“The artist is not born to a life of pleasure. He must not live idle; he has a hard work to perform, and one which often proves a cross to be borne.”
― Vasily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art
When I began my studies in college, I enrolled in the Bachelor of Science program to study psychology and I took every class I could to understand how the mind works. I wanted to learn why we as people do the things we do. I was always on the verge of failing most of these classes but only because I am bad at tests and class participation, both of them stressed me the fuck out at the time. I always got A’s on papers which would level out my failing grade to passing. I attended every class that was interesting, took a seat close to the professor, and absorbed every single word he or she said. One of my favorite areas of study was neuropsychology. To come out of the rural woods where I grew up and listen to a poised and brilliant scientist in the beautiful stone buildings of an esteemed university, sharing stories of his studies into the brain was a completely new world to me. It was enthralling, illuminating, inspiring, and mind-opening in different, needed, ways. Another professor had been a Jungian psychologist for his entire career and every class, it was all he could do to hold the reigns on all he wanted to share—so much information with only an hour or so time limit, twice per week. I am still, nearly twenty years later, following breadcrumbs he left for us if we cared to hear them. There was a doctorate social worker I studied with for years who had a background defending true insanity pleas in courts. He knew a wealth from books and people, sharing his knowledge of the gaps between a scientist’s observations and an individual’s experience. One thing about him always left me curious, I spent my time with him trying to prove the effectiveness of art therapy, a thing he just did not believe was useful.
My plan for my life was to study the extremes of the mind and eventually try to help the outliers, those people whose minds had cracked beyond what most hope for recovery. I like to go deep, I guess. I became obsessed and read nonstop about serial killers, schizophrenics, the effects of drugs and psychoactive plants, multiple personalities, learning the things that caused people to break into the sharpest pieces. I worked in an Appalachian community mental health facility as a sort of suicide guardian where I stayed up late hours into the night sitting in a room next to a telephone. It was my duty to listen to whoever called and, not try to talk them out of the idea of killing themselves, but to listen to whatever it was they were going through. Then, there were detailed protocols and procedures we would adhere to with professionals after our conversation. I was 19 years old. There was no one else to do this job. Our group of volunteers were the only people in the surrounding area who wanted to do this. (Now that I think about it, this may be where my extreme phone anxiety I have lived with my entire adult life stems from! Noted.) In the time I worked there, our group kept everyone alive who called, except for one. I listened to the gamut of pain, each person enduring their own hell and seeing no other way but to call for their anonymous life raft before they sank into the abyss. When I finished my shifts, I would step outside and breathe deeply into the night mountain air, and on the long walk back from my car to my dorm room, each step was a prayer for the people I hoped I was helping.
I learned I was not able to spend my life in universities, clinics, laboratories, fighting for peer reviews and against corporations and agencies to publish vital work, all the difficult points of life in an academic mental health career. I knew I was not equipped to be stoic and strong for years unending listening to and helping navigate ultimate pain. I could not sit across from someone who killed someone else and listen to why they enjoyed it, or help someone understand why they hate their child. After only a few years, my heart was already breaking. I ended my studies one semester before graduation and moved over to the fine art department, knowing my life was taking a vastly different course as I sold my hundreds of pounds of textbooks and replaced them with paintbrushes and unwieldy pads of paper. It surprised me how many people in my circle of friends and acquaintances, my professors and advisors, who cast doubt and shook their heads, wondering upon why, ever, would I leave a science degree for ART. What are you thinking? You’re not going to get your PhD anymore? You’re going to sit in a classroom and paint all day? What crayons did you get to use today in class? What the heck are you going to do when you graduate? It was relentless.
Sitting in front of models baring their shapes and soul to the class before them, learning to draw the miracle of the human body was a gentler and more sensuous world that gave me deep comfort. I learned true bravery by modeling a little myself, trying to not meet the eyes of those studying me in various ways. I developed an intense love for the human form, not only in the physical, but for what was inside, the bones and stories. I saw friends, strangers, and lovers with new eyes. I cultivated an appreciation for individuality and the more luminous aspects of humanity. My humble hands working alongside geniuses of my own age whose drawings and paintings were almost more beautiful than their subjects was my new fire. We would sit on benches on the grounds of the campus, under giant old trees, allowed to get lost in hours of sketching and sharing stories. We were each awkward in our own ways, but we loved each other for them. There were no tests that would cause us to fail classes and feel worthless. I looked so forward to our breaks, the autumn walk on crunchy leaves to the place that always had the best cherry muffins, then sitting on a curb with a coffee and a smoke to talk to whoever was interesting that day, student, homeless, dropout, cadet, professor. It renewed me with energy for the afternoon of work.
This was my psychological therapy, the thing that sewed up the holes I had torn in the years prior. Art is therapy. This is one of the truths in life, as any artist will tell you. We do not need doctors to decide this for us. It is important, and if you feel the need to express something, or delve into a creative process that provides a release for something that sits within you—be it quiet like a mouse or raging like a dragon—then do it. Our culture has domineering ways it downplays the importance of creative expression. One of our jobs as artists is to dismiss this with the same passion that drives us to create. We are not weak, inferior, crazy, misguided, starving, aimless, uneducated, untalented, or wasting our lives. We are rich in the energy that gives color, music, stories, and love to this world. We have deep wells that harbor articulations for the ways we all experience life, insight we need for understanding one another. This is one of the things I have grown to fully realize during my life, and once you are there, it is most empowering. It’s a time for us who know this to hold the torch, and to pass it along to others on the path to their own realization.