Depression and Creativity: How Art Saved Me

Updated: Jun 23

As you can probably tell from the title, this is going to be very personal. There is a dark side to my story of how I decided to become an artist/illustrator, one which you usually don't want to include in the standard webpage bio or news article promoting yourself. I wasn't sure if to even publish this or not, but I believe that artists should be honest if they want to express themselves. I feel more secure now, to explore how going through crisis led me to realise how creativity was so vital in my life, and how in many ways, it saved me. No doubt, there are many people out there with similar situations. People consider art or artists un-important in the statistical sense of profit margins and quantifiable returns, but art gave me meaning and a real reason to live.


Going Through Hell


I always drew since nursery, but I didn't consider art a viable career. I was I guess, what you might call a child prodigy. My skill in drawing was already very high and I was a member of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (nicknamed gits by our teachers). I thought I'd be a lawyer or businessman and just keep art as a hobby. As it so happens I became obsessed with East Asian history and culture and did a D.Phil in Oriental Studies at Oxford. I then just happened to fall into a job at an auction house in Bond street, London, as an Asian art specialist. To many, looking at appearances, I was doing very well. In reality, underneath the surface, I was going through a personal hell.


My sister had become seriously ill and permanently lost her hearing, my parents decided to get divorced and the house turned into a war zone divided literally in the middle with numerous police visits to calm the situation down.

Van Gogh, 'Sorrowing Old Man', c.1890

Work was not much better, with bitter fighting between ambitious colleagues and managers who seemed not to take notice or deal with the situation. Work would later feel like a dead-end with no real opportunity for advancement. When I did manage to get a big business deal in, the people on top seemed to want to swoop in and steal it from me, except for when things went wrong then blamed everything on me. Most of my friends (and then girlfriend who later broke up with me) were still in Oxford, where I had traded a walk along a canal to lectures, to a packed, sweaty, underground commute to work. I felt largely alone and isolated with no one to talk to in London. Everything I had worked hard for, to get into Oxford, to get a doctorate etc, seemed to be for nothing as I felt life was definitely worse, not better. Oh yeah...and despite working long extra hours (unpaid for because you're supposed to be doing this out of passion) and occasional weekends, I still can't afford a place of my own...What was the point of all of this? wasn't life supposed to be better after graduation? and is this all there is to it? I could barely rise out of bed to face the day. I really had to force myself to get up with all my might.


It reached the stage where in the morning commute I would think how wonderful it might be if I could fling myself in front of the train...

There are maybe some people for whom all of what I described above wouldn't have a problem. Perhaps my skills and personality was just not suited for this job. Some people thrive on drama and conflict. They see work as a battle and love it: so long as they are winning. I don't. As Satre said, "hell is other people", so why go out to make things worse for other people? Like most artistic types, I am quite sensitive: when I'm hurt, it hurts deep. It is hard for me to just shrug off things; instead they ruminate in my mind constantly.


Furthermore, the existential crisis that resulted, has led me to believe that everything we do stems ultimately from a fear of death and that there are two ways people deal with it. One is to rise above the crowd by standing out and making a mark: creating an artwork, a novel, etc, something they think will outlast them. The second way is to entirely subsume yourself with tasks of life, such as work and family, both as a distraction from fears of death and procreation as a form of creating miniature versions of yourself that will live on past you, etc. My way of dealing with the fear of death is the former, to want to create an artwork that makes my mark in the world. I just didn't see the point of battling colleagues or rivals in some squid-game-like situation to get money. I thought how I could make my mark in a way more meaningful to me that wasn't combative.


There were a few other things that saved me: one was the novel Dream of the Red Mansions by Cao Xueqin. This 18th century novel about the rise and fall of a family contained Buddhist philosophy, similar to stoicism that helped me cope with life's ups and downs. The second was an obsession with Abraham Lincoln (I read 30 biographies of him). His own depression, humour, as well as his shrewd handling of the American civil war seemed to be a guide to my own family civil war. The third and most important factor however, was drawing.


Drawing at the National Portrait Gallery


At the suggestion of my mother, I went to a drop-in drawing session at the National Portrait Gallery. These were held every Friday night, for free. they were not classes as such, just a group of random people who liked drawing. It was the only space, believe it or not, where I could find some peace and equilibrium. There was no shouting, back-stabbing or fighting, people just sat wherever quietly and drew what was in front of them: nobody judged them or criticised them harshly. For the only time in a long while, I could be in control of things, the pencil and the paper; every decision where to draw or how, is mine and mine alone. This is my world, and if they don't like it they can F-*!k off. (I don't like swearing, but sometimes, it really does perfectly express a feeling). As it so happens, most people did like my drawings, and it was the only affirmation I received in those years.



Edward Luper, copy of portrait of Chitqua (Tan-Che-Qua) (circa 1728-1796), National Portrait Gallery, London


One Friday evening after coming out from the drawing session at the National Portrait Gallery, I realised that creativity was the key factor that was missing from my life. Whatever I did in the future, I knew it would have to include creativity for me to be happy. Coincidentally, I have since seen lectures by Jordan Peterson about creativity and I entirely agree with him that creative people who do not have a creative outlet will just wither and die.


Manga Exhibition at the British Museum


I knew I wanted to be an artist, but wasn't sure how. A friend of mine suggested I become an illustrator - I would be drawing and still earning money. I have to confess that at that point, I still thought illustration was beneath me. Somehow, comics and that sort of thing seemed childish and irrelevant, until I went to a British Museum exhibition on Manga.


After visiting the exhibition I realised that this was a brilliant way to combine drawing with my educational background to teach a wider audience about any given topic. I was particularly inspired by the manga Miss Hokusai by Hinako Sugiura. I loved how she drew heavily on Ukiyo-e to draw her manga.



Hinako Sugiura, 'Miss Hokusai'

I no longer considered manga or comics beneath me. I began by drawing the life and work of the Chinese author Lu Xun but as animals, in the manner of the comic Maus.

I became so obsessed by this project that I worked furiously over it for several months until I completed over 200 pages. I often went to bed at about 2am, to extend my day so I could draw more. Then wake up at 7am to go to work. I acquired an agent, and we met with publishers in China, Lu Xun's grandson and the Lu Xun Cultural Foundation supported me and I even went to a factory to make a toy. Things seemed to be going well until Covid hit and the project fell through. The world had become more politically sensitive about these things, and an English illustrator drawing a Chinese writer as a raccoon just didn't work anymore. Nevertheless, I felt I had found my purpose in life. I was going to be an artist/illustrator. This seemed to be a proper use of the gift I had since childhood.


It didn't matter that the Lu Xun Raccoon project failed. I now truly know what failure is and have grown from the experience. As Henry Miller in Tropic of Capricorn put it:


"one doesn't become an artist overnight. First you have to be crushed, to have your conflicting points of view annihilated. You have to be wiped out as a human being in order to be born again an individual. You have to be carbonized and mineralized in order to work upwards from the last common denominator of the self. You have to get beyond pity in order to feel from the very roots of your being."

On Creativity


Creativity, I realise, is something I cannot live without. If I tried to force myself to stop, or was in a situation where I cannot be creative, life for me really would not be worth living. That is not a dramatic overstatement. It is just a fact. Art for me, paradoxically helps me take a grip on reality while also withdrawing slightly from it. It allows me a controlled space where for once, I can be in charge.


Mild depression or melancholy or however one wants to describe it, forces the person to ask themselves difficult and important questions about life and their purpose in it. Many cannot come up with a satisfactory answer and might perhaps rely on a crutch, like alcohol or drugs to avoid the issues at hand. But for some, depression, if it is not too deep, can be a spur for creative people to think deeply: what sort of message they want to express and how to express it. The necessary introspection is very important for artists in fact. It can help them find their unique voice to make their mark in the world.


One final thing. Failure and defeat is sometimes necessary to learn. Success, if it comes too easy or too early to a person, can make them complacent and stagnate. If we can stop and take time to think about our so-called 'failures', we can learn and improve. It also makes the final achievement feel more worthwhile and valuable. Would people still climb mountains if it was a piece of cake? Having experienced all of the above, I certainly realise how precious drawing and art is to me.





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