In a 1963 interview with The Paris Review, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Katherine Anne Porter made a poignant proclamation: “I think I’ve only spent about ten percent of my energies on writing. The other ninety percent went to keeping my head above water.”
Porter’s admission rings true for many artists. Mental illness and creativity often ride in tandem. And while many artists find their craft to be a form of therapy, the complex relationship between the two mentally taxing exercises is hardly one of cause and effect. For every tortured genius who drowns in their art— from van Gogh to Sylvia Plath and Leo Tolstoy to Virginia Woolf— there’s a genius, like Porter, who uses it to find her way to the surface.
Jess McKeller, a dancer and social media coordinator at the Ohio Theatre & Event Center, believes that there is a bounty of buoyancy in art— and creative expression shouldn’t be a flotation device reserved only for those those with genius. On Saturday, July 1, McKeller is inviting both the artistically gifted and those challenged by mental illness to a multimedia event: “Coping and Creativity: Entertain, Enlighten and Empower.”
The art of anxiety
Noting a flood of neuroscientific studies performed in the last decade, McKeller firmly believes in the link between mental illnesses and creativity: “The part of your brain that ‘suffers’ from mental illness is the creative part of your brain.”
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard noted this in his 1844 treatise The Concept of Anxiety: “Because it is possible to create…. creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self… one has anxiety. One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever.” Nearly 2000 years earlier, Aristotle spoke similarly: “No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.”
However, McKeller focuses on the power of art to help adjust: “I don’t think anyone necessarily suffers from mental illness. It’s an illness, yes, but I don’t think you suffer from it unless you let yourself… I learned to cope through crafting, writing, dancing and poetry… and now, I want to share this method with everyone.”
To do so, McKeller began reaching out to anyone with a story to share, posting online and at local mental health centers. She then selected participants based on “a mixture of their relationship with the art and their backstory of how art has helped them. Some of the artists featured have bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, are recovering addicts, have children with mental illness… and some just want to help out and raise awareness.”
Finding the right movement
Keller sees awareness as key to the event: “The specific community around the theater has a very high rate of addiction and mental illness. I wanted to bring awareness to the community and show the people with those ailments ways to cope with their issues.”
Providing further support is therapist Kate Leonard, who will speak about the relationship between mental illness, addiction and coping through art.
McKeller encourages people coping with mental illness who don’t consider themselves to be artists to remember a simple truth: “Anyone can make art… anything you do can be artful as long as you put your creativity into it… it doesn’t mean it will be good, it doesn’t mean you will like it, but it is still art.”
Pouring your feelings and fears into your art is hardly a requirement. As Keller says: “You don’t have to create your feelings. Just create something.”
Ohio Theatre & Event Center
3114 Lagrange St. | 419-255-8406 | Ohiotheatretoledo.org
7-9pm. Saturday, July 1. $5.