How Art Makes You Stronger: Creativity and Madness

I’ve just returned from an incredible week at the Creativity and Madness conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I wanted to share a little about the conference itself and what I presented there.

The conference is the creation of psychiatrist Dr. Barry Panter and Mary Lou Panter and is currently run by Dr. Panter and his wife, Jacqueline Berz Panter. Barry began it 35 years ago as a way for health and mental health professionals to receive and to present ideas on how artistic creativity and mental health are connected. This conference and the companion conference Women of Resilience happen twice a year in the U.S. and twice a year in other parts of the world.

The conference has been held in Santa Fe, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Washington, Hawaii, all of the major cities in Europe, as well as in South America, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Bali, and China. MDs, PhDs, Social Workers, MFTs, and other therapists and medical professionals can obtain continuing education hours by attending Creativity and Madness.

You can find out more about it here:

I’ve given presentations and workshops there five times. This year, my focus was on the psychological benefits of creative projects.

I’ve been engaged with both long-term and short-term creative projects most of my adult life, but I didn’t think much about their psychological benefits until I had a near-death experience while a PhD student in English in the early 1990s. I struggled with the meaning of the NDE and was prompted by a professor to write about it.

By creating a narrator, a story I was telling, and an imagined audience, I was able to examine the experience – which was both shattering and transformative – differently than I did in my day-to-day coping, in therapy, or in a support group I belonged to that focused on healing from trauma.

The psychological changes I experienced and the reintegration that took place while I was writing felt connected with the healing process I was undergoing in therapy. Sometimes the two intersected and sometimes they ran in parallel, but inevitably they intersected again in important ways. The image of the double helix seemed to best describe that relationship.

One of the most profound outcomes of this double-helix exploration of the near-death experience and its aftermath was that I abandoned my English PhD and returned to grad school to become a psychotherapist. (It was during my therapist training program that I first heard about the Creativity & Madness conference.)

People often make deep and long-lasting life changes when they work on creative projects. For my presentation in Santa Fe, I interviewed several artists about these changes, and I wanted to share some of their observations with you.

  • Meditative. “There’s a meditative aspect to having a practice, in my case painting. It allows me to be in the moment. It’s complex, but in a way that energizes. If I’m painting, I’m sane. If I’m not painting, I’m insane.”
  • Touchstone. “I like the touchstone effect. It’s something to go back to, to keep involved with the creative process. Without that, it’s too easy to get involved with the demands and responsibilities of my day job and how exhausting that can be.”
  • Nourishing. “I find a long-term project a source of nourishment I can go back to and reinvigorate myself. To see that portion of the journey and think, “Oh, wow, that’s great! I really did that? That came out really well.” Or to go back to another part and think, “I really struggled with that.” There are parts of this story I’ve worked on for well over a year, and I’ve taken leaps and leaps and leaps. And I’ve come back to it and I say, I didn’t really have a clue how I was going to do that, and it worked out well, and now it fits in here. I get nourishment from what I’ve completed, not only to complete what I’m doing, but also to push me to the next one. So, I find the journey is important, I agree, but I find going back to it keeps on giving back.”
  • Calming. I don’t know if this would be called self-hypnosis or not, but for me, writing fiction has a great calming effect. I forget time and hunger and fatigue and enter another, rejuvenating world.
  • Evolving. “A longer-term project is a process of becoming. The artwork evolves, but you evolve, too.”
  • Spiritual. “When you start a long-term project, there’s a lot of planning, and the goal is far away. It can be a spiritual journey, going from point A to point B. Just whipping something out in a day doesn’t have the same feeling.”
  • Transformative. “I think that the nature of making art – good art – requires going deeply within and getting in touch with your deepest feelings. This can be difficult – you might revisit past trauma or unpleasant situations. But it can also connect you with exalting joy and even bring on an extreme or altered state of consciousness.”
  • Sustaining. “With a long-term project, you create a companion within your own space that sustains you. If you have a project you’re working on, you’re not alone and you don’t feel lonely. I think there’s great solace in that. It’s a very deep relationship – like the relationship some people have with God.”

For more on the benefits of creative projects, you can download a PDF of the slides from my presentation here:

I’m interested in your own experiences with art and transformation and hope to hear from you in the comments of this post.

More anon,

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5 thoughts on “
How Art Makes You Stronger: Creativity and Madness

  1. Thanks, Nadine. I haven’t found much on this subject either, but it’s a vital part of my personal practice and my work as a therapist. And thanks, as well, for the comment on the photo. I’ve been fascinated by the mountains Georgia O’Keeffe spent 50 years painting for many years.

  2. I have not come across content about long term creative projects in any other forum. I’ll look to you for more insights in the future. Aside from that, your photo of the Pedernal
    is beautiful.

  3. As are all of your writings, this one is especially fascinating. This is a subject which needs constant exploration, as many of us need such insights to release the artist in all of us. Thanks for all of these very useful reminders.

  4. WOW. Brilliant, beautiful, personal, universal, deeply inspired, an example of the very best the conference can be, for the practitioners trying to acquire knowledge and the artists seeking understanding of their process. I can’t imagine that any other presenter has done something like this as a followup, this is a significant contribution. The impact for me of the many insights of the interviewed artists is very strong.

    Thank you DJB…

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