There is a common perception that those who use art as a way to maintain mental health are inherently creative people or that their work is a means by which to communicate unsettling things going on in their lives. We hold a certain stereotype of those who find emotional solace in artwork. There’s even a popularized term for it: “the tortured artist” — which all too easily ties the term “artist” to the horrific description of one who is “tortured.” Using art as an outlet for one’s mental illness can certainly be about hashing out feelings in a creative manner, but this is not always the case.
Sharon Maguire is a second-year business student who runs a small craft business that has its roots in providing relief from her anxiety. In her sophomore year of high school, Sharon and a co-worker began painting together as way to productively channel stress.
“I was really struggling with my anxiety at the time. It was something that was very new to me and I didn’t know how to handle,” Maguire said.
What started off as a canvas-painting hobby turned into something that people are paying for, Greek Life organizations being the main consumers of her work.
“It’s actually something that, I guess, came from using it as an outlet, that slowly, eventually just took off and became so much more.”
Maguire’s history with mental illness goes back to middle school, where she first experienced depression. At such a young age, it was not something she openly discussed or understood the way she does now.
Contrary to wide-held ideas of artists and the work they produce, it’s not the expression or communication of her mental state that is most satisfying to Maguire. Rather the relief is in the process of creating something, of the actual work, of pulling her mind away from everything going on around her and focusing in on a non-stressful, completable task.
“With projects — like with canvases and everything — even if I feel just down about myself and I don’t know where I’m at in my life or who I am, it makes me feel better to be able to start and finish a project,” Maguire said.
Maguire explained that there are times when she feels trapped in a negative frame of mind and it may be for reasons unknown to her. These “funks,” as she calls them, can last hours, days or weeks, but sitting down to make art helps Maguire draw herself out of them.
“It doesn’t cure it or anything, but it’s for an hour or two — or sometimes it could be six or seven hours and I won’t even notice," she said. "My mind is just completely set on the art and completing and finishing something.”
Maguire expressed her belief in finding something that works for you personally because mental illness is so different for each person, even if the diagnosis is the same. Two people with depression, for example, may find that it manifests itself in vastly different ways.
Of course, each person has a unique way of maintaining his or her own mental health and outlets can range in form from writing to music to physical activity. Maguire herself used to dance — both an art and a sport — which provides some people with a healthy and productive method of keeping mental stress under control.
But Maguire did not find the same release in dance that she does in creating artwork. She remained frustrated for hours after practice, which did nothing to help her mentally.
“It was a way to take my mind off things, but it was also a bad way for me to do it," she said. "As I got older I realized that ... dancing doesn’t make me feel better … you want to find something that, after you’re done with it, you can leave it to the side.”
Maguire now has her mental illness under better control than when she was younger, which she credits to a variety of factors, including therapy and the increased self-awareness that comes with growing up. And though her small business is not the only way she with deals with anxiety and depression, Maguire still returns to it to find that steady sense of accomplishment that comes with completing a work of art.