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 post is part of The Artist’s Mind virtual book tour which includes other author interviews, book excerpts, guest posts, giveaways and more. Visit this post to find all of the stops on the tour. The book tour stop just prior to the one here in my blog was at Great Books + Great Minds! Here’s another book tour stop with a wonderful synopsis titled “Seven Mental Health Lessons from The Artist’s Mind“
Thanks everyone for reading, sharing and commenting! I hope you’ve found it enjoyable. I’ll clear away our coffee cups and see everyone again next Monday!
Take care of your minds this week!