Melancholia

7006539265_f36a2da67f_zYesterday, when I was perusing one of my favorite websites, New York Social Diary,  (I’ve written about it here before) I came across the story of Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts.  She was a prolific painter and co-founder of the Concord Art Association which still functions today.  I’ve posted a few of her works here.  From a wealthy Philadelphia family, she decided at 15, inspired by Mary Cassatt, that she would become a painter.  She did become an accomplished painter and her contemporaries included John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet, Cassatt, Daniel Chester French (he sculpted the statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial), Childe Hassam and George Bellows.  

When she was in her fifties, she was diagnosed with “melancholia.”  In 1925, her doctor told her it was in her best interest to stop painting.  Not long after, she hanged herself.  She was 56 years old.  Hey, who doesn’t suffer from at least a mild case of melancholia?  I’m sure the doctor or doctors had reasons for recommending Elsie retire her paintbrush, but it seems to me, that they failed her.  Would she never have killed herself if she kept painting?  I don’t know.  I’m aware of the frustrations that arise from exploring our art, like hating what you’ve created or feeling that your art has been passed over or even creating something so great that after the crescendo, there is an emptiness and a question as to whether you’ll ever create something you are proud of again.  But my position is and probably always will be, we need our art.  It is what carries us through the hard times.  

So maybe today, you’ll do your art and think about Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts.  She knew your melancholia, it was hers, too.  And if someone encourages you to stop creating, I’m not a doctor, but I don’t think you should listen to them.

How the Nelson-Atkins got me through last Summer

John Singer Sargent , American , 1856-1925 , b. Italy  Mrs. Cecil Wade, 1886

John Singer Sargent , American , 1856-1925 , b. Italy
Mrs. Cecil Wade, 1886

Wayne Thiebaud , American , b. 1920  Apartment Hill, 1980

Wayne Thiebaud , American , b. 1920
Apartment Hill, 1980

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Last July, I spent nearly three weeks in Kansas City. My Dad had major surgery and my Mom stayed with him in the hospital room and I stayed nearby at a Ronald McDonald House type place. It was for the three of us a sad time, a scary time, an unstable time. One benefit of the experience is that I was able to reconnect with old friends who now live in Kansas City. I got to spend a lot of time with my cousins who shuffled their schedules to visit my Dad regularly. But to be honest, I spent a lot of time feeling lost. My Dad was sick and we worried how long it would take for him to get better or if he even would get better. And at night, I would lie on this little twin bed in this old Victorian house and miss my life in LA, my friends, Eric, the dogs, happy hour at Marie Callender’s. I would drive around in oppressive Kansas-in-July heat and think, all this would be a little easier to deal with if the temperature would just drop 15 degress. A few times, I escaped to to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. I’d walk the rooms and remember works that I’d seen before and works that I must have seen before but that were new to me now. A few paintings, like Paul Raphael Meltsner’s Paul, Marcella and Van Gogh (No.2), Fairfield Porter’s Wheat and Keith Jacobshagen’s Crow Call (Near the River) made me quite emotional. It was as if the sadness I walked around with was released by experiencing these beautiful works of art. Especially Crow Call that reminded me of so many Kansas skies that I grew up with, skies that I still miss occasionally. It’s sad and hopeful and bright and dark and it’s the duality of it that spoke to me. It eased my pain, made me feel like a boy again. For as long as I live, whenever I see these pieces, I will be transported to the summer of 2012, when a few paintings helped me get through a very tough time. That’s Art’s job, but it’s also it’s gift.