Research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology has determined artistic men are less likely to be depressed than artistic women. Professor Jostein Holmen and others studied the lifestyle and mental health of 50,000 folks. While both men and women benefitted from attention to music, literature and painting, it was the men who ended up sunny and optimistic.
This can’t be right, I thought. I always figured depression was an equal-opportunity condition. Then I started thinking it must be the men who were under-reporting their depression. Just yesterday, for example, I painted a particularly lousy painting. Feeling myself slipping into my usual post-painting depression, I quickly phoned a couple of friends and told them I had just painted a dandy. They believed me, and I was soon back on the sunny side of the river.
Later, with the help of eggnog, I was reading an interview with Garrison Keillor in a recent edition of Time. Keillor is a guy who always picks me up and makes me feel the universe is a benign and pleasant place to hang out. Asked, “How did you master both writing and oral storytelling,” Keillor replied: “I didn’t. There’s no mastery to be had. You love the attempt. You don’t master a story any more than you master a river. You feel lucky to canoe down it.”
Speaking of canoeing down a river, have you ever taken part in the creative act of couple-canoeing? Ninety percent of the time the woman gets to be in the bow, “for the power,” while the man is in the stern, “for the control.” So there you have it, the woman is up front taking in the first mouthfuls of mosquitoes, while the guy sits aft just happy to be there. But then again the guy has control. He can point that Grumman anywhere he wants. He can even shout over and tell the other canoeists he knows what he’s doing.
Apparently, one of the great anti-depressants released by art is the feeling of community–of being part of a greater whole. One would think with all the sophisticated networking going on with women artists in North America, they’d be the most under-depressed on the planet. Are Norwegian females defying the trend and working alone in snowbound cabins? And why do North American male artists insist on paddling their own canoes?
PS: “There is less depression among men who participate in cultural activities, although this is not true for women.” (Professor Jostein Holmen)
Esoterica: I’ve always held a secret belief that men are more prone to self-delusion than women. When push comes to shove, most of the male artists I know are legends in their own minds. Contrary to the conventional wisdom they’re losing their marbles, the condition may be the glue that keeps them together. I’d appreciate if you would keep my secret belief under your mosquito net, as I’m just about to go into the studio and paint another dandy.
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
Regarding canoeing, it is my profound belief based on observation and experience that men and women, when in a couple, should never get into a canoe together. Separate canoes is my motto. For the same spills and soakings that friends will laugh about couples will fight tooth and nail. As for depression, and I assume we are using the term lightly, women have hormones that men, thankfully, do not. They will always have swings of emotion much greater than men which are often difficult to understand. Well harnessed, these intense emotions could be powerful painters’ tools, painful as they may be.
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The valued woman canoeist
by Betty Lantana, Tampa Bay, FL, USA
You have missed something if you haven’t experienced canoeing with a woman who has learned to partner in a canoe and not be a passive passenger. I trained in a group where we learned to work with a partner. While the backseat driver controls the direction of the canoe, there is nothing like having his partner know how to respond and assist with turns, dodges, escapes involved in traversing a rough river with many branch and rock obstacles, eddies and such. A lot more fun for both. None of that “me Tarzan — you Jane” stuff.
Paddle your own kayak
by Cathy Harville, Gambrills, MD, USA
I got a kick out of your letter about non-depressed men. I especially liked the canoeing part. My husband and I have kayaks. At one point, we were going to get a two person kayak, but after trying it out and almost ending up in the drink and divorced, we opted for single kayaks. My husband was in the back, and said that he could power us along and steer, and it would be easier for me. (I mostly just laughed at our ineptness at coordinating our efforts!) It is a lot less taxing when we both can go our own ways, which is usually what happens. He fishes, and I take photos, or just watch the wildlife.
I think our culture teaches women to be more responsible for relationships, and relationship issues, which can lead to depression when things aren’t peachy keen. Men, on the other hand, distance themselves from matters of emotion, by going to work, or out with their buddies, and let the women figure it all out. I have come to this conclusion after reading a few books by “experts,” and watching my own family. My science background often has me looking at the world as a Petri dish.
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The wondrous value of wives
by Cathie Harrison, Roswell, GA, USA
This is no mystery. It is the missing “wife” (not necessarily a female). Most male artists I know have a “wife.” A wife is someone who holds the list of when the bills are due, which kid needs what, what nutritious food needs to be purchased prepared and put away today, what was it he wanted me to pick up for him at the store, when is his mother’s birthday, when was that repairman showing up to fix the toilet, did we send the thank you note to his Aunt Susie for the ham we got at Christmas, what time of day would be best to call and check on our credit report, does everyone have clean clothes for tomorrow, when did the dog last have his teeth cleaned, did I make that appointment for him to have his teeth cleaned, wouldn’t it be just as easy for me to ship the painting because the UPS store is next door to the grocery, am I making too much noise cleaning up the kitchen while he’s trying to paint? Gee what he’s doing looks like fun, maybe I’ll go to the studio and paint a painting after I finish my list and before I awaken to a new one tomorrow. Oops, I forgot to make his reservation to go to the workshop in Maine where he will wow a group of women who think he’s just the cat’s meow.
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Percentages of peeved people
by Sharon Sedeen, Berkeley Springs, WV, USA
This answers a lot of questions for me about differences between Men and Women painters, sculptors, drawers: It seems the UPSIDE of the “self-delusion” men have is THEY can KEEP THEMSELVES HAPPY, which I think is a real plus. If the odds are correct, only 1 out of 10 people write in only to complain about any given subject. Therefore if mainly people only write when they are peeved — and then, only 1 out of a group of ten who are peeved – then It follows — I – represent even MORE people who have been helped by your article! Because so few people will write when they APPRECIATE something. Odd, isn’t it? I RUSH to tell people when I like what they’re doing because, WE NEED MORE OF IT IN THIS LIFE, eh?
Confessions of a depressed artist
by Tracey Gibson, Greensboro, NC, USA
I suffer from post partum creative project let down. Often I have to tell myself and or others that things I have completed are or were just “dandy” as well when I know they could have been so much better but somehow those “parts” that were good when affirmed to be good to another human can get me over the hump – thank God. His grace is sufficient to help me speak up….. I must get out of the snowbound cabin in the head. I also have the undone list in my head of all things I should and could be working on (my jackets, website, house, organizing me, etc, etc ) that are WAITING for me too ( furniture collections yet to be designed ) and that too can be so depressing to know I have this totally complex rich inner infinite creative source of potential but lack discipline and that I will undoubtedly need a righteously crazy deadline to get myself moving toward a fabulous outcome .. often when I get going and I am in “the zone” where it’s all coming together I so wonder why I overtly consider yet constantly resist getting started. What is up with THAT????? Why do I drag myself to the creative feast as if I were digging ditches?
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Driving creativity with ego
by Janet Morgan, Brooklyn, NY, USA
I’ve always thought that women artists needed more of the sense of entitlement and mission that many men artists have. Even heroics. As you say, that bit of delusion can drive one to great things. As Gertrude Stein said, in order to be a genius, you have to believe you are one. I read the long and detailed biography of DeKooning, and by the end of it I was saying to the author “He’s just a painter! He’s not god!” But maybe that powerful self-importance, when channeled into making art, can drive some powerful creativity.
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Control by powering down
by Bill Hibberd, Summerland, BC, Canada
I have to laugh at the memories of my young wife and myself paddling our Grumman canoe (a bloody aquatic brick) for years through numerous lakes and sounds. She in the front, me in the back, controlling our destiny. Years later I converted to the elegant design and efficiency of home built sea kayaks. On our first outing we encountered weak off-shore breezes and my (powerful) wife in her single kayak exhibited zero upper body strength and instantly transformed into a completely out of control liability. It became apparent to me that in all those years of paddling from the front of our canoe she had perfected the art of placing the paddle carefully into the water and letting the momentum of our travel float the apparently cosmetic stick back to where it could be gracefully drawn from the water with élan. So, I now wonder, who was in control?
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Gender and depression
by Sandy Davison, Lansing, Michigan, USA
The definitions of depression are heavily gender weighted with diagnosis relying on symptoms like “feels like crying” rather than “wants to beat someone up.” At least that’s the case in the US per the diagnostic bible used in the psychiatric field. “Feels like painting” isn’t a diagnostic direct hit, but is probably more frequently assigned to women. Unless one looks at very early nineteenth century philosophies of creativity, women didn’t have enough feeling to make great paintings, only men did. It might be hard in the twentieth century to find men who admit to having feelings in paintings or out.
Interesting to note that while the traditional diagnosis of depression using a close-to-tears criteria nearly doubles the number of women categorized as depressed compared to men, there are nearly double the number of men who commit suicide or are incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals or prisons. Maybe they could be a little bit depressed and paint themselves a piece of artwork instead. It wasn’t until the mid 1990s that a book was even published in the U.S. on depression in men. Done by Terrance Real, it’s a thorough look into the subject at that time.
Studies show that in a culture that so strongly trains women to believe they are incapable, math and otherwise, the mere act of requiring a woman to indicate gender before taking a math test lowers the score while indicating gender after the math portion is completed reflects a higher score. So it looks like the idea of self aggrandizement and lies everything being a dandy, a whopper, the big kahuna, making a million and other tales would benefit women while the loan of a few feelings and a paint brush to men might get them outta trouble-making and social wreckage. Meanwhile, I’ve got to go back and paint my eleventh dandy of the day, conquer another Adonis and beat the pants off the stock market.
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Depression not a lifestyle choice
by Dave Robinson, Seattle, WA, USA
As always, you allow me to send my thoughts off in new directions. What do men, canoes and depression have in common?
Many years ago I noticed that at the end of a big project I would feel like a runner who has just tackled a big mountain. As I near the top a feeling of dread settles over me, as if I don’t want the mountain or the project to end. I know that at the end there is an abyss that can’t be avoided. The thrill of completing the project, reaching the top of the mountain, drives me on to certain doom. I know I won’t be able to stop running in time to avoid the abyss.
Sure enough, the project ends and the mountain top is reached. In my moment of celebration, running and dancing around on the top of that mountain, I always come to the realization that I’m dancing on the edge. Into the abyss I plunge.
The abyss has a bottom and when I emotionally hit it I lay there with my eyes closed feeling alone and empty. When I do open one eye there always seems to be a river and a canoe waiting to carry me down stream and back into the open. I’ve learned to enjoy the ride because I know that I’ll always come out at the base of a new and more challenging mountain to tackle.
The highs of creation always make the journey worth taking. The lows between projects are a time of rest and recharging. The depression is always short lived and, knowing that it will soon be over, I never give it much thought. I know that I have control of that canoe and that I will pick a direction that will be creatively satisfying.
I think you’re onto something with the canoe metaphor. As a man, it is about control and the realization of a certain outcome. True, occasionally I will fine excuses not to finish a project or dread it’s completion but I think that it’s fear of falling into that depression. It’s in the knowing that the depression will be short lived and that new and wonderful things lie just on the other side of it that allows me to move forward into the abyss.
Sure, depression happens. I just don’t make it a lifestyle.
Paddle your own canoe
by Ellen McCord, Grass Valley, CA, USA
Look back at your letter of December 11. There is the answer to your own question. You wrote about the percentage of female artists to male artists in art groups, graduating, on this list and in your classes. The first statistic was 80% women to 20% men. The second set of statistics hovered around a 65/35 split. You then presented statistics about the percentage of women represented by top galleries, noting that it is currently about 27%. Men are represented at approximately 3 to 1.
We could attribute this discrepancy to politics of the marketplace, confidence, sexism, and even the extent to which many female artists idolize their male mentors to their own detriment. Perhaps women are simply not taken as seriously as men in our profession. We may be seen as hobby artists while men are more often considered professionals. This folly is perpetuated by both men and women. I don’t accept that men are “better” as artists, especially at a 3 to 1 ratio. Regardless of the reason why these statistics exist, isn’t it pretty obvious why women artists tend toward depression? Wouldn’t many people with superior work who can’t get serious consideration by “top galleries” get depressed? Many of us take more workshops looking for something we think we are missing. We may experience male peers getting more attention and greater validation for their work, not necessarily because it is better, but because we are socialized to believe it is better. We may not have the confidence to market ourselves. Depression for some of us is inevitable. I applaud the women artists who continue to work regardless. Let’s value the quality of our own work and not be so quick to dismiss it. Take a page from the playbook of some less talented, overblown male artists and step out in the market place with confidence. Get a smaller boat and guide it with your own paddle.
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oil painting by Adrian Gottlieb
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Andrew Bray who wrote, “I am very happy to learn that I am less likely to be depressed. Given that, according to research, I was happy before, and now I am even happier, I can’t help but think that this study is having an exponential effect on both sexes. Oh well, I’m not about to let that ruin my day!”
And also Paula Cravens of Canal Flats, BC, Canada, who wrote, “Oh thank God, I was just having one of those days when I figured I should quit painting altogether and take up something useful, like making potholders, when I saw the quote, ‘There’s no mastery to be had. You love the attempt.’ If Robert Genn and Garrison Keillor can have low days of self-doubt, then so can I. I am not Norwegian but happily, I am less depressed.”
And also Linda R Bray of Eugene, OR, USA, who wrote, “You have confirmed what I’ve secretively believed. That most men are ‘full of it.’ And further, most women need ‘more of it.’ ”
And also Suzanne Frazier of Longmont, CO, USA, who wrote, “Men are lazy and women are probably more verbal about their feelings.”
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