Negotiating depression


Dear Artist,

These days the word “depression” appears frequently in my inbox. Along with it are the oft-mentioned problems of addiction, alcoholism, and other disappointing behaviour, as well as the complaint that things are not working out quite as well as originally planned. Some artists have a glimmer of “what could be,” but success and relative happiness still seem beyond their reach. Many complain of interpersonal relationships. They are depressed.

I’ve come to realize that my take on depression may not be typical. Just as an alcoholic is a depressed person self-medicating, we tend toward what is available to us — some in a healthy, some in an unhealthy way. My take, and my admission, is that life is depressing. It gets this way precisely because it’s potentially so darned wonderful. It ends, doesn’t it? And along the way it’s loaded with imperfection, disappointment and failure. For many there seems to be not enough fruit on the tree of life.

This understanding is one of the reasons why many of us choose to become artists. We go with Bernard Berenson‘s idea that art ought to be “life enhancing.” Intuitively we understand it has to do with giving. In many letters, artists are depressed because they would like to enhance the lives of others (and themselves) more readily than they currently do.

As a means of beating depression, some artists mention the joy of their art. Just as the drinker can for a few hours re-sight his world with rose-coloured glasses — we artists give ourselves an escape to the sanctuary of our own imaginations. As well as the greater benefit to mankind, art holds out the promise of healthy self-medication.

It looks to me that no matter what the degree of depression or exhilaration, artists need to teach themselves to access their inner worlds efficiently and in a guilt-free manner. I think they ought to do it relatively alone, independent of governments, academia, societal expectation, peer pressure, commercial considerations, family naysayers, etc, etc. Impossible? No one said it was going to be a bowl of cherries. But positive evidence hangs everywhere in life’s orchard. It can be done. Both art and life are an art.

Best regards,


PS: “Life is human relationships.” (Moh Faris)

Esoterica: We do not always get what we ask or deserve. But we do tend to get what we negotiate. It’s in the area of negotiation where artists often fall down. Many artists find themselves trying to negotiate from a position of weakness. In life and art, in order to negotiate from strength, we need quality. Quality is hard won. A fragile or punished ego may find it difficult to negotiate at all. It could be the greatest art of all.


Up to me
by Sue Bussoli

When things go amuck it is how we problem-solve that makes the difference. A participant in a parenting group once slipped me a piece of paper and on it the message read “If it is to be it is up to me.” He then said these were his ten words of success and that they applied to everything life has to offer. The paper eventually wore out in my wallet but the words were imprinted in my head.


Confusion about depression
by Susan-Rose Slatkoff, Victoria, BC, Canada


“Flower Bed”
painting by Susan-Rose Slatkoff

As a retired psychotherapist I have found that there is much confusion about what we call “depression.” In the psychological area, I believe that, aside from the clinical definition of chemical depression — which has a list of symptoms (including lack of appetite, inability to sleep, feelings of low self-esteem, inability to concentrate, diurnal pattern where a person is more distressed in one part of the day and not as much in another, easily startled, negative thoughts, and suicidal thinking) there is a lot of confusion. If you have these symptoms, a visit to your doctor is advised. However, people often say they are “depressed” when they feel sad, or lonely, blue, bummed, etc. There is a qualitative difference between clinical depression and feelings of unhappiness.


by Cynthia Lait, San Francisco Bay Area, CA, USA


“Yellow Swamp”
acrylic, 48 x 36 inches
painting by Cynthia Lait

I think that as a culture here in the US, there’s been a strong movement towards victimization, or ‘I didn’t get what I deserved.’ It’s a shame to spend all that energy wallowing in disappointment, rather than looking at things that you do have control over, and making changes that will bring you happiness. You can’t change the world, but if each person focused on taking a few small steps to be kinder, more trusting and forgiving with each other, we might begin to live in an amazing society. You only have one life, you can spend it laughing or crying, it really doesn’t matter.


Look, listen and learn
by Barbara Jean, Pleasanton, CA, USA

Depression is simply part of the wide and full range of human experience. Perhaps as long as there is elation and inspiration, there shall also be depression as they are part of the same continuum. And, I suspect, they are equally valuable. Certainly, I’ve learned a lot living in the darkness. It has broadened my appreciation and understanding of life. Some lessons are inherently painful and come hard. I remember a few years ago when in the deep thick of it saying to a friend, “Life’s so hard it’s a wonder any of us survive.” Then we just laughed raucously realizing — none of us do! Life takes everything we’ve got. We might as well just hand it over.

Painting is one of the ways I attempt to maintain some semblance of sanity. It is definitely not a hobby, nor is it a job or career. It is a way of life, something I do to connect with what’s working deep within that can get overlooked in the everyday “business/busyness” of living. When I paint I forget everything I know, or think I know, and sink into the experience of paper, paint, color. I look. I listen. And I learn.


Too much thinking
by Julie Eastman, Raleigh, NC, USA


“Green Barn”
acrylic, 24 x 20 inches
painting by Julie Eastman

Depression is sometimes caused by thinking too much, and when we are distracted by thoughts about the past or thoughts about the future, we can’t enjoy life in the “present.” Yet all life can offer us is a series of “present” moments that is all we really have. So one of the very nice things about painting is that it forces us to focus on the “here and now,” and this very act enriches our lives. I had a friend once who said, “if I can take care of the present, then the rest will take care of itself.” I agree with this philosophy, and I think trusting the process of staying in the “here and now” is the best gift we can give to ourselves.


Method of avoiding depression
by Robert Isler Wanka, Waterloo, ON, Canada


“A Grand Dawn”
oil, 24 x 20 inches
painting by Robert Wanka

In the making of fine art there are so many details to consider, so much one must know and master if the illusion you are trying to create is to succeed and become a masterpiece. The experimentation and struggle in that quest can become rather daunting at times. To take that struggle and turn it into a negative experience is to get lost in that illusion. Quite by accident I discovered a way to remove the pain or struggle I was experiencing while in the beginning stages of the process. I did this by oscillating my perceptions from the details and challenges before me, with the Bigger Picture of what I was working to create. When I removed myself from the illusion by looking at the Bigger Picture of what I had in mind, and then plunged back into the process I discovered something wonderful — the struggle and pain were gone. I applied this same lesson to my life, and it works there too. The things in our lives are an illusion, by that I mean they are a process, and they are temporary. Having Ideals and seeking to live them is not just a noble thing to do — it’s the Big Picture of existence, and it fires us to struggle to bring into our environment some of the magic and wonder inherent in that picture. Do I get depressed? Sometimes, but only when I get momentarily lost in the details of my life or my work. Since I discovered this way to master the direction I turn my perceptions, depression visits me rarely.


Don’t go there
by Eva Kosinski, Louisville, CO, USA

A lot of us, in the same way that our spoiled culture makes it possible for us to do what we want with what we absolutely need, tend to believe if life is not a golden path with great opportunities and money rolling in, and good connections, etc, it sucks. Pick up a copy of Studs Terkel’s Hard Times. There used to be real problems. People lost all of the things they used to define success. Those who made it through were those who learned from the lean times, and the struggles, kept plugging, made do with less than perfect, worked the hard jobs that kept food on the table even if they never got their careers back, and went on to make better lives for themselves and their families. Those who chose to look at the financial disaster as an omen they could never have the wonderful life with all the perks and pleasures they wanted, and were sure they needed, jumped out of windows.

Some of the things we get depressed about would have set those folks rolling on the ground in laughter. We are also feeding a culture of “can’t do” filled with our view of ourselves as “Dummies” who need coaching to do even simple things, and a pharmaceutical culture that says you need to feel good all the time, or else we have this little pill. We can choose not to go there.


Don’t get eaten
by Larry Moore, Winter Park, FL, USA


painting by Larry Moore

My entire worldview was completely altered by a brief addiction to Animal Planet. After watching show after show of life in the real world I came to realize that we aren’t really even supposed to be here. We just got lucky. We got a little smarter than all of the other animals and with that intelligence came belief systems, expectations and a false sense of entitlement. Being an artist means always having unmet expectations because no matter your successes, no matter what level you are on you realize that there is another level above that and another above that ad infinitum. It’s tough on the old noggin. So what keeps me smiling, gets me up in the morning and keeps me from whining to all my friends is my new Animal Planet mantra: “A good day is one when I don’t get eaten.” Getting the opportunity to create at all is just icing on the cake.


Wit, interest and energy
by Linda

As a woman who has had a right to be depressed, I also have a right to be happy. I had a complete breakdown 6 years ago. I was molested as a child, and at 45 found myself addicted to drugs, spent 7years laying beside a man who was capable of committing the same type of abuse to our disabled child. Totally shunned by most of my family, I found myself looking into the abyss of myself and there was nothing there. It has been a long road but I have more days better than bad. I am discovering who I am. Art has been my biggest struggle to recapture. I now know who and what I am. Self-pity is self-defeating!

“It takes wit, interest and energy to be happy. The pursuit of happiness is a great activity. One must be open and alive. It is the greatest feat man has to accomplish, and spirits must flow. There must be courage. There are no easy ruts to get into which lead to happiness. A man must become interesting to himself and must become actually expressive before he can be happy.” (From The Art Spirit by Robert Henri)


Downside to sensitivity
by Mimi Notaro, Italy

I think artists are very sensitive people, and consequently, they are misunderstood by the rest of the population who don’t share this sensitivity to their surroundings. Artists can doubt and question themselves, searching for the truth. They can become susceptible to criticism and not receive respect because they are not in a moneymaking profession. If there is no encouragement for what the artist feels is important, depression can set in. Let’s


Hang in there
by Janet Badger, Sulphur, CA, USA


“Last Lap”
artwork by Janet Badger

Of course you’re getting letters from depressed people! It’s all us Baby Boomers hitting Fifty Plus! support each other! Turning into FORDs (fix or repair daily) and waking up to the Ache of the Day (or hour), and the awful knowledge of our Mortality! How disappointing to discover we aren’t going to be young and strong and live forever! And how come life didn’t turn out exactly like we planned? How unfair! Bummer, Dude! And well I know that feeling of immortality and infinite possibility one lovely glass of wine can conjure up… I miss it now that I just can’t afford to debilitate myself… because I have artwork to do. Today was a great day because I printed a new linoleum print and then, though it was late, I made a little funny clay man… and looking at him made me laugh… and it’s good to laugh. The challenge and the fascination of artistic creation is the best distraction in the world… we’re the lucky ones. Hang in there.


Get therapy
by Steve Hovland, San Francisco, CA, USA


“Street Musician with Dancing Boys, London”
photograph by Steve Hovland

Depression is very common at this time of year. It’s called “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (SAD), brought on by short days. The amino acid Tryptophan is a good treatment for the chemical side of depression. It metabolizes into seratonin. The other side of depression is mental. To some degree it is a function of unconscious anger. Pay attention to your angry feelings. Don’t feel guilty about them. I’ve been working with a Jungian therapist for 5 years on this and have made huge progress. Invest in yourself by going to therapy once a month at least.


Never-ending well
by Kathleen G Arnason, Willow Island, Manitoba, Canada

It was when I realized the relationship with myself as my own muse that I was able to drink from a never-ending well. Now every relationship I have whether it be person, place, event or animal has become my own spirit of understanding of how life itself inspires my art. It is therefore for me impossible to be empty. A wise old Aboriginal woman once told me that we cry only to bring clarity to our lives; whether they are tears of joy or sadness they are cleansing.


Just fill a need
by Don Getz, Peninsula, OH, USA


“Taos Pueblo, New Mexico”
acrylic on panel
by Don Getz

After 23 years in advertising art, I began painting and teaching watercolor workshops in 1977 as a full time occupation. Too many fine artists believe that all they have to do is create paintings to their own desire and they’ll be flooded with offers to purchase the work. Seldom does this happen. After my advertising experience, I suggest to young artists that they find a need for a particular art project and start to get recognition by filling that need. Fine art note-cards, poster art, paintings of homes, family pets, etc., are all possibilities of filling a need, versus just painting for the sake of painting for your personal satisfaction.


Party of one
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA


“Stuart Beach”
oil painting, 36 x 48 inches
by Eleanor Blair

They say that depression is anger turned inward. I learned early in life that nothing made me feel better than painting. Painting has kept me afloat through some pretty rough seas. Today, sitting peacefully in my studio, it seems to me that what I never dared allow myself to have enough of, as a young artist, was solitude. I have wonderful friends and live with a house full of people, and it’s taken a while to learn how to find enough time alone. The painting is easy; the real work is creating a place and a time for it to happen. I’m reading a wonderful book now, Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto by Anneli Rufus, which celebrates and defends the joys of solitude.


The big show
by Anne Copeland


“Barrier Reef”
painting by Anne Copeland

In the canvas of life, a flat landscape would be pretty boring. It is the valleys and the mountains that help us to appreciate the flatlands. It is the dark that makes us appreciate the light, and the cold that makes us appreciate the warm. We laugh, we cry, we feel anger, and we feel love. Our full range of emotions is our palette with which we bring color to our lives. We can choose at each moment the next color we will put to our canvas of life, and how much of it we will use. But unlike painting, where we can take an hour, a day, or a lifetime to complete one painting, in life, we are always working “on the clock.” And unlike a painting where we can go back and paint over it, when a day is spent, it is etched forever on the canvas. We start each day with a blank new canvas. Perhaps our task is to live not just the length, but the breadth of life. And when we are gone from this place, we will each have a one-man, one-woman exhibit for our friends and loved ones. They will look back on the lives we painted and pay homage to the artists of life we were.


Depressing occurrence
by Linda Saccoccio (Radha), Santa Barbara, CA, USA

On Wednesday someone broke into my house. The only thing that was stolen was my computer! I am writing to you from my husband’s office. The specificity of the object, the computer, makes this interesting. Personally I have been trying to reduce my time emailing and also had begun purging old email, which was time consuming to do. Then the universe in the form of a selective thief ended it all. No more deleting email, and while I am home I can’t check my email at my every whim. What can I say about this grace? Is it an invitation to get in painting time? And yes it is still disturbing that someone entered my house in the two-hour span of time I was out, but they were polite about it. May my karma be cleared of further break-ins.

One favor I have if you can help is to recover all of the writings I have sent to you. Is there an easy way for me to access all of them? I had been saving them and had not yet printed them. If you can help please let me know.

In acceptance of all feelings and whatever comes our way so that it doesn’t possess us.

(RG note) I’m happy to report that we carefully archive every letter from everyone. Andrew should be able to copy back to you every word you have ever sent us. We have been very lucky — no viruses and no thievery. Your letters are on the way.

Everyone can, of course, go into our search facility and bring up a collection of an artist’s letters that we have published in these clickbacks. From our statistics reports we find that every month there is some traffic on every single clickback on our site. Some early ones only receive 30 or 40 visits — subjects found by search engines or by internal sleuthing — but they are visited. And people respond here as if they had just been published. Unlike a newspaper that yellows and becomes dated, these pages seem new. That’s one of the reasons we sometimes go in and change things or add a painting or a picture. For example, in the most recent clickback about Emily (my dog who recently passed away), we went back in this morning and added more photos and better info. Amazing medium.


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, 2003.

That includes Tricia Migdoll of Byron Bay, Australia who wrote, “Meher Baba says, ‘The only Yoga I know is, You go.’ That is the beauty of painting. We ‘lose’ ourselves in the doing.”

And also Judith Marie, who wrote, “Don’t confuse ‘depression’ with clinical depression, which is a medical condition that has no easy self-medicated cure. The clinically depressed are incapacitated to the extent that they can’t drag themselves out of bed to the studio some days, through no fault of their own — they are ill.”

And also Sandy Sandy who wrote, “Here’s a great quote to encourage a positive perspective: ‘I make the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes.’ (Sara Teasdale)”

And Caryl Worden, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada, who wrote, “To paraphrase Ann-Marie McDonald in her recent book Where the Crow Flies: ‘Depression is anger slowed down; panic is grief speeded up.’ “


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