I recently came across the art of Martin Ramirez who was a Mexican migrant worker. He came to California leaving his wife and children behind to work on the railroads. He lost his job during the great depression, he didn't go back home probably because his ranch in Jalisco had been devastated by the Cristero Rebellion that started in 1926, the year after he had left. He didn't speak any English. Apparently he became psychotic, or someone thought he was. He was taken to a psychiatric hospital where he did not talk to the staff and was diagnosed as Catatonic Schizophrenic. Ramirez spent the rest of his life in hospitals in California. He drew with melted crayons, sometimes mixed with oatmeal, juice and spit. He created collages and elaborate works over the 32 years in which he spoke to nearly no one, or perhaps nearly no one spoke to him.
One of his doctors loved his work and provided him with materials. He probably studied his "case" in search of the connection between "mental illness" and "creativity".
The connection between the two is indeed fascinating- is it that people who are creative become ill or do ill people become more creative? that is often the question asked.
What if we think about it differently: what if we say that some people have lots of receptors to the world- they can take in nuances that other people can not. When those things that are taken in have an environment- internal and external, which is rich and safe, all those nuanced information can translate itself back into the world in different forms. This is what we call creativity. Those lucky ones can choose the form of their creativity- some become artists and writers, others become chefs or soccer players or doctors.
However, many of us don't have a good enough environment, even if we do have all those receptors and we do internalize the world in a rich way. I think this is when people feel like they NEED to be creative, which is different from just taking advantage of the ability to be creative. Those are the people whose life has no meaning to them if they don't write, or volunteer to save elephants or write articles or or think run marathons. These are people who feel things deeply but don't have enough of an internal and external supportive environment to make it feel like a choice.
Could it be that what we call mental illness is nothing but the result someone who takes in emotional, intellectual, moral and sensual information but has even less context to which he can bring these pieces of data? Someone who has no way to process it and no one to talk to about it? Wouldn't that be reason enough to go crazy?
Ramirez, a talented artist, outside the context of his family, language and culture, had no way to know and to express his own thoughts and feelings. The pressure became so much he became frozen, out of touch. The psychiatric hospital provided him with enough structure and safety to communicate by means of line, shape, color and texture. Through his art he could bring his sensitivity, the data that was collected inside of him, into the world in some way, a limited way. Could he have functioned had he gone back to his family? would he have made art if he had done that?
Here's a nice piece from the Newyorker about him: