Salvation through Art – Creativity for Health
Art has long been recognised as providing an outlet during times of emotional turmoil. There is an intimate connection between artistic creativity and psychological wellbeing, although this is hard to prove in scientific terms.
Researchers believe that creativity stimulates both the logical and emotional parts of our brain, helping us to confront challenges. It provides a way of coping and providing answers. In addition, the concentration required to create art means that it is hard to focus on anything else, giving the mind a break from unrest and agitation.
It is well known that Winston Churchill used painting to cope with the pressures of office throughout his life, the benefits of which he extolled in his book Painting as A Pastime, a small volume that I highly recommend, having read and re-read it myself.
Many artists are known to have suffered from mental health disorders – Goya, Edvard Munch, Louis Wain – but undoubtedly the best-known of these is Vincent Van Gogh. He described his torment in a letter to his brother Theo:
‘One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep, dark well, utterly helpless’
Even though Van Gogh lived not much more than a century ago his exact condition is still not certain, although numerous experts have tried to define it.
Van Gogh spent most of the last year of his life in the asylum at Saint Remy where he had voluntarily admitted himself, suffering from perhaps a type of epilepsy, bi-polar disorder, the side effects of syphilis, lead poisoning from paints or thujone poisoning from drinking excessive amounts of absinthe.
The paintings from this period, whilst overshadowed by his deep despair, illustrate his underlying optimism and the joy he felt from painting. To Theo, Vincent wrote:
How much sadness there is in life! Nevertheless, one must not become melancholy. One must seek distraction in other things, and the right thing is to work.
At the launch of the Bethlem Museum of the Mind in March 2015 Grayson Perry, a patron of the museum, gave a speech describing the importance of art to mental well-being. He said,
‘Art is the greatest asset to mental health that I have’, describing his creative practice as ‘obsession, voyage of discovery and therapy, all rolled into one’.
The many challenges required by painting, or indeed any creative activity, stimulate problem solving skills. Art has been described as enabling the mind to adapt to changing circumstances, enhancing flexibility to cope with the inevitable stresses of life.
Studies show that participation in the arts can help to stimulate new neural pathways in the brain, leading to new skills and habits of thinking, and therefore new ways of approaching life situations.
One of our great British artists of the past, John Constable, descended into a deep depression following the untimely death of his beloved wife, Maria.
His friend John Fisher, nephew of the Bishop of Salisbury, encouraged Constable to throw himself into his work as a distraction from his grief and the artist’s archetypal landscapes took on a sombre feel during this period, most famously the darkly brooding canvas of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows.
Significantly, the artist later added a rainbow to the scene, an addition that has been interpreted in several ways but seems to me to be a positive recognition of the continuation of life, even after loss. I like to quote Constable, who wrote to his friend John Fisher
‘Painting is but another word for feeling’
It is interesting that many people have commented that I do not paint subjects that express my frustration with the situation I find myself in, that I do not explore the transition from able bodied sportsman to paralysed tetraplegic through my art, that I have never painted my personal version of Munch’s The Scream?
In truth I feel very fortunate, in the situation I find myself in, to have found a new career that I love. I earn my living through painting and I love to paint what I see around me – the marvels of nature, the great cities built by man, subjects that lift my spirits and hopefully have the same effect on others.
I completely identify with Grayson Perry’s statement upholding the importance of the creative process to mental health, and acknowledge this effect in myself. The problem solving required – ‘What will happen if I use this colour here? How will the whole composition be affected by introducing a figure there?’ – it’s a chess game, the skills required being comparable to dealing with problems and difficult situations in everyday life.
My total absorption in the painting process was the stepping stone I needed to help cope with the trauma of becoming paralysed. Painting was my salvation, and now is my purpose in life.
 Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh, ed. Irving Stone, Jean Stone, Doubleday and Company, 1937
 The Museum of the Mind was established in 1997 in the grounds of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, the notorious ‘Bedlam’, founded in 1247. The museum contains archival material from the hospital’s 750 year history as well as showcasing the work of artists who received care there. It now hosts exhibitions by a wider group of artists who have experienced difficulties with their mental health. www.museumofthemind.org.uk
 Wendy Teall and Tamzin Forster, The Importance of Creativity for Health and Wellbeing