiencing the frustrations of a creative block, Damir Martic painted Soul Alchemy, a painting depicting his own battle with anxiety and depression.

Damir said:

Feeling alone and lost, I forced myself to create anything. This is nothing like a self portrait, but rather a portrait of my soul. A soul that is looking for peace, and a soul that is full of fears but still hoping for the best. For the first time I can say out loud that I am an artist, and I was born to create and express my emotions.
But to do this I have to be my own best friend first. And even if I fall many times I have to keep going, not just for me but for people I love. Just keep going, and do the best you can. 
Soul Alchemy by Damir MarticSoul Alchemy by Damir MarticSoul Alchemy by Damir Martic
Soul Alchemy. Art by Damir Martic.

But taking care of mental health concerns as a community also means that you're working towards a more peaceful nation.

Shattering Inner Journeys by Tayfun Pekdemir is a series of paintings that studies the psychological phenomena behind wars and destruction. He notes:

Each society has a different way of evaluating types of aggression due to cultural differences. Supported by arguments of some personality theories and social psychology, this study discusses the reasons why the aggressive nature of man leads to wars and destruction, and tries to find responses as to how phenomena such as peace and tolerance can finally emerge.
Shattering Inner Journeys by Tayfun PekdemirShattering Inner Journeys by Tayfun PekdemirShattering Inner Journeys by Tayfun Pekdemir
Shattering Inner Journeys. Art by Tayfun Pekdemir.

The Healing Power of Art

Frida Kahlo became my "art idol" at 13. Her work is not for the faint of heart, as it depicts her struggles with physical and mental health as well as a failing marriage to a fellow artist.

Even so, I connected to her then and still do today. I grew up surrounded by the beauty of eastern Long Island, NY, in a low-income household plagued with substance and domestic abuse. Art, for me, became my therapy long before I ever imagined it as a career.

So in homage to Frida, I've painted several self-portraits throughout my life depicting my various experiences. In one painting, I'll Save You, I illustrate my own struggles with mental health and loneliness. Since I often depict myself as a sailboat, the painting becomes a two-part self-portrait, where the theme symbolizes, in a sense, that I must save myself.

Ill Save You by Melody NievesIll Save You by Melody NievesIll Save You by Melody Nieves
I'll Save You. Art by Melody Nieves.

Despite the sad undertones, I find art to be incredibly cathartic, allowing me to fully process my experiences in a healthier, more productive manner.

Remembering the Fallen

But when I think of my own journey, I am reminded of many artists with similar struggles. One of our very own instructors here at Envato Tuts+, Marinke Slump, also known as Wink, documented her battle with Asperger's Syndrome and depression. Unfortunately, she lost her battle to the disease when she took her own life in June 2015.

How to Crochet a Flower by Marinke SlumpHow to Crochet a Flower by Marinke SlumpHow to Crochet a Flower by Marinke Slump
How to Make a Crochet Flower. Tutorial by Wink.

Marinke often shared how the art of crocheting saved her life, and I think this idea is true for many artists. But her story, just like Vincent van Gogh's, shows us how important it is to bring mental health awareness to the forefront of our discussions.

Supporting a Noble Cause

One of the best ways you can support the efforts towards mental health awareness is by creating art, of course!

Artist Dina Blokhina created this mock cover for The New York Times, stating:

Emotions, such as sadness, are just as beautiful and valuable as our positive experiences. This image invites the viewer to put him or herself in the same position, facing an invisible struggle. I am a strong advocate for ending social stigmas against mental illness. Thus, I painted this piece in honor of mental health awareness.
The Value of Mental Health by Dina BlokhinaThe Value of Mental Health by Dina BlokhinaThe Value of Mental Health by Dina Blokhina
The Value of Mental Health. Art by Dina Blokhina.

Dedicated to bringing out a meaningful experience behind this year's 36 Days of Type, graphic designer Debarpan Das created a list of Alphabetical Disorders featuring artwork with themes of different mental health illnesses. He said:

It all started with this one idea that I had for the letter 'M' when I saw some kids playing on swings. I could instantly relate it to a problem that I had as a teenager and I still suffer from, mood swings. What I realized later was that it's such a common problem that if I made an illustration of it, a lot of people would actually connect to it. So then I went on and made a list of all the common problems that I faced as a teenager and what I had seen my younger roommate go through in the past few years.
Alphabetical Disorders by Debarpan DasAlphabetical Disorders by Debarpan DasAlphabetical Disorders by Debarpan Das
Alphabetical Disorders. Art by Debarpan Das.

To highlight the ever-growing concerns of the mental health of youth today, Mariana Ikuta created this beautiful comic titled Self Zine.

She explains:

It is incredibly difficult not to become entangled in our impossible beauty standards and the subconscious necessity to fit in. We need to learn how to love ourselves as a whole and to not judge people around us so harshly. I feel that, with support, we can grow our self-confidence, and maybe the struggles of not loving ourselves might be a little bit less common.
Self Zine by Mariana IkutaSelf Zine by Mariana IkutaSelf Zine by Mariana Ikuta
Self Zine. Art by Mariana Ikuta.

It Gets Better...

Some of the world's most beautiful artworks are rooted in tragedy. Art remains a cathartic medium that allows us to process our emotions, but it is still very important to take care of yourself.

I'll end with this piece, Take Care of Your Head, from artist Theo Payne, who writes:

Mental health isn't a finite accomplishment. Sure, you can reach a place where you feel good, but it takes work to keep yourself there.
Take Care of Your Head by Theo PayneTake Care of Your Head by Theo PayneTake Care of Your Head by Theo Payne
Take Care of Your Head. Art by Theo Payne.

Nurture your mind like a farmer would take care of his garden. So if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, please seek out professional help as soon as possible.

A Special Thank You

I'd also like to extend a warm thank you to all of the artists who were kind enough to lend me their art for this article. Feel free to check out their work by browsing their incredible portfolios below.

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