I saw Walker Art Center’s breath-taking Frida Kahlo exhibit the other week and how her brush conveyed her pain: the agony of her husband’s promiscuity and her own multiple surgeries and miscarriages plays out in graphic imagery and color.
Kahlo died in 1954 at age 47 but not before she’d produced more than 60 revealing self-portraits. Look at her “Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.” That Frida is bleeding and stoic and quite majestic, but seriously hurting. “I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to,” Kahlo said, as quoted on Walker’s website.
The show got me thinking about “Creativity and Mental Health: Through Writers’ Voices,” a recent workshop organized by the Hamm Clinic in St. Paul and a striking effort to show creativity’s healing effects on the mind. A panel of writers, a therapist and psychologists shared personal and professional insights.
Workshop part of Hamm Clinic outreach
The event is the brainchild of Bea Sinna, a good friend of mine and a longtime volunteer for that nonprofit mental health clinic. Sinna calls the effort “Arts and Minds,” and it’s part of Hamm’s effort to lessen the stigma of mental illness and to make the clinic better known in the community. I know that because I did some freelance writing for them a couple of years ago.
Poet Annie Breitenbucher told how when she was 13 she was hospitalized with depression and felt compelled to write “notebooks and notebooks of perfectly hideous poetry.” She slowly realized it was a way to work through her feelings.
Read a few lines of her poem “Every Day Different” and you’ll gain insight into the recurring, all-enveloping nature of depression and the energy it takes to fight it. Breitenbucher writes of “sadness that kicks the wind out of your ribs.” She urges, “When the voices of self-contempt pick the lock in your head, shout back.” And she counsels bravery: “it is the work you have been assigned. And you will do it, every day, different.”
Now Breitenbucher writes about the sport of running for the Star Tribune and writes poetry published by the Laurel Poetry Collective.
Madelon Sprengnether was at the discussion, talking about her memoir, “Crying at the Movies,” and the therapeutic nature of writing. She called creativity a powerful resource for mental health. “Creativity gives one the opportunity to exercise some control and mastery of difficult areas of our lives and the opportunity for integration,” the University of Minnesota English professor said.
Creativity and writing powerful therapies
She said she realized in the course of her writing how profoundly her father’s drowning affected her both as a child and adult. Though she had had professional help, she needed also to express her emotions in her art, she said.
“Creativity finds a way,” agreed Carolyn Holbrook, founder of the Whittier Writers’ Workshop, former program director of the Loft Literary Center and a published essayist. “Writing and knitting have saved my life more than once,” she said, reflecting on her deep depression some 30 years ago. She was divorced with four kids and had no job and no money.
Tom M. Ellis, a licensed marriage and family therapist and executive director of the Center for Grief, Loss & Transition, suggests the creative process as an important tool for healing. Women tend to journal, he said, but he just as often encourages men to write.
The seminar got people talking about mental health, and that’s a change for the better. As a child in the 1960s, I remember a holiday without a favorite uncle and asking my mother where he was. “In the hospital,” she said. “What for?” I persisted, waiting for an answer slow in coming. “Oh… he broke his leg,” she said. Only years later did I learn he’d been hospitalized for depression.
The stigma of mental illness still permeates society today and serves as a barrier to recovery, said Xan Banker, a staff psychologist at Hamm Clinic. Statistics show most people with mental illness don’t seek help, she said. Would you agree? Let me know.