About 10 years ago my family and me made a trip out to Seattle to see my mother. She was 84 and her health had steadily been declining and we wanted to see her before she might die (she died 2 years later). She spent most of her time sleeping so there was plenty of time to go on outings. One of these excursions was to take a car ferry from Seattle over to the Olympic Peninsula, the only rain forest in North America.
Once everything was secured and the ferry was underway the majority of people went up to the main deck. Most gathered in the large enclosed main cabin. Others, like myself, stayed outside on the main deck. Most of these stayed huddled together on the fantail, which was partially sheltered, by the main cabin. It also gave them a chance to watch the city as it slipped from view. One hearty soul stood up near the bow while I went over to the rail at mid-ship to watch the view as it passed in front of me. While my wife and sisters stood back on the fantail my oldest daughter, Melissa soon joined me and we joined into conversation.
When she asked me what I was thinking I told her I was reminded of the phrase of people who are “ahead of their time.” To me, the reality was that you could never be ahead of your time, or behind it for that matter, but could only be of your time. We live in the present moment and that the future and past are only illusions, myths that we create to help us understand our lives. The people who we say are ahead of their time are actually those who are just watching and observing what is in front of them. I went on to tell her that this ferry ride was a metaphor for what I was thinking.
Most of the people who came topside went into the enclosed main cabin. In there they were protected and sheltered from the elements around them. They were free to lose themselves in thoughts, memories, puzzles, newspapers, and anything else that pleased them. A few others, like my wife and sisters, were a little more hearty so they came outside but not too far outside. The main cabin partially sheltered them from the wind and they could look back at the city, the place that they were leaving behind. In a sense, they could look back at the past as it was starting to slip out of view. Then there was the guy up on the bow that wanted to fully face whatever was coming his way. No protection from the wind or the spray of the waves. Even though I admired this stance the problem I saw with it was not noticing what was here and now and losing sight of where he was coming from. My position at the mid-ship allowed me to look forward to where we were going and still see where we had come from while allowing me to enjoy what was right in front of my face.
People who we say are ahead of their time or people who we call prophets are neither. They are merely people who are willing to look at what is right in front of them and are very realistic about what they see. They don’t put a spin on it or dress it up. They don’t deny the realities of who or what it is or try to downplay it. They accept it for what it is. So what does this have to do with art, creativity, or mental illness? I’m not really sure but I’m going to try to work that out here.
Depression causes realistic thinking and/or seeing reality more clearly. Depression keeps the person in the present, in the moment, in the here and now. I think this is why so many people with mental illnesses are involved in creative endeavors. Creativity becomes a reprieve from this harsh reality. I want to escape it but I can’t find the way out. It becomes a tool that helps me to deal with my demons and to keep the snarling black dog at bay. The ancient myth of Medusas tells us if we look at her directly we will turn to stone. The Hebrew Bible tells us that no one can look at the face of God and live. So what is a poor boy to do? How do I look at and confront these harsh realities and survive?
My creative outlets (painting, drawing, photography, and writing) act like a mirror. I can see my demons without looking at them directly. I can create an emotional buffer so that I don’t become paralyzed. It is a way to disassociate without having to totally flee from who I am. I know that it’s a crutch but it is also a survival mechanism. It is what has allowed me to remain somewhat intact all these years.
As I paint I am afforded an emotional distance that permits me to look at myself. I can look at who I really am, at this moment. I can’t really lament the past. It’s already gone and nothing can change it. I can always hope for the future but that is only an illusion, a work in progress. What I can do is to look at what is here right now and if I choose then I can deal with it. I can look at what I have and figure out what I can make with it. That, in essence, is what art and creativity are about, grabbing different elements out of the surrounding chaos and making something out of it. It is my therapy. It is a way to explore who I am without creating too much pain. It keeps me from being too comfortable with who I am and to keep pushing on to who I am supposed to be.
The three paintings here are part of that search. “Winter Passages” measures 30” X 48” and is oil on hardwood panel. “Floating The River” measures 24” X 36” and is oil on hardwood panel. “Moonlight Sonata” measures 30” X 24” and is oil on hardboard (masonite) panel.