On Art, Depression, And Joy

By Janet Roberts

One of my first memories is lying in a crib and watching the shifting light play across the walls of the nursery. Later, I recall focusing on some bright, primary-colored plastic “snap-together” toys that seemed to be rather magical. I also have memories of a dress with a cluster of red cherries along the hemline. These things now have taken on a sort of iconic importance, made all the more desirable by the difficulty in conjuring them at will.

My early world was made up of color and scent and imagination. The unique earthy sharp smell of crayons now evokes times spent on the floor choosing just the right Crayola shade to fill in a sky or a princess’ dress. The silver and gold crayons were treasured, and used sparingly on only the most special objects, a royal crown, or perhaps a knight’s sword. These magic tools were not abused, but placed carefully back in the right order in their yellow box to await the next important project.

Walt Disney was my siren, my muse. Sitting in a dark theater and drinking in the luscious color that washed across the screen seduced me into an imaginary world so perfect and satisfying that reality could never compare. I had been a lover of reading and books since a small child, and now I had the added dimension of a visual medium in which to stretch my artistic sensibilities.

Drawing and painting gave me an identity

My father was an introverted but intelligent man. He was from a small town in Indiana, and eventually received a masters in Forestry at the University of Georgia in Athens, where he met my mother. They moved a great deal, in part because my father suffered from depression, and seemed to think a move would be the answer to his problems. Of course, in a few months, the depression would return, but he never seemed to realize that he could not run away from himself. I was also shy, and the many moves placed me in the unwelcome role as “new girl.” The only talent I seemed to have that won approval from my classmates was the ability to draw. I recall in fourth grade drawing the profiles of friends, and the joy over the attention and praise this brought. I felt I finally had an identity, and something that few others could do.

I went on to major in fine arts at Indiana University, and graduated in 1966. By that time I was convinced that, even though I planned to marry and have children, my art would never be put on hold. I actually kept that pledge, and remember painting when the children napped. I did art fairs in those early years, and sold many paintings. Time passed, and in the early ‘90s, my husband took a job in Iowa. That is when I plunged into depression. Looking back, I now realize that I have always had this tendency, no doubt inherited from my father. But suddenly in a new community, with children in college, and my wonderful artist friends left behind, I fell apart. I saw a therapist, took medication, but still could not seem to lose the despair and sense of hopelessness.

Since college, I had been painting impressionistic landscapes. They sold well, and for a while I enjoyed doing them. I had always loved life drawing, and drawing/painting people, but never had explored this seriously. I remember shortly before moving to Iowa, I had hung a watercolor of a still life with fruit in the kitchen, and one day noticed the reflection of the checked tile across the room on the glass of the still life. It looked fantastic, and that gave me the idea of doing paintings on fabric. Then the move came, and I put that idea aside. But one day in Iowa, trying to ignore the depression and move on, I remembered that moment and started a large painting on a plaid fabric stretched on canvas bars. This led to the exploration of other surfaces, and finally the breakthrough, my first collage with figures. I was re-energized, almost on fire. Nothing else existed except my studio and my work. I did painting after painting, and finally felt I was doing something so personal that it was like a magician pulling those endless colorful scarves out of his vest, only I was pulling ideas and images out of my dormant past.

And so, after 35 years of painting the landscape, I am finally doing paintings that delight me and that are a reflection of the person I was, and the person I am now. That these two personalities have blended into a whole is perhaps the biggest surprise of all. I recognize that I will always have “down” moments, but the sense of purpose and achievement that comes from my work will keep the depression in check, and if anything, add depth and authenticity to my paintings. As is so often the case, truth makes golden the simplest of detail. The joy comes in mining this gold, which is usually in one’s own metaphorical back yard.

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on April 06, 2009

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