I’m fascinated by language and have been for as long as I can remember. As a deaf child I would marvel when people who had very good hearing didn’t listen. I got curious when people used cliches and other slogans or phrases while seemingly unaware of what they meant. Hearing and using language were things I struggled hard with during my elementary school years full of speech therapy. It was difficult for the younger me to imagine anyone being so casual, even unthinking, with hearing and language.
Of course now as an adult I understand being busy and not paying attention when someone is talking. I’ve done that. As an adult now I also understand how we form habits of speech, hearing and using phrases without consciously thinking about what they mean. I’ve done that too. It’s easy to fall into wellworn ruts of habitual actions and attitudes.
These sorts of thoughts are what inspired all of the 25 artworks I’ve created for my upcoming exhibit at Caplan Art Designs titled “Figures of Speech“. I’ve taken common phrases and played with them and their meanings.
For example I painted an 8 inch wooden block to look like a cardboard box. The appearance of cardboard signifys our mundane life. One can read colorful handpainted letters around the 8 inch faux-cardboard box ending at the elephant character who is still in the process of painting the letters. This signifys our ongoing ability to look at and think about the mundane in new, more colorful, ways. In real life an elephant is much larger than a cardboard box – by humorously playing with scales and sizes I’m referring to how easy it is to forget that we humans have the power to choose our habits. My 3d sculpture is titled “Thinking Outside The Box” and will be part of my exhibit.
One of the many ways we can regularly think outside our habitual boxes, besides by reading widely, is to travel. My wife and I took a train trip to Seattle WA this week. Here’s a link to my newsletter about our adventures along with photos and my sketchbook pages that I did during our travels.
Below is our box loving cat during one of his outside-the-box moments near a window at home.
I hope your week is pleasant and is as much in or outside of boxes as you prefer.
My wife and I went to see the movie Barbie at the Mcmenamins St. John’s Theater and Pub – a friend suggested seeing Barbie at this particular theater because it might be easier for me to hear. She was right! And this theater has a closed captioning device that sit in the cup holder and has a positional gooseneck!!! This made it possible for deaf me to comfortably enjoy the movie! And boy did we enjoy it!! Had to have a beer afterwards and discuss it! What fun! We discussed the many subtle jokes in the backgrounds, small allusions to elements of consumer culture, in the various scenes. It made me aware all over again of how important small things are in our daily physical and mental lives.
In the walkway leading towards the theater I loved all of the trees and the various colors of greenery…
….and the “enchanted forest” entryway into the theater and pub.
Stepping inside the neighborhood pub itself was magical. It had an old-world artsy, funky, steam-punky, weird odd whimsical vibe that I enjoyed.
We want through the pub to go inside the wooden domed theater. It was possible to order food and beverage to be delivered to our theater seats. In front of each of the rows of seats were long communal table ledges just wide enough to hold plates and glasses. We didn’t order anything as I felt I had enough to do to prepare to “hear” the movie. The wooden dome and the art all around the perimeter were amazing to look at while we waited for the movie to begin.
The screen was at one end of the round room that seated perhaps 50 people.
When we bought our tickets I requested use of the closed captioning device. Then I wedged one end of the device into the cupholder and positioned the captioning end so it’d be under my view of the screen but yet not impeding anyone else’s view. Here’s me positioning the device.
Then the movie started and I turned my phone off and didn’t turn it back on till we got home. After the movie was over we sat in the pub having food and beverages while talking about the movie. There were so many fun things to see in the pub itself that besides going back for another movie – the captioning device worked wonderfully for me – I want to bring my sketchbook and draw. The food and beers were very good too but there were so many things to notice in the pub and outside around the pub that I ached for my notebook and sketchbook!
Here’s a look at my notebook where I write stuff I notice every day…
I find it such an odd curious thing, about myself and about most humans, that 9 pleasant things can happen within a day but the 1 unpleasant thing will usually get all of the emotion and attention. And besides that often we wait until something grabs our attention (usually negatively) before we tune in. So I try to be contrarian and give more of my feelings and attention to the good things. Also I try to do my own purposful noticing instead of waiting for something external to move me … but I take the pressure off by only asking of myself that I notice 7 small (hopefully) nice things per day.
This is a book I have appreciated, and highly recommend, about noticing things.
Kirt Vonnegut also writes about trying to notice nice things that happen every day specifically to notice when you’re happy. This book is ostensibly for young people but I figure the young people I’ve been in my 5-years-past-half-century lifetime are still inside me so I reread this book fairly often.
So I hope you’re having many pleasant moments today and that you remember to notice as many of them as you can.
I continued work this week on my 3d box sculpture for upcoming exhibit at the Caplan Art Designs Gallery that I’d mentioned in my last post and finished it. Specifically, as I worked towards final touches, I looked at more cardboard and learned about the various symbols printed on boxes and what they mean.
Of all the possible cardboard box symbols- I chose the “this way up” symbol. In my art the “23” denotes the year I made it whereas in the real world on a cardboard box that type of number would indicate the edge crush test rating.
I did a bit more to the elephant character – but not too much.
After adding the box upright marks on the sides and adding highlights to the elephant… while all of the sides dried, I examined still more cardboard box bottoms for what kinds of marks are typically there.
When the sides of my sculpture were dry I turned my sculpture over and signed my name in a parody of cardboard box standards 😁🤣
Below are some of the official photos that I’ve taken for the Caplan Art Designs Gallery of my newly finished 3d sculpture that I’m titling… oh, I’ll bet you can guess… “Thinking Outside The Box”
Next I will varnish this sculpture but I won’t do photos of, or blog about, that process…🤣
Also this week Kathryn Vercillo asked me lots of questions about my artwork and how it relates to mental health. This interview relates directly to why I create the artwork I do. Very candidly I told all… I mean really told it all. 👇
I continued working on my 3d box sculpture in progress in my last post. My sculpture will be in an exhibit at Caplan Art Designs in October this year. I worked on filling in the lettering of the elephants “mural” and more on the elephant herself.
One of the ways I try to practice thinking outside the box, the box of our current snap-judgement era, is to stay off the hard binary extremes of reverence and rejection as best I can. [There’s a good article about the false dilemma thinking bias here.] I can remember that if I like something I don’t have to hold it so sacred that I get upset if someone questions that thing I like. Similarly if I don’t like something I don’t have to be upset if someone else doesn’t share my view. My feelings don’t have to be set in concrete around one of the two poles like/dislike. I can remember that there are often many degrees of nuance between them. I can reserve judgement. I can change my mind as I learn more I don’t have to express a strong opinion, I can even have no opinions at all. I can encourage the development of my own spirit of reasonableness and compassion. I can encounter the complex world without needing to immediately put things into simplistically labled boxes. In fact I find it useful to occassionally encounter things as if I’ve never seen them before. Kindof like this meme a friend shared with me.
Anyhoo here’s my sketchbook page…
This week on my newsletter I shared my illustrated thoughts about developing our mental lives by making available a downloadable ebook version of one of my sketchbooks that is on the topic of reading books. There’s a printed version of it available here.
Speaking of books and thinking: I’m currently reading an anthology “Stories Of Books And Libraries” edited by Jane Holloway. I’m enjoying the pleasant pastoral survey over a large span of time of all things bibliophiles like me might relate to or appreciate. Of course I like some of the stories more or less than others… in many ways reading this book is similar to opening and indulging in a finely crafted box of assorted chocolates.
More progress this on my new 3d sculpture project I started in this post. It’s for an upcoming exhibit via Caplan Art Designs. This week I’ve worked to make my wooden cube look even more like an empty cardboard box especially around the flaps and edges. Now I’m blocking in some colors within the commercial-box style lettering on the outside of my sculpture. Did you do that when you were a kid – fill in the spaces of printed lettering? Anyhoo, I’m also making progress on my elephant character.
My sketchbook page today… and the notion of “un-sanity” which I take to mean being willing to think outside conventional habitual boxes.
This week my wife and I varied our morning routine and we went to the Portland Japanese Garden. I did my morning sketchbook drawings there. You can see all of the sketchbook pages I did, as well as videos that my wife took of me in the process of drawing, on my Substack newsletter. This was my favorite drawing from that day…
Speaking of thinking outside boxes and variations of habits: I read this zany mad-cap hilarious collaboration between Douglas Adams and Terry Jones this week.
I hope your week contains some pleasant variations of your routines.
My longterm readers know I’ve an interest in both creativity and mental health. When I saw “The Artist’s Mind” by Kathryn Vercillo I had to interview her. Fortunately Kathryn generously responded to my questions about her new book!
Clancy: What are you drinking while we’re chatting? I’m having a dark french roast coffee.
Vercillo: Yum. I am a lifelong coffee drinker with at least a couple of cups every morning, usually heavy on the cream.
Your new book is titled “The Artist’s Mind: the creative lives and mental health of famous artists” What made you think of the intersection of mental health and creativity as a topic to explore?
This is the work that I’ve been doing for a long time, something that grew out of a combination of my lived experience and personal interests. In my late twenties, I fell into a life-threatening depression, which I emerged out of with help from many things including crochet. (Here’s a podcast I recently did about that.) I started writing about the mental health benefits of crochet from my own perspective, hearing about it from others, one thing led to another and I spent about a decade developing an expertise in this area. I had an eight-year-long monthly column called Crochet Heals, I interviewed hundreds of people, and I learned a lot about how crochet specifically and crafting in general is therapeutic for people.
I ended up going to grad school to get a Masters in Psychological Studies. Over time, I became curious about why writing was therapeutic for me in ways that differed from crochet. Although there are many reasons, the primary one was that writing is my job that I get paid for and the monetization of the art changed it therapeutically. (Writing still offers me many benefits; it’s just different.) Another big part was that in depression (which recurs for me despite good treatment) I often go into brain fog and can’t write the way that I’d like to whereas I can still pick up hook and yarn and make something. So, I became curious about how mental health symptoms impact creativity. That’s what I’ve been studying in depth over the past few years and what I’m passionate about continuing to explore.
Why did you want to write a book about this topic as opposed to doing a podcast or a series of YouTube videos?
Well, the short answer is that I’m a writer 🙂
I actually have been thinking for a while that I want to do a podcast on this topic. I just feel a bit daunted by the technology of getting started. Audio and visuals aren’t my forte so there’s a learning curve there that I haven’t tackled, yet. However, it actually seems really easy to record audio on Substack, so I’m considering starting with a few things here and seeing how that goes.
I think we all have various stages of mental health during a day, a week a year… mental health (baring organic diseases), emotional health is rather like the weather – it has seasons, it changes and is affected by events, whether you slept well or if you’re hungry…so often being mentally healthy and maintaining it becomes about coping, recovery, and learning new thinking skills. So why does your book specifically focus on artists as opposed to say accountants?
I definitely agree with you on that. I also think that all of us are creative to some degree or another. (My go-to post to send people to on Substack is my post We are all artists with mental health experiences …) My book focuses on artists because that’s the particular relationship I’m interested in – “how do these challenges specifically affect people who make art for a living (or for whom it’s a huge portion of their lives?”
I think many of us tend to write the things that we ourselves want answers to, we try to write our way to those answers. Questions around “madness and genius” have always interested me. I read Kay Redfield Jamison’s books, for example, decades ago, with a strong interest in her experiences with bipolar hypo/mania as it relates to creativity. I am always trying to figure out my own relationship with art and mental health. And so I write about it and ask people about it and write more about it.
Accountants are important people, but I don’t have a particular interest in how mental health impacts them. This is true even in populations where I know that the topic is interesting … for example, mental health in the military has a lot of fascinating aspects and yet it doesn’t tend to draw me in personally (except perhaps in regards to how art, animal therapy, and virtual reality are being utilized in PTSD treatment.)
There’s also a little bit of behind-the-scenes to the book in that I was writing for a website called Sartle on this topic, and we collaborated together to bring this book into existence. So that’s why this book is specifically about famous painters and sculptors from history and not about other art forms. I research and want to further research and write about mental health among writers and poets and filmmakers and performance artists and musicians … This book is just a starting point.
As I read about Joan Miro, Diane Arbus, Jacob Lawrence, Gustave Dore, and several of the other artists in your book I began to notice how often cultural systemic events such as war, racism, intergenerational trauma and poverty impacted the artists mental health – it seemed that it was almost a chicken/egg question as to how much the artist was affected by the cultural time and place in which they lived and how much was personal. Are there ways artists today can creatively respond honestly to the real world without being pulled under by it personally?
It’s such a big question, isn’t it? One of the goals of my research is to puzzle together some general themes that affect artists with specific mental health conditions in order to offer individual artists some tips, support, and solutions for when challenges impact their art. So, for example, it’s common that depression creates fatigue, which reduces the ability to actually create, and one of the tips I can offer is to find portable, easily-doable art forms that don’t require a lot of set-up (choosing crochet instead of setting up a sewing machine, choosing watercolors and a sketchpad instead of oil paint and a canvas.) This is a pretty general example but the idea is to ultimately come up with a range of solutions for what people face.
I share this as relevant to your bigger question to note that my perspective is that it’s not “bad” that we have mental health experiences that change or impact our creativity. It’s all about figuring out what the impact is for us as individuals and how we want to work with that to make the most out of our art as well as our holistic health. I don’t think we can or should just try to stop all symptoms forever and have some constant peace and happiness where we joyfully create. That doesn’t seem realistic to me.
Just like we can’t separate ourselves from our minds, we can’t really separate ourselves from our experiences in the world. We are going to be impacted, informed, affected, altered, shaped by the intersectional experiences we have related to various aspects of identity and environment. How that impacts each of us differs, but I don’t think we can deny that we’re impacted. So to “creatively respond honestly to the real world without being pulled under by it personally” … I think that’s a matter of figuring out for yourself what the impact is and has been and what you want to do with that moving forward. Some people will want to make the crux of that their life’s work through their art. Some people will want to create art that is as separate from that as possible.
Each person’s experience of the role of art is going to be different. In terms of practical advice to someone who might ask me directly about creating art about difficult topics without being pulled under by it, I would say this:
● Ask yourself honestly (and often) whether creating art is helping or harming your mental health. If there’s harm, how can you mitigate the harm? For example, people who create art to process trauma can heal tremendously but the act can also be triggering. In such a case, pausing the work until it can be done in a therapeutic setting might be wise. Or changing your own setting, your materials, your approach.
● Practice balanced self-care as much as possible. I tend to get really immersed in my writing at the expense of other things if I’m not careful. So, I’m careful to make sure that I get some fresh air and read books just for pleasure and do other things than just dwell on the work.
● Find community. Artists can stay solo so much of the time but it helps a lot to be in community with people who have some of the same experiences or background that you do.
I also wonder how much of a role the availability of or lack of mental healthcare played in the lives of the artists you described… like Basquiat, I can’t help but wonder if he’d had access to a doctor who was not white would he still be painting today? Do you have any thoughts about diversity in mental healthcare? Is it better nowadays?
Oh so interesting that you picked Basquiat. I thought for sure you were about to name one of the artists from further back in history – for example, Richard Dadd who had no access to the kind of medication that sometimes helps people with schizophrenia today. But Basquiat is a great example of a more contemporary individual. And he shows how it’s complicated because it’s not just that he had no person of color as a doctor or therapist but really that there were such few other Black men in the art world then at all.
Is it better now? …
I want to start by acknowledging that I’m a cis-gender white female from a middle class background. So, I work to be aware of diversity issues particularly within the art and mental health fields, but I am limited to some extent by the privilege inherent in my own experience.
With that in mind … I think that it’s better but that we have a long way to go. There’s more representation of different types of diversity among therapists. There’s more training within the field about cultural considerations. And there’s decreasing stigma among many groups that previously tended to avoid therapy because it wasn’t culturally accepted, so more people of diverse backgrounds are benefiting from therapy. With the availability of telehealth, people from diverse backgrounds living across the US may find it easier than before to access mental health services from therapists representative of their own backgrounds. So, yes, it’s better.
But all that being said … a lot of issues still remain. When I personally have looked for a therapist vs. a psychologist vs. a psychiatrist, I have found that a majority of therapists are still white women, psychologists tend to be white men and women, and psychiatrists are mostly white men. That’s my personal experience here in the Bay Area. And when you factor in all of the other levels of intersectionality including income, there’s even more work to do. And then there are niche aspects of this topic – like mental health care (or lack thereof) in prisons which are disproportionately filled with people of color from low-income backgrounds. So, much work left to do …
In my own artistic life I’m aware of the positive changes in my mental health- and in my creative output – by relocating away from a conservative state that actively discriminates against women, LGBTQ and deafness and to a more liberal state where being female, LGBTQ and deaf doesn’t matter. I feel like in my new home there’s a place for my voice and my creativity is welcome. When we were thinking about moving I did wonder how the absence of actively struggling against society would affect my artwork. I was glad that you pointed out in your book that creating art is a way to cope with difficulties. It definitely is! I also think I saw you hint at artists, Yayoi Kusama and Alice Neel to name two, who were also creating art as a way to triumph. Did I really see that? Care to elaborate on art making as a way of coping and as a way of celebrating?
Oh, I think you touch on so many important things here. First of all, I grew up in Tucson and although Arizona is conservative, Tucson is liberal. When I was 26, I moved to San Francisco for no other reason than that I love it here and thrive creatively here. We have our problems (income disparity, a lack of racial/cultural diversity in comparison with large cities like New York) but for the most part it’s obviously a liberal place with opportunities for women, LGBTQ+ support, etc. And I really can’t imagine living somewhere that didn’t offer that.
Your story about your own move made me think of the moves that the artists in the book, and other artists I have researched made, and the impact on their art and mental health. For example, Georgia O’Keeffe had business/art success in New York but the city wasn’t good for her mentally, so she would often leave for quieter places, ultimately relocating to New Mexico. Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way is another author who writes about dividing her time between those same two places. Yayoi Kusama went to New York to make art but ultimately went back to Japan to inpatient mental health care. I think each artist has to answer for themselves the question of what “place” means to their mental health as well as to their art. For me, I hope to always be in San Francisco, and I believe that it’s good for my art and mental health to be here for many reasons … but it’s also a very expensive city to support myself in with writing and the financial stressors do impact both my mental health and my creativity.
Before moving on, I really want to highlight something else you said here: “I did wonder how the absence of actively struggling against society would affect my artwork.” That’s so interesting and I hope you’ll share more about that in your own writing. My immediate reaction is, “oh we still have plenty to struggle against even here.” My second, more considered, thought is that consciously or subconsciously I think that a lot of artists with mental health challenges worry that without their struggles they aren’t going to create great art. I think this directly relates to the trope of the tortured artist, which is where so much research into the relationship between art and mental health has been over the decades.
That’s key to what interests me about this topic: would we still be moved to create great art if we weren’t suffering? It’s what historically has been a challenge for a lot of people with bipolar disorder because medication might level them out but then leave them feeling numb and unable to create in the same way … the high of hypomania offers some people a level of creativity that they miss when they don’t have it. I think we’re always struggling with something as humans – whether that’s internal or external or a combination of both. I think that informs the art that we create.
Okay, so I’m giving a really long-winded answer to your question because I thought your points were so interesting. But what you actually asked about was “art making as a way of coping and as a way of celebrating.” You pointed out Kusama and Neel, two great examples. And I’d argue that to some degree every artist in the book does this. I think it’s the aspect of art that most mental health experts understand as well … art as therapy, art as healing. Life is really hard and making art and even viewing art can be ways to make it less hard, to cope with it, to, as you say, even triumph. Neel’s portraits really celebrate the different people she encountered, something I loved seeing when I visited an exhibit of her work, and her own famous nude self-portrait from her later years really speaks “triumph” to me. She has said that she felt suicidal all her life and yet only had one attempt in her youth and had a decades-long art-making career.
What did you drink while you worked on the manuscript? Did you have “help” from a cat or a dog?
Coffee with cream in the mornings, red wine at night, water when I’d remember that it’s important to drink water 🙂
When I first began the book, I had my dog Katara who really was my soulmate dog, but she passed early on in the writing of it. Before she passed, I had gotten my puppy, Bumi, so I still had him. He’s about 3 and a half now and we have a one year old pup named Kya as well. She’s always trying to “help” with Zoom calls and podcast interviews so I usually have to do those outside of the house 🙂 They’re great, though, and really do help in the sense that they remind me to stop writing sometimes and just be present in the moment with them. They’re rescues from the Korean dog meat trade industry.
Did you do anything- like read or go for walks- to help keep yourself inspired and excited about the topic as you worked?
The topic was then and still is constantly circulating in my brain, and I remain regularly excited about it. But specifically what I did for inspiration while actively working on the book was watch movies related to the artists. It was something that felt less like work than the reading and writing but was still inspiring.
In normal times I probably would have gone to more art shows and theatre events but I wrote much of it during the pandemic lockdown.
What was something you learned as a result of your work on this book that’s relevant to your own work as a writer?
It really helped me see my own work as a body of work that’s larger than the one thing I’m writing right at this moment. For each artist, I would really try to look at a big swath of their body of work. From that retrospective perspective, you can see a whole lifetime of work (albeit a short lifetime for a few of the artists.) This is alongside a lifetime of challenges, including for some (but not all) of the artists a lifetime of really challenging mental health symptoms. It reminded me that a life has so many ups and downs, ebbs and flows, summers and winters … and that so does the creative work. So in times when it’s hard for me to write, I remember that what I’m creating is a full body of work, not one article or one book.
What is one of your favorite self-care go-to techniques especially when you were writing this manuscript? What helps you now as you promote your book? Is it the same or different?
Massage. It’s one of the few things I really splurge on regularly. I spend a lot of time sitting at a computer and no matter how much I try to remember to stretch and take breaks and sit up better, I basically always have aching shoulders. So I go get massages fairly regularly. In fact, that was the thing I missed the most in the pandemic
Is there one section or part of your book that feels most satisfying to you, something that really is on target for your topic?
Ooh, good question. Honestly this book feels like just the tip of the iceberg for the research I’m continuing to do. I am satisfied with it in many ways but also see all the things I want to add to the next thing I do. Overall, though, I think what satisfies me more than a specific section is that I was able to bring in a range of different examples of how art helped and hindered different people and how mental health impacted art in many different ways. I hope that this opens up a conversation that goes deeper and broader.
What questions do you wish someone would ask you about your book?
The book went through a lot of changes in the editing process so I wish people would ask what isn’t in the book that I wanted to be in there. Although the answer to that is long and probably requires another book to say it all 🙂 But the short answer to that would be that I included “fun facts” for every chapter that didn’t make it into the final cut.
For example, from the Georgia O’Keeffe chapter:
Fun fact: Georgia O’Keeffe corresponded with a number of other artists with mental health issues. She was an early mentor to Yayoi Kusama who, like her, struggled with anxiety. She corresponded with Andy Warhol who has been suggested to have had a hoarding disorder, which is an anxiety disorder. And when she was in the hospital for depression, Frida Kahlo wrote to her.
Who did the illustrations for your book?
The cover design is by Molly Shields. The illustrations are by Tania Houtzager. And the book design overall is by Danielle D. Farmer. The publisher, Schiffer, organized all of that.
Where can we buy a copy?
On Amazon or from Schiffer … I hope that if you buy one, you find something inspiring in the pages. And if you like what you read, it really does help to leave positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.
Thank you Kathryn for writing such a thoughtful and encouraging book! And thank you for taking the time to answer all of my questions!
This week I realized there are many cardboard box color variations. In my studio alone I count 10 different colors of brown box material. So the phrase “Thinking Outside The Box” has been on my mind and I’ve begun a new 8 inch wooden cube sculpture by painting it to look like a cardboard box. In the photo below my in progress sculpture is in the background and in the foreground is a box I’m using as a model for the flap-fold edges. (A different box was the model for the color…)
Here’s some of my thinking: I noticed that many commercial cardboard boxes have writing on them. In my city’s downtown there are murals on the sides of many of the buildings. Some of the murals have stylized text on them. The act of writing things down is a way to think…
So I began thinking “what about creating a character who is painting a mural with lettering on the outside of a cardboard box”?
Below is one of my sketchbook pages related to this project. I chose an elephant character because I also thought of the “memory of an elephant” phrase. That led to thoughts of how both memory and imagination are integral parts of creativity and the ability to think outside the boxes.
I did contemplate a cat character and cat boxes … as you see below my cat made certain I thought of this.
He even pointed out, by rubbing his chin emphatically on the box edge, that his favorite box is lovely shade of brown…
My cat’s chosen box is indeed a very nice brown color – and I do love cats – however I’m going with the elephant character in my artwork for the reasons described above… sorry kitty.
“Humph” pouts the cat.
Anyhoo, in addition to the meanings of particular words and phrases as I’m working on my sculpture I’m thinking about thinking itself; being creative, being logical and utilizing critical thinking skills. Generally I think and read regularly about mental and emotional health for many reasons but chiefly because our brains and thought processes are our main tools for creativity.
Creativity itself can be a tool for good mental health. Yes, there’s a chicken/egg aspect here – but regardless of whichever comes first I want to use my own thinking processes as well as I can. So besides reading philosophy or about mental health whenever I’m reading fiction, biographies and history I’m looking for the thinking, the words and actions over time that led to the events described as well as the responses to those events.
Recently I became aware of a new book “The Artist’s Mind” by Kathryn Vercillo. Because this book is directly on the topic that is on my mind so gosh-darn often I asked the author if I could chat with her about her book and share our conversation publicly. She kindly said yes!
Kathryn Vercillo even sent me a reader’s copy in a mail art envelope that she made! It was a fun touch! As of writing this blog post I’ve read her book and we’ve begun talking! [To somewhat reciprocate her generosity as well as to let her know where I’m coming from I sent her a copy of the book I illustrated for a psychiatrist “Dr. Bob’s Emotional Repair Program First Aid Kit“.]
About the author: Kathryn Vercillo is a full time writer with a master’s degree in psychological studies. She is the owner of Create Me Free, a small business that researches the link between art and mental health in order to educate, inspire and empower artists to achieve financial and creative success while maintaining well being. She is the author of eight books, including Crochet Saved My Life, which is about the health benefits of handcrafting. When not creating, she’s enjoying life in San Francisco with her loved ones and her rescue pups.
We’re talking together about the content of Kathryn’s new book The Artist’s Mind and the many ways artists throughout history dealt with issues in the real world – stressors like illness, poverty, war, racism, bigotry etc – and kept creating their work. Naturally we’re also discussing coping skills artists can use today!
I’m enjoying a front row seat for her virtual book tour – it’s an amazing community effort – and I’m honored to have a backstage pass, so to speak, by getting to do an interview!
I look forward to sharing our finished conversation next Monday Aug 7th!
Starting birthday week one of our friends made homemade focaccia bread and served it to the 5 of us friends in a basket covered with one of my fabric designs and – and! – AND! – she made a homemade bourbon cake too that was simply amazing!!!!! What a perfect way to start my birthday week!!!
Here’s a photo of the homemade bourbon cake!! Isn’t it a beauty??!! And it tasted even better!! Our friend shared the link to the recipe!
To celebrate with my online friends I shared many of my favorite drawings on my Substack. Below are only 2 of them are pictured. Click here to see more.
One night in the early part of birthday week we went to the Underbar with our Fairy Goddaughter who took this photo of us with the bar owner before the live comedy show started. They make a very good hamburgers at Underbar and when my burger came it had a birthday candle in it! 🤣 Fairy Goddaughter also gave us a book titled “No Two Persons” by Erica Bauermeister! Looking forward to reading it! What a special fun time with our Fairy Goddaughter! 🤗
At the Underbar our Fairy Goddaughter filmed me blowing out the candle on my birthday burger!!!
Besides all of the celebrating during the week I did sneak in a bit more work on my 3D box project for upcoming exhibit at Caplan Art Designs. I shared the beginning of it with you in my last post. Here’s the progress…
And I spent time reading this delightful book… The Art Of The Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl. It’s a good reminder of the importance of regularly letting your mind leisurely wander and wonder.
More celebrating happened, with just me and my wife, on the actual day of my birthday – we had a brunch of Danish pancakes and Swedish coffee at Broder Nord. If you’re not familiar the Danish pancakes – or Aebleskivers – they’re small, smaller than your fist, and round like a popover roll but bread-y like a pancake yet not as sweet as a donut. You pry them open to spread or dip them in lemon curd and lingonberry jam. Yum!
After brunch my wife took me for a birthday bookstore extravaganza at Powell’s! We spent over 3 leisurely hours in the bookstore! It was just the very thing I wanted! Many of these books are part of my bibliography for my current art projects and others are just for fun. However the line between project related bibliography and just for fun is very blurry! Here’s the haul!!! 👇
Later the same day there was pizza and beer for the two of us at the Hungry Sasquatch!
Yes, there are troubles in this world, but having dear friends and family to celebrate small simple things like a birthday with is the best, most priceless gift of all!! Thank you for celebrating with me!!!
Over a long weekend we had a family gathering to celebrate a graduation! Before traveling to spend several days together with everyone, my wife and I spent time in the Portland Japanese Garden. Here’s one of the photos my wife took of me in the act of drawing some of the 300 year old bonsai trees that had been cared for by multiple generations. I shared the finished sketches here. We’ll visit this garden again soon. It was satisfying to see so much caring there!
It is a tiny bookstore with a carefully curated selection by a wizard named Murlin! He was fun to talk to. And the store size was perfect as we were tired from driving and found the store refreshing. Here we are with Murlin.
When I was in the nonfiction art book section I met a young actress aged 9. The actress said hello to me first and said she liked the arts, was currently acting in a play at school and wanted to learn more about coloring with color pencils. There were several books on the topic on the shelf a bit too high for her to reach. I got the books down, handed them to her and we discussed the merits of each book. One book on colored pencil techniques was one that I have a copy of at home. I told her that and details about what I liked about the book. She decided to buy that title. I asked about what play she’s in and she replied “Pippi Longstocking”. She asked what I did in the arts. I said that I liked to draw and paint and that I currently have a one-person art exhibit on display. She tilted her head, looked puzzled, and said “Oh. Well, I’d better go pay for this. Bye”. I said goodbye and nice talking to you. Later I drew her portrait in my sketchbook.
The next morning at the hotel I drew in my sketchbook again…
Here’s us later in the day with our graduate! We’re so very proud of him!!!
We were a family of 20 people taking up two whole rows in the audience! (Our 21st family member was in the grad class of 2023!) Our niece, the graduate’s mom, said we were one of the largest families there!!
The headline speaker at commencement was the comedian Josh Blue who was hysterically funny, witty, kind, encouraging and delightful!! Another speaker spoke about how there have always been groups that abuse the climate, abuse people, abuse truth, etc. so we focus on how we respond, how we repair and how we keep hope alive. The speaker talked of how constantly, in every era, we need hope keepers, artists, writers, all kinds of people with the imagination and vision to see us through the hard times. We are all seeds…. This quote was referred to by all speakers. 👇
Heres a look at the neatly designed (I majored in graphic design when I was in college) 2023 commencement program with our graduates name in it. The font was easy to read and all the ceremony details were direct and straightforward. The college campus was beautiful, too, and it was also easy to navigate with walkways and lots of towering evergreen trees. The ceremony itself was warmhearted, encouraging and best of all there was closed captioning and a sign language interpreter! In every way the college showed that they really did want to include everyone! Anyhoo, here’s the program…
….and they had the most awesome “fight song” ever!! The song is printed on the back of the program! When it was time to sing they all sang loud and proud!!! 👇
In case you don’t know what a geoduck is…
After the commencement was finished we went to a local restaurant Basilico Ristorante where the 21 of us had a 7 course Italian meal together!! The food and wine were incredible!! Family members stood and made toasts and speeches and shared stories! The graduate stood and gave a great speech in response! All evening long there was conversation and so much laughter!
Here’s the toast I wrote and illustrated on the spot.
It’s wonderful to be with caring family and to remember that indeed we are seeds and all of us can keep hope alive and growing in ourselves and each other! We’re in this life together.
Human brains have the ability to be imaginative and creative. This ability is used, for example, when you imagine that a flat tire could happen and then, after checking the spare tire for soundness, you creatively pack the car so that if you do have a flat you don’t need to remove all of your luggage to get to the spare. Imagination and creativity are used in any “if this then that” kind of thinking. Of course not every person uses their ability to imagine or be creative and some use it constructively and others destructively. More on that in a sec.
When I say all humans are creative I mean that human brains experience the real world and then we process it, we make it make sense to us as best we know how, via our use of language and our cognitive system. That’s just part of being human. It’s what human brains do as automatically as breathing. Humans make symbolic sense of what we experience in the real world via figments of our imagination. How well we’re able to use symbols in response to the external world correlates to the qualities of our inner life. But this concept is not rigid. Sometimes poop just happens in life and there’s no symbolic sense to be made of it we just have to cope.
Even so, frequently exercising your imagination is like exercising any other part of your body, it helps keep it in working condition so it has a better chance to be helpful when it’s needed. Fine tuning your cognitive system coping skills is like practicing an exercise with a trainer to make sure things are working well and skill is improving. This falls under the category of cultivating your inner life or the life of the mind.
Writing, drawing, cooking, gardening, singing, dancing, wood furniture making, rug weaving are all learnable skills. Culturally we call these “creative arts” and tend to speak of people who do those skills well (because they practice a heck of a lot) “creative” or “talented”. But even if someone doesn’t cultivate specific skills like any of those they still have an inner life, they’re still imaginative and creative simply because they have a human brain and need to process, make sense of whatever happens or might happen using both their physical body and their symbol making mind. For example even someone who doesn’t consider themselves a writer can get a mental health benefit from processing their daily life events by writing in a journal by hand.
Also inspirational was a conversation I had with one of my college aged great nephews. We were talking about a video in which an older artist advises younger artists (and I’m paraphrasing) to ignore the people who just want to tear down whatever you’ve created by doing a version of the ‘no true Scotsman’ argument fallacy saying that your art “isn’t real art because it (fill in the blank)”. They are attempting to set themselves up as the one and only arbiter of what is/isn’t “real art” instead of you, the artist, deciding for yourself. You don’t have to accept anyone else’s definition of what art is. You can stay with your own feelings about your own art. My nephew said the video reminded him of a phrase he heard somewhere “obsession with hyper realism kills art”. That in turn reminded me of one of my adopted Dad’s favorite sayings “knowledge without imagination can be deadly.”
It’s nearly Father’s day so I’m going overboard on the Dad quotes – thank you for bearing with me.
Anyhoo, to be rigidly fixed on an idea (an imaginary notion), to think you “know” and to refuse to adjust or imagine that you might be wrong or that your ideas might not apply in a new situation or to fail to imagine that there could be anything bigger than what you think you know, well, that can be extremely harmful to yourself and everyone else around you. Misapplied cognition and rigid “knowledge” without some constructive imagination is woefully lacking in creativity, humility and humanity. It’s rather machine like really.
Which brings me to why I’m writing about this topic today. We care about our inner life because imagination and creativity are human attributes and we’re all we’ve got. Outsourcing human attributes, like letting someone else do your thinking for you, or letting someone (or something else) write your school essay for you doesn’t usually work out happily.
We’re here, we’re human, get used to being human, be the most fully human and the best human you can be!
Computers tend to have fixed ideas about many things like language, as anyone who has interacted with auto-correct or predictive text has experienced, and this often interrupts or even inhibits the flow of the human writer’s words. Have you ever tried to, on purpose, write a silly nonsense word using a computer? Yes, there’s a reason there are so many cartoons of a human frustrated with a computer!
As with the above mentioned mean art-troll “critics” you don’t have to accept or be bound by a computer’s preferences either! A human is an emotional being from the era of Homer (either Homer the Greek or Homer Simpson) while the computer is more rigidly pedantic and more literal and much less caring than the Vulcan Spock in Star Trek ever was.
It is okay to be human!
Human brains when they’re working well (no organic diseases) are constantly – and I do mean all the time – using imagination to make sense of the world. We experience with our 5 senses the external world then we have internal conversations with ourselves about “what it means”. Sometimes these internal conversations are helpful and sometimes they aren’t. (We can learn to direct that!) Then our inner conversation, whatever it is, runs through our cognitive processes: our organic body, how we feel, whether we slept well, if we’re hungry, our habitual ways of responding to the world or to certain words, our past experiences, things we’ve learned etc. In a nutshell we apply to the event that happened in the external real world multiple layers of our feelings-based inner life, and then we react for better or worse. This is just what human brains do often in lightning fast ways without us realizing we’re doing it.
Now we’re living with Star Trek level, more or less, technology while using the emotional brains of the Homeric era. If we’re smart we are still learning and practicing how to deal well with our personal Homeric brains because life continually happens whatever the available technology. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a constant need for all humans at all ages and SEL is a vital ongoing aspect of our interior lives.
Troubles happen, to quote my Dad, when we forget that “feelings are guides not gods to be obeyed”. If you’ve ever gone to school or work when you didn’t feel like it you know what that quote means. But first we had to learn, somehow, that we could acknowledge the feelings and still do the hard stuff that we didn’t feel like doing. We developed coping strategies to help ourselves do that hard stuff… even if it’s an “ice cream afterwards” kind of deal. Even so sometimes due to events in life our emotions loom as large as a god… and in such times our cultivated inner life can be a solace.
My point is that even with the advanced computers in our daily lives the physical human brains we have in our skulls constantly go back and forth, by degrees, from the pole of what happens in the external world and the pole of our imaginations. The trick, according to my Dad, is to remember that our imagination and inner life, i.e. language and our cognitive coping skills, are adjustabletools for dealing with stuff that happens in the real world. If your tools aren’t helping you cope with the real world then the tools may need adjusting or maybe repair.
The importance of language and our inner life is, I think, reflected in the fact that in most human groups it’s considered rude to finish people’s sentences for them, to put words in their mouth, to interrupt or talk over someone. Many groups use some variation of passing around a talking stick or some physical device by which we know who is to speak and for what duration of time. These devices signal who is speaking even if the speaker has paused quietly for a time to think.
Similarly, because language accuracy matters to the creating of shared meanings between people, it is considered rude to assume you know for certain (without double checking) what someone meant when they said that. Or to definitively declare – in the fashion of colonialism – that you and only you know what is/isn’t good and that your personal standards *should* be adopted by everyone everywhere instantly.
To quote my Dad again “Put the words should and shouldn’t on a 50 pound brick and carry it with you at all times”.
Cultivating your inner life, being careful, gentle, flexible and aware of your own connections between matter (the world) and your mind (imagination) can help your own mental health and aid with the stressors of being alive. Including giving you the mental strength to stand by your own thoughts about things.
Additionally it can be useful to be generally aware of real-life people or, nowadays the technologies, that may try to insert themselves, constructively or destructively, between the external world and your own inner life. Such awareness can inspire a focus on whoever or whatever that might help you make better (not worse) connections between the world and your imagination.
This awareness of matter/mind external world/inner world technique can even be a useful tool for the practicing writer or visual artist as I map out here.
True, within the matter/mind continuum there’s no shortage of people who will tell you what to think, what to feel, who will finish your sentences for you, who will try to colonize your inner life, who will claim to “know what you need” and otherwise try to affect your personal relationship between the world and your own imagination.
Sometimes such people do harmful things – the abuser who is gaslighting and manipulating a victim.
Sometimes such people do helpful things – the teacher who is enlightening and encouraging a student.
Mostly the people we typically encounter are somewhere between these two harmful/helpful extremes.
Each of us have to figure out for ourselves ways to decide who or what is helpful, relevant or trustworthy.
Yes, your family, friends, a guru, a book, a politician, a cult leader may all queue up to give you the “correct” answers for this too. And you might or might not like the results. And you’ll still have to figure out some ways – apply imagination and creativity here – to decide what the results are, whether or not you like them, how you’ll respond and what you’ll do next. At the end of the day it’s up to you, it’s your choice of what kind of inner world you want to create and how it can help you deal with the external world.
And yet we are social beings. We need each other and we do learn from each other, all of our lives, various things about living. There’s a lot of trial and error involved. To quote dear Dad again…👇
For most things other people tell you about the world asking yourself the question “which wolf does it feed” is a useful guide. Also useful is the question “who benefits if I believe this?”. It can help to simply write regularly, daily, weekly, what happened, what so-and-so said, how that makes you feel, what it reminds you of, what you need or want or hope. It can help to watch both what someone says and what they do over time and evaluate for consistency and effects. (The CRAAP test is useful too)
Since processing the connections between the external world and our imaginations is reliant on our physical brains/bodies it also behooves us to eat well, to get enough sleep, to walk/exercise and to give ourselves the downtime needed to process our thoughts and feelings. It simply takes time to do something with our bodies that is expressive of our emotions.
To quote Dad again “Having feelings/thoughts? Write about it, draw about it, talk about it, make music or poetry about it…and by doing that with feelings you can name it, claim it and tame it.” There’s really no substitute for doing this yourself with your own hands and voice. Making these physical expressions of imagination and creativity is not about being perfect any more than playing tennis has to always be about becoming a professional tennis player. It is possible to practice an art form just for the fun, playful, inner life exercise in it.