Interview with Kathryn Vercillo
The Artist's Mind: The Creative Lives and Mental Health of Famous Artists
This week I’m featuring the work of Kathryn Vercillo, who writes the Create Me Free newsletter on Substack. I interviewed her via email as part of the month-long virtual book tour for The Artist’s Mind: The Creative Lives and Mental Health of Famous Artists. Recent stops on the tour include a guest prompt on Tamzin Merivale’s Resurface and a book review by Ben Kerschberg of Hefty Matters. Tomorrow it stops at Birgitte Rasine’s The Muse for a guest post.
WC: I’d like to start with something you mention in the introduction: “If Michelangelo or Van Gogh were alive today, their experience would be different and their diagnoses would be different too.” That's a fascinating thought; I’m drawn into all sorts of speculation about alternate universes. If Van Gogh were to receive a diagnosis today, how would that have affected his art?
KV: I would love to have a whole conversation about those alternate universes, and I am sure that some really interesting books could be written exploring them. It’s definitely interesting to consider how a diagnosis today might have affected his art. As noted in the book, Yale professor Craig Wright PhD believes that “Van Gogh was well aware of the line between sanity and insanity, and he knew when he was sane and when he was not.” So we could argue that even if he didn’t know his specific diagnosis, he knew when he wasn’t mentally well, so perhaps it would have made no difference.
But, I might argue differently . . . Van Gogh often expressed in letters to his brother how frustrated he became when mental health issues made it impossible to work creatively in the way that he wanted to. He felt like “work” or making art was the only thing that helped but that sometimes his mind made it impossible to do so, and he would get really angry at himself about that. In my own personal experience, feeling like your mental health problems are your fault and being frustrated and angry and hating yourself and all of that is part of depression (for me, at least) and it’s a terrible cycle because it makes the depression worse and it makes creating art more challenging. One of the biggest things I learned from my most helpful therapist was to be gentler with myself. There can be many problematic limitations of labels and diagnoses but for me, and for many others I’ve met, getting a diagnosis is helpful because it gives you a framework. It means that you aren’t the problem or the only one going through this. It means that there are tools that might help. Learning self-compassion around my diagnosis helped me be able to create more and to be okay with the times that I couldn’t—or to get curious about ways I could create differently in those times (crocheting instead of writing was my big one.) So, I wonder if Van Gogh could have that experience and have self-compassion around how mental health impacted his creativity, if he could have still created the amazing things that he did but perhaps even more works, or for a longer lifetime.
WC: You talk about how there is a spectrum between “healthy” and “ill.” This feels like a very helpful way to approach this entire subject; there is an enormous variety of human experiences that could fall into the category of “mental health issues,” just as there is a wide variety of creativity. I really appreciated how you emphasized that point; the two facets of the human experience—the correct working of the mind, and the desire to express oneself artistically—seem quite interrelated.
KV: Thanks, I keep trying to come up with a framework that makes sense to me and this one—the idea that we are all artists with mental health experiences on a spectrum—is the one that works best for me. I’m happy when it is helpful for others.
WC: There are some artists—you mention both Goya and Edvard Munch, but I’m sure there are others—who consider their mental health challenges to be an important part of their identity as artists. Munch in fact refused treatment for a long time since he thought that if he were to be treated, his artistry would suffer. How do you think artists should balance their health concerns with their desire to be creative and to make art? Is there a point at which the art becomes too important—where the desire to exercise a creative gift can be taken too far?
KV: That’s a huge question. I think that the answer is highly individual. And I think at the extreme end of it we can get into really complex questions about if/when concerned others can/should intervene to get someone mental health treatment. But in terms of less extreme examples . . . I think, for me, the best answer is for the individual to try to trust that the work that they have to do is a core part of who they are and will come through when they are healthy as well as when they are symptomatic. Which I realize as I say it is a big ask.
I suppose based on my personal experience (as a cis white female in the 21st century with decent access to mental health care and depression that is debilitating but hasn’t ever required hospitalization), I would argue for focusing on self-care first. Ultimately, we all live with challenges and I don’t think challenges stop for anyone even at our most healthy. To me, it’s best to find a way to live life that feels as emotionally, psychologically, mentally stable as possible within that reality.
And then from there, figure out where art fits in. Because you’re always going to have the urge to create. So get curious about how your symptoms, and how the ways in which you manage those symptoms, affect your creative process, content, productivity, medium. This might mean taking or not taking or changing medications or other therapies. It may mean an acceptance of a certain amount or type of symptoms that you allow yourself in order to create the way that you want to while still having some kind of “this is too far” baseline for yourself. But, of course, this is all said from the standpoint of being able to think clearly, which isn’t necessarily the case when you’re in the midst of it. So I either have a very long answer here or none at all :) It’s complicated!
WC: I’m fascinated by the idea that experiences of mental illness—which seem, on the surface, to be deeply personal—can sometimes enable artists to create works which speak to universal human emotions. You mentioned Munch’s The Scream and Tracey Emin’s Bed as examples. Do you know of any other instances where artists have taken their own struggles with mental health and have used them to speak more broadly to humanity as a whole?
KV: The chapter on Gustav Doré definitely speaks to this—it’s impossible to tell where his own depression merges with the widespread “misère” of the poverty around him in London at the time. In contemporary times, I went to a powerful exhibit of work that was created on boarded up storefronts here in the Bay Area during the COVID lockdown . . . work that often reflected both the individual’s mental state and what the world was going through.
At some level, I think all artists do this, whether or not it is intentional. And I think this goes back to that idea that we all exist on a spectrum of mental health . . . we all have these really human experiences (whether or not they get to a level of “diagnosis” or “impairment”) so when we see work created from the heart of a person’s experience, it touches that part of ourselves. And when a lot of people are going through something similar, a lot of people respond to that same work of art.
WC: I was particularly struck by this passage in your chapter about Joan Miró and his lifelong struggle with cyclothimia: “The way in which Miró channeled his fear, exasperation, and sadness to produce joyful and charismatic paintings, to which so many people relate, shows us that art has the power not only to help the individual artist cope with depression, but also to connect us all to our shared humanity.” It seems Miró treated his artistic talent as a stewardship; that's a theme I’ve written about before. Do you think this desire to give his talents for others might have helped him manage his depression?
KV: Another example of what I was saying about how an artist’s individual expression can reflect back to us our own collective experiences. The question about the desire to give back is a great one. I don’t think I know enough about Miró specifically to answer the question for him but I will say that I know for sure that being of service, feeling useful, being productive . . . these are all things that often help move us out of depression. Or feel purposeful within a state of depression, alleviating some of the symptoms.
When I first began this work, it was through exploring crochet as therapy. I interviewed hundreds of people about how crochet helped them with a huge range of mental and physical health issues. The number one way was probably that it helped calm them but right up there with it was that it made them feel useful. Many people with chronic illness (mental or physical or both) experienced depression and frustration because their condition made them unable to perform in society the way that we have been taught that we should. It made it hard to get out of bed, get dressed, go to a job, care for family, do all of the things a life requires. And they felt useless, purposeless, without value as a result. This is a societal problem (we see it happen to elderly retired people sometimes as well) and there are some bigger issues that we as a society should address here but at least at the individual level, doing small things to contribute to others around us seems to really help. People who could crochet gifts for others or functional items for the home or sell small crocheted items for a little bit of income felt like they were finally doing something again, even if they were doing it from bed, in spurts, and it helped create a positive cycle where they started to feel better and could often do more.
So, my guess is that yes, if Miró had a sense that he was helping others, it would have helped him as well.
WC: Again, I’m tempted to speculate about alternate universes when I compare artists such as Yayoi Kusama and Mark Rothko. What would have been the outcome if their stories were switched? If Rothko had committed himself to the care of an institution? If Kusama had not sought expert help for her difficulties? Of course, these questions probably don’t have answers, so it’s unfair of me to ask them of you I suppose!
KV: I think the questions are the point. Although I tried hard to tell full stories in the book, I really feel like it’s just the tip of the iceberg of the conversations I want to be having about all of this. Kusama is still alive and working while living in an institution so it would be amazing if we could ask her her thoughts on this. If you ever write the story of this parallel universe, I would be the first to read it!
WC: Thinking about Diane Arbus’ quote, that people have an actual self and an intended self, leads me to speculating on which of these artists would have revealed their inner turmoil to those outside of their art. Frida Khalo, for instance—did her friends and acquaintances know about the troubles she was experiencing? Did the casual public at the time of her greatest fame? Many of these artists lived and worked long before the age of social media, on which every word and gesture of a celebrity is scrutinized. Would they have been able to handle that kind of pressure, do you think?
KV: Oh geez, you added in the social media part and that’s just a whole extra level isn’t it?!?!
For the artists in the book, I would say that it’s a very mixed bag as to who did and didn’t know about their experiences. It relates in part to how mental health was viewed in their time/place/culture. We all know that these issues have been stigmatized and how much we share is related to that. Some artists felt like they had to hide their diagnosis. Some didn’t feel that and some couldn’t hide it even if they wanted to. For example, some of the people who were living and creating while in institutions couldn’t choose to hide that fact. Then again, Agnes Martin lived until relatively recently (she died in 2004) and she was hospitalized periodically for schizophrenia but managed to keep that secret until after her death.
Frida Kahlo is an interesting example. I’ve included her in the chapter on trauma because she had bodily trauma (debilitating bus accident, ongoing physical pain, miscarriage . . .) and interpersonal relationship trauma. Probably related to pain and trauma, she likely experienced depression and anxiety and reportedly had challenges with substance misuse. She was successful in her lifetime (although lived under the shadow of her artist husband) but she really wasn’t wildly famous until after her life was over. So what people know of her now is much more than what people knew then. But her paintings were direct expressions of her trauma, including depictions of her body trauma through her many self-portraits, so it would be impossible for people not to know about that. I find this interesting because it speaks to a history in our society of it being much more widely acceptable to acknowledge the limitations of physical pain and injury than those of mental pain and injury. People certainly knew about her bus accident and her physical issues but did they understand her depression? Not in the way we do now, I think.
As for returning to the social media question . . . it requires a whole book that I’m probably not even equipped to write myself. But I think we all have a sense of how much it can impact us. If nothing else, it magnifies everything. And actually, I think it’s interesting that you started this question with a reference to Diane Arbus who was a photographer because there’s an interesting thing about photos and the way we present ourselves through this medium.
WC: In your chapter about Basquiat, you mention the art industry, even calling it “carnivorous”. This is something I’ve discussed several times in RUINS—how the art world, and especially the critics, can be very unkind to the artists. Often, the people who are closest to the working lives of artists can be the most savage in their criticism; they can objectify the artists and see them as merely the producers of commodities, rather than the living, feeling human beings that they are. Do artists with mental health troubles ever speak of their professional contacts not being able to empathize with them or understand what they are going through?
KV: This sort of relates to the social media thing, too, right, because now it’s not just critics or professionals in the art world that say those things but the average troll online.
To answer your question, I can’t think of a specific example of an artist saying that, but I’m sure it’s a common experience, and it’s something that I just wrote about in a post about mental health in the music world in the context of wondering what responsibility, if any, producers and music managers might have to concern themselves with their artists’ mental health.
I, personally, am very interested in bringing mental health awareness into art institutions. A dream job of mine that I’m slowly working on is to serve as a mental health expert for galleries and institutions to take into consideration the mental health of artists, visitors and staff. I believe that there are a lot of things we can do to raise awareness and improve widespread mental health while still allowing art to be provocative and triggering and all of the other things art can be.
I think that as a society we are getting closer to increased compassion across industries for all health conditions including mental health. I think we’ll see it in the art world and other places as well. Slowly but surely.
WC: The story of how Louis Wain’s art has been used by psychologists to advance their own theories seems to be an important cautionary tale. Have some of the works of these artists become more significant in the public eye than if they had been made by people with no mental health struggles?
KV: I do think that even where mental health challenges have held (and continue to hold) some artists back from representation, success, acceptance, etc., it’s also true that there are artists whose mental health challenges are the reason that their work has become seen or popular. Outsider artists are a big example of that … in the book I go over all of the reasons that term is problematic but basically a lot of artists living in institutions or living homeless etc. have been “discovered” by others and it’s the story of their challenges that makes people particularly interested in their great art.
I think Wain is a great example of how we can look at art through a psychology lens and that can be a super helpful framework for many different reasons but that we have to understand it’s just one framework. As aforementioned, Agnes Martin lived with schizophrenia which she kept hidden, and her work was taken at face value during her lifetime. Later, viewed through the lens of the condition, people have suggested that perhaps her very ordered lines and design were a means of creating order in a chaotic mind. She herself said she didn’t feel her art and mental health were related. So, I think we have to be careful when we analyze art through any lens, including a psychological one, sharing what we believe is true but with the caveat that it’s only one way of seeing it and that the artist might not even feel the same way.
WC: I notice that you did not discuss the autism spectrum. Is there a particular reason for that? Especially in the context of “outsider art,” the stories of people who live with autism spectrum disorders might be illuminating (I’m thinking of artists like Henry Darger, for example).
KV: Great artist to reference! There are a few reasons I didn’t include ASD . . .
—The book was a collaboration with a website called Sartle and originally we intended to work with artists whose work was already on their website, so that narrowed down who I initially chose to include although that did shift some over time.
—The book was already getting too long just with the few diagnoses that I did include. In fact, I had to cut several artists out of it. So adding another diagnosis would have complicated it even more. There were some interesting artists with OCD that got left out because of that.
—I’m not sure I feel like I have enough of an academic/educational understanding of ASD to write fairly about it in this way. I would have wanted to consult with some experts which wasn’t possible in the time from of the writing of the book.
Like I said before, this book is just the start of the conversation!
WC: Even apart from any mental health considerations, there is a common feeling that artists are different from regular people—that they see the world in a special way inaccessible to us mere mortals. As far as I can tell, this idea originated with the German Romanticist movement in the late 18th century, but it might have cropped up earlier as well. Do you think there might be something of substance in that view?
KV: My gut instinct is to say that since I think we’re all artists I don’t know . . . but actually . . . you’re right that lots of different cultures and eras, including the Romantics, have held this idea. I think artists have been called the canaries in the coal mine at times, the first to see certain things. If I recall correctly (I’m terrible with genres) the Romantics were especially interested in experiences of the sublime . . . so things that perhaps we all could experience but that certain sensitive people are more likely to experience . . . And certainly many people consider artists to have a certain sensitivity to emotional experience that others perhaps don’t have as ready access to.
What do I think? I think that being human means that we are all very similar and also each unique . . . so artists are as special as anyone else that way. But perhaps those that convey their understanding of experience through non-verbal means are able to touch a part of our humanity that we aren’t used to having touched and therefore we feel like it’s special. Maybe? Ask me again tomorrow; my answer may change!
WC: In the introduction to your book, you write that the ideas you present are a “starting point.” In what ways do you hope other authors will take your ideas further?
KV: It’s more that I intend to take the ideas further. The work I’m doing here on Substack is all about this. I intend to write more books. I’d like to do books similar to this one that are about writers, musicians, filmmakers. I have a draft of a book in the very early stages that’s about these theories rather than about specific artists’ bios.
But also I do hope other writers and artists will find value in these words and ideas and take off from there . . . mostly I hope they’ll share their own lived experiences to add to this conversation. It’s something I want to see us all talking about more and more! And anyone who wants to share their story in an email interview with me should reach out!
You can contact Kathryn Vercillo via email here, and you can sign up to receive her Substack newsletter here. Her book is available on Amazon if you follow this link; and if any of my readers wish to take her up on her proposal to serve as a gallery or museum mental health director, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind! Next week I will be featuring a review of The Artist’s Mind, as well as a number of the artworks she references in the book. So stay tuned, and thanks for reading!