Art is more than just something pleasurable to look at. Its transcendent quality has the ability to integrate and ground our thoughts, lift us beyond our present anxiety, and connect us with something greater than ourselves. Such was the experience of professional artist Alex Walker.
The World is an Anxious Place
Walker always felt a degree of low-level anxiety. “As an artist and creator I am a very sensitive person and I think I am susceptible to slipping into periods of anxiety and depression perhaps more so than the average person, but for a long time I was able to keep the train in the tracks,” he shared.
But then, in 2017, his anxiety began to spin out of control and he experienced his first panic attack. Political events, global events, fears for the future of the climate, combined with personal internal issues suppressed for years “rose to the surface of my consciousness and created a perfect storm of mental distress unlike anything I had felt before.” He lived a year and half in a “blur of anxiety punctuated by panic attacks.”
As an artist, Walker is not alone. Researchers at the Karolinska Institutet conducted a large scale study and found people in creative professions are treated more often for mental illness than the general population. One key to understanding why artists may be more afflicted, according to Cameron Gray and Mel Bikowski who run Evergray and offer a course for artists overcoming anxiety, is the role of imagination. The ability to visualize and see big picture translates not only into perceptive art, but anxiety and depression as well.
For Walker, anxiety symptoms consisted most noticeably of constant perspiration and thought loops, circling back beyond his control. He ruminated over national and international problems affecting civilization. Facing problems impossible for one man or society to fix, his fear grew. As Thomas Aquinas defines fear, Walker experienced it as he pictured himself faced with something insurmountable.
Work Through Anxiety with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Things changed when a course on self-mastery taught Walker to examine his life in great detail. He conducted mental exercises and group activities, grounded in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which is based on the belief that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interrelated. CBT helps individuals train identify irrational thoughts and train thought patterns into healthier practices. It has repeatedly been shown effective in treating anxiety.
Walker found himself able to “snap out of my negative thinking for long enough to see other horizons of potential ways of being in this life, free of the torments of my own thoughts and the insanity of the external world.”
But he did not stop there. “I wanted to capture that feeling in a painting.”
Art and Regaining Mental Health
Walker said of one of his works, “‘Levitation Chamber’ was also a self-portrait of a state of mind I had attained, only a more positive and optimistic version. It’s a vision of weightlessness and surrendering to the unknown and freedom from my own negative thinking.”
With a composition informed by Baroque art and the cathedral ceiling paintings of Andrea Pozzo, Walker’s experience of freedom gave him the substance to fill it with. He used images of Olympic divers and a rainbow of hues for “a more contemporary color palette to illustrate the feeling of joy I had attained and to make a painting.”
He saw the painting serving “as a road sign to direct me back to that peak state of mind in case I find myself in the darkness again.”
According to Dr. Margaret Laracy, beauty helps lead us out of ourselves and can act as an antidote to mental illness. The practice of art provides the participant with an opportunity to sink their thoughts into action. It is an act of mindfulness, being present to the given moment. Echoing Catholic spiritual thought like that of Jean Pierre de Caussade in Abandonment to Divine Providence and The Sacrament of the Present Moment, Walker discovered, “there is so much wonder and beauty in the world and I just needed to orient myself in that direction and go with the flow instead of worrying myself so much about the world and the future.”
“That is exactly what painting does, it brings a person’s focus entirely to the task at hand” Walker explained. His experience is echoed in the field of Art Therapy, which is founded on the belief that self-expression can lead to healing and psychological integration.
Wonder and Awe Aids Mental Health
In an interview with the National Catholic Register, Dr. Laracy said, “I found empirical studies…There are also health benefits of exposure to artistic beauty, as expressed in painting and music. Beauty engages reason. It is a delight of reason.”
“Levitation Chamber” won “Best of Show” at the Carnegie Art Center’s Juried Exhibition in Turlock, Calif. It is “about examining what is truly important in life: love, acceptance, community, relationships and beauty. I want my art to elicit a feeling of awe or at least let the viewer feel some sense of relief from the stresses of life. I feel like the world needs more wonder and mystery injected into it and that is my goal as an artist,” Walker said.
In clarity, harmony and integrity (essential conditions for beauty according to Thomas Aquinas), the person comes in contact with right order. And as all beauty is created, according to Thomas Dubay, author of The Evidential Power of Beauty, this transcendental brings us into contract with the one who orders all things—God himself, the Divine Healer.
For Walker, creating art supplemented the effort he was already making through CBT practices. He allowed his work to act as an anchor to remind him of the ground and the freedom he gained.