If you’re reading this letter on the 19th of December, keep in mind that in the northern hemisphere the day after tomorrow, December 21st (at 11:04 PM, to be exact) is the Winter Solstice — the shortest, darkest day of the year.
The “Harvard Mental Health Letter” reports a recent study concerning mood swings and artists. The subjects of the study were eminent British poets, playwrights, novelists, painters and sculptors. The study found that about a third of the artists suffered severe mood swings, and 25 percent underwent long periods of elation. Intensely creative periods, reported by most, usually coincided with hypomanic (mildly manic) episodes. Ninety percent said that feelings of sustained elation were either necessary or very important to their work. Writers and artists who had been treated for mood disorders produced the least at the highest point of their cycles. For them, peaks of productivity usually preceded and followed the mood peaks by three or four months. Both groups tended to be at the height of their cycles in summer.
It seems “elation” is the big poo-bah. We always knew that. Here are some tips for elation-maintenance right now: Check all studio light bulbs and increase studio lighting where necessary. Play energetic or light-hearted music on your system. Don’t let your studio become overbearingly warm. Check out the ventilation. Dig into your archives and rework the golden days of summer. Start ambitious projects and don’t be afraid to multitask. Multitasking helps to keep you sharp. Always have something on the easel. Winter Solstice is a good time to put into effect the “more-than-one-easel-system.” Step out frequently and run around in the snow. Keep manic — don’t allow yourself to become non-manic. Even mildly manic is good. Get elated. Elation means excitement and sometimes you have to prime the excitement pump. You do this by acting excited. Teach yourself the remarkable resource of becoming a caricature of yourself as you are at your best times. In other words, reinvent yourself in the dark. Don’t get out of synch by allowing yourself to slip into Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) — if you do you may not peak until next April — you can’t afford to wait.
Esoterica: Observers of social trends have noticed an increase over the past decade in “cocooning.” Home decorating and refurbishing have gone rampant as people scramble to improve their cocoons. This has been positive for the art business. Artists too have seen fit to improve their working spaces. In the dark season a room that gives a feeling of bright energy, mild personal aggrandizement and impending or active productivity is valuable. “Either a soul is cheerful by nature, or is made cheerful by work, love, art and knowledge.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
Join the celebration
by Isobel McCreight, Orillia, ON, Canada
Years ago I used to dread the 21st of December thinking of the long snowy winter ahead and then I realized it was the turning point to longer days. I think of this day now as rebirth and every day I check with the Weather Channel and see how much more sunlight (mostly hidden by snow clouds) is available. So join the celebration and look forward to those long summer days and paint like a whirlwind.
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, ON, Canada
Here’s my latest discovery for maintaining the manic. Go to the nearest Ikea or some such and buy a string of battery operated “rice” lights. I wore them to a couple of Christmas parties, as a necklace and then as a hair adornment. Delight, amazement, shock, even horror that a woman of a certain age should be such a clown. Christmas is for remembering the fun of childhood, perhaps exemplified by the manic gesture. Red lights through the white hair give a unique, non-angelic effect.
by Gail Wiseman Reed
In our northern climes it is apparently best to go out (to walk, ‘run about in the snow’ or otherwise breathe and move energetically) for a half an hour between 11:00am and 1:00pm — with the eyes uncovered — rain or shine. This way the pineal gland gets maximum light stimulation and balances our sleep, energy levels, moods, and immune system. New research says being with nature doubles the healing and centering whammy. I also think the season’s lights, music, cups of warm cheer (hot apple cider? chicken soup? tea? lemon and honey?), and singing and dancing (alone or with friends) are also traditions evolved throughout the ages to ‘drive the cold winter away’ and keep joy and elan celebrated.
Fire takes studio
by Joanne Clark, Powell River, BC, Canada
It will take more than a few light bulbs to elate me these few days before the solstice this year. My studio burned to the ground December 17th. What I am learning is the kindness of friends, and neighbours I had not met before, and my husband is a rock, which I knew but sometimes we have to be reminded. A friend sent me a sketchbook and pencils and my husband came home last night with a new “portable” easel and paint and canvasses, and there were other gifts from other friends.
Less distractions in winter
by Suejin Jo, New York City, NY, USA
The letter about staying manic reminded me of the late Gregory Gillespie’s comment about how his art gets created when he goes into “the heightened level of consciousness.” The problem is that it comes rarely and only after one is working hard for a long time. Even a genius like Mozart said that his work is 95% hard work, only 5% inspiration; “the fact that people think I write music so easily is just not true, I work all the time.” It is just like climbing a tall mountain. Pulling yourself up is a very hard work, summer or winter. I find winter is a good time to work. Summer is too distracting. I must be like Mondrian who commented the landscape in Central Park was too distracting for him.
Recourse to the child
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, VA, USA
Life keeps trying to slip me off as a con to myself. I fear by societies rules to allow myself elations lest to be taunted as “Different.” Perhaps I am just seeing myself growing older. But I think that I’m leaving behind my zeal of youthful dreams and ambitions. I feel that the best road for me toward the goal of maturing as an adult is to simply stay a child at heart. Children become excited over a new toy. I must renew this excitability for my new toy, art. I have found that in the play pins of my deeper self there are these new toys and I must allow myself to play with them without the fear of being different or childish. I must colour them magically onto supports.
A small sweat
by Nancy Lennie, San Patricio Melaque, Jalisco, Mexico
Do you think it is necessary to be exuberant and upbeat when you live in the tropics and your days equal your nights in length and your weather is always sunny and warm and I do mean sunny… Do you still think we should gather our forces and turn up the radio? Or should we mix another margarita and sit in the hammock and try to decide if two o’clock would be a good time to go to the studio to complete that series of paintings that the muse hit you with a few days ago. I don’t have dark, I don’t lack light, or it’s not too hot, but I do have the coolness of December here in Mexico and this really sparks me to work. I cranked out 3 paintings in 3 days and only worked up a small sweat.
Addicted to our highs
by Elzire (Terri Steiner), Princeton, MA, USA
This elated feeling is why most bipolar people do not stay on their meds (me being one). We are addicted to our highs. The problem lies with when we “go over the edge” of that feeling and become confused, can’t keep up with the speeding brain, and actually lose productivity and the ability to do simple things in life. When I’m “speeding my brains out” I can’t even read. It is all very surreal and a little scary. “Okay, stop the ride, I wanna get off now” is when I force myself to listen to quiet music and try to slow the brain. Ah, but until that point… amazing what can be accomplished! I’ve been very fortunate that I have not suffered from the depressive state for years. I’m thinking that it is very possible for some people to self-control their disorders, that’s why many of these artists haven’t been diagnosed with this. I believe it is extremely common, contrary to what all of the “experts” say. Let the light in!
In and out
by Jo Scott B
The rhythm of creative stimulus drives us all; in winter I bless my love for studio painting. I am indoors, in the heart of a busy residential area, where lights extend my painting “day” beyond the short grey rain-soaked light. In spring I once again take my easel outside amongst the shimmering leaves, sparkling water and chirping birds. A firm believer of working on the spot, I’ve found my finished works suffer from indigestion and gluttony unless I pare them down in a disciplined environment.
Creator in bliss
by Linda Saccoccio (Radha), Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Being balanced has been important to my ability to create. I choose to be the creator in bliss rather than the tormented artist. In reality there is always something to feel bad about, but why dwell on it? It’s a choice and a matter of how much we identify with external circumstances. It can also depend on how we care for ourselves. I have found through yoga, meditation, chanting and appreciating the beauty around me, that I can maintain a steady elation that allows me to flow in my life with ease. Maintaining inner peace and joy also connects me with a deeper well of creativity. This place is not of fearful agitation. It is more an experience of unity with the source and that is inspirational as well as grounding. Regarding choices, I would say the more we realize our world is created by the minor and major choices that we make, the more we can be in a life that is conducive to joy and creativity. May you experience the light within on the darkest day of the year!
by Don Jusko, Maui, USA
Artists who paint on location don’t have that blank canvas syndrome. Working all the time is easy and always new and exciting, I find that you really don’t have to go far to find a picture to paint. Still life is a last resort and it’s still great. With regard to lighting, my last two paintings this week were by a lamp-light and a 100 watt cabin light.
by Ross Munro, Deep Cove, BC, Canada
The idea of SAD is another fraudulent diagnosis by the head-shrinkers. Psychiatry has as its foundation a set of materialistic biases and assumptions that should invalidate it from even attempting to analyze the life of the spirit and art. This doesn’t stop them from trying however. Their agenda is to perpetuate the massive public expenditure on mental health appropriations that do not deliver sanity and a better life, and to promote the profits of the pharmaceutical giants. Your suggestions to artists are more valuable than any psychiatrists.
Attune to the Earth
by Margot Hattingh, Cape Town, South Africa
The opposite, of course, is happening here in the southern hemisphere. Often it is so hot this time of the year that it is a struggle to keep going. Dripping sweat over a painting is no metaphor! The best high-energy ‘doing’ times for me are autumn and spring — short as they are here — as the ambient temperature suits me. In summer I try to get up really early, just after 5am, as it’s cooler. By 12pm, when the temperature really starts climbing and all I want to do is get into some water, I’ve already done almost a day’s work. I start again late afternoon if family needs allow. In winter I spend a lot of time catching up on my notebooks, gathering inspiration and mapping out ideas, trying new media (this year it was etching). This cycle seems naturally attuned to the Earth.
Saves paint too
by Dave Edwards, Blyth, England
Regarding multi-tasking, I’ve found that I’m more likely to work if I have a few pictures on the go at the same time. I’d like to highlight another aspect of this practice — it’s more economical. I live close to Scotland where, rightly or wrongly, legend has it that the people are “canny” with their money (frugal in their spending). I too have a waste-not-want-not attitude. When painting, I always tend to mix too much paint and the advantage of having a few paintings on the go at once is that leftover paint can be used on another painting.
The Honourable Sir John J.C. Abbott,
oil painting by
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 Richard who wrote, “As you are an optimistic happy person, I am sure you meant to say that wherever we are in the world, the 21st of December can also be celebrated as the longest brightest day of the year in the southern hemisphere.”
And also Aleta Pippin who allows herself the respite of an old movie when she just can’t seem to move past the lethargic feeling.
And also Edward Berkeley of Portland, Oregon who wrote, “A friend of mine in the Los Angeles Police Force arrested a black man at 3am. The man was wearing dark glasses, and on being questioned as to why he did so in the middle of the night he replied, ‘Man, if you are cool, the sun shines all the time.'”
And Steve Hovland who wrote, “Tryptophan, which metabolizes into seratonin, is a good supplement at this time of year. Also, a yellow room gives you perpetual sunshine.”