The Power of Our Own Spirit: Mental Health and Artists of the American South

TJC Gallery, Spartanburg, South Carolina
May 15, 2019 – August 2, 2019

Perhaps the most active and influential artist in East Tennessee, Catherine Wiley (1879–1958) was critically acclaimed for her impressionistic landscapes and insightful portraits. In a 1912 essay, Wiley wrote, “only when paintings make us realize more acutely the poetry that lies within us all, the romance that we ourselves feel, the power of our own spirit, the ‘externalisation’ of our own soul as it were—only then has it a meaning.” Even with this aesthetic insight, Wiley’s own spirit was deeply troubled. Following a series of professional and personal losses that occured between 1919 and 1926, her mental health steadily deteriorated, culminating in a diagnosis of schizophrenia and subsequent confinement to a psychiatric hospital for the rest of her life.

Familiar depictions of notable literary, musical, or visual artistic minds like van Gogh or Mozart highlight the frequent connection between creative output and the “tortured genius” stereotype. Decades of medical research insists that the link is anecdotal rather than clinical, and the inherent difficulty of defining “creativity” and “genius” make such conclusions untenable. Though international renown came after van Gogh’s tragic death, scholars and scientists now recognize that the artist’s brilliance should not be merely ascribed to his mental state, but hailed as a triumph over illness.

Whether grappling with debilitating depression, substance abuse, or a psychiatric disorder, the Southern artists featured in this exhibition—Walter Anderson, Patrick Bruce, Elizabeth Chant, Conrad Chapman, Beauford Delaney, Minnie Evans, Henry Faulkner, Zelda Fitzgerald, William Hollingsworth Jr., William H. Johnson, Ray Johnson, Edward Middleton Manigault, Paul Rohland, Eugene Thomason, Bob Thompson, and Wiley—produced compelling bodies of work that demonstrate their artistic gifts and serve as a testament to their courage.  Reflecting on his mental health, van Gogh vowed that “the thing that makes one fall ill . . . that same thing gives us the energy, once the illness is over, to get up and want to recover the next day.”   

The Power of Our Own Spirit: Mental Health and Artists of the American South is on view at TJC Gallery from May 15 through August 2, 2019.