It’s long been known that art can serve as a therapy for mental health issues. There are several ways that art can have a positive impact on mental health. Some of these ways include managing behaviour, processing feelings, reducing stress (or anxiety), and increasing self-esteem.

There are a few makers in our community that attribute mental health as playing a large role in their creative process. We got in touch with Rilla, Asra, and Andy to find out a little bit more about how they believe art to play a role in their own personal journey, as well as how it impacts the artisan community as a whole.

Venetian mask in green

Meet the Makers

We reached out to three of the makers in the Artisanry Co. community and asked their thoughts on mental health and the artisan industry.

Rilla, the owner of Rills Leathercraft Yorkshire, is on the Autism spectrum and struggles with anxiety and social difficulties. Leathercraft helps her calm her mind and simultaneously produce beautiful and functional pieces.

Asra Samad is a trained visual artist who works with acrylic paints to produce colorful abstract art. Asra struggled with post-partum depression and found art to be an expressive tool in overcoming her depression.

Andy Lang, lovingly known as The Potter of Leith, is a qualified ceramist. Having struggled with mental health issues in the past, working with clay has provided Andy with a therapeutic expression. Today, he offers the opportunity for others suffering from mental issues the same chance.

Rilla’s Story

There is a notion, sometimes referred to in a bemused or condescending light, of the tortured artist. Gifted individuals whose mental anguish or fevered euphoria is reflected in their works.

While to many this may seem cliche, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. Makers and artists alike have often used their work to express what they may be unwilling or unable to speak aloud. Whether it may be the turmoil of their emotions or simply a desire to show the world what they are capable of creating, I strongly think that mental health plays an important role in the lives of both the artist and artisan community.  For me personally, it plays a vital role.

rilla from rills leather

“Highly Functioning Autistic”

I am what is currently known as a “High Functioning Autistic”, though the term may be more widely recognised by its previous definition of Asperger’s Syndrome. I won’t launch into a lecture on what exactly this is, but I will try to explain how it affects me personally and what influence it has on my craft.

Some people think (possibly due to popular media) that many of us on the Autistic Spectrum are emotionless, or cold and robotic. I think that in reality, it is the exact opposite. We feel things just as strongly if not even stronger than everybody else.

However, due to that way our brains are wired, we do not always know how to process these emotions or are so overwhelmed by them that our emotional centres either explode, i.e. the image of a child throwing a tantrum, or they switch off entirely as a defence mechanism.

There are many other aspects to this disorder, but it is the emotional impact that plays a role in why I create. I believe that my creativity and passion for my work stems from seeing the world a bit differently.

Inspired Leathercraft

When life becomes overwhelming, when my hypersensitivity to sound and inability to deal with change and stress starts to take their toll on me, I become agitated and anxious. This is where crafting comes into play.

The repetitive motions of many of the tasks involved in my leathercraft serve to soothe my agitation and allow me to focus all of my attention on what is in my hands rather than on whatever is causing the anxiety.

When other people become overwhelmed, they sometimes turn to drink, to drugs or to dangerous activities. I turn to leathercraft.

The feeling of accomplishment when I finish making a new creation is addictive, it boosts my mood and helps me face the world again. While I may have a tendency to become too fixated on a project, the benefits are clearly worth it as my family notice a real difference in my ability to cope with stress and anxiety when I’ve been crafting.

So my Autism gave me my Craft, and my Craft gave me the strength to cope with my Autism.

Asra Samad

A quick glance at the most famous names in art history is proof of the link between mental health and art. Van Gogh committed suicide, Claude Monet attempted it. Jackson Pollock had bipolar disorder that could be linked to his alcoholism. Pablo Picasso suffered depression after a friend’s suicide. Sandro Botticelli’s mental illness made his art unique.

These are just the first few names that come to mind, there are so so many others! Because art is a creative outlet for something so personal, it’s only natural that it goes hand in hand with mental health.

Even with global incidents like our current pandemic or the revolution sparked by George Floyd’s murder, artists are at the forefront expressing and creating works that viewers not only relate to but feel are expressions of their own experience/trauma/suffering/healing.

Artist at work with her painting

Mental Health’s Pivotal Role

Mental health has been pivotal in my art in the last two years. I suffered from and overcame postpartum depression. The way I paint has been therapeutic for me and helped me in my personal life along with being the creative outlet I had so missed.

That is not to say my therapy sessions weren’t vital to my recovery, they absolutely were. But my art work served as my meditation homework and continues to help me feel grounded.

It’s a great time to be having a conversation around art and its link/role with mental health and healing. The pandemic and our current times, in general, are leaving us hollow and wanting more guidance on how to improve our mental well being. So starting a conversation around this is an excellent first step!

Artist at work

Andy Lang

My experience has been that there’s a certain kind of ‘mindfulness’ necessary to produce art and craft where, in effect, the creator enters ‘the zone’ and for a time, everything else disappears.

There’s a massive waiting list for NHS ‘Talking Therapies’ and, when you think about it, part of the efficacy of those is in the opportunity to express yourself, or to ‘be heard’. Creativity is a form of self-expression and therefore the artist/poet/songwriter/creator is being heard when their work is in some way on display.

It’s also interesting that many creatives who live with mental health issues themselves can find that they are more productive when in a low mood. Some would say they create very much less when things appear well.

Personal Story Of Inspiration

I began to have episodes of poor mental health in my mid-twenties and have dealt with that in a variety of ways ever since. Having spent many years working as a singer/songwriter, I eventually took on work with a mental health support organisation.

I remained in this field for 14 years, whilst teaching pottery in the evenings, until I was made redundant in May 2018. At the age of 59, finding employment was proving difficult (nine unsuccessful interviews) so I decided to combine my life skills and set up Leith Community Pottery.

In spring 2019 I ran clay demonstrations and workshops for the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival (A Sense of Belonging) and the uptake and feedback were phenomenal. This kind of inspired my plan for Leith Community Pottery.

pottery dishes

Mental Health And The Artisan Community

I think that many of us get shoe-horned into work and lifestyles by circumstance or necessity and that our society undervalues individual creativity, potentially stifling people’s nature and wellbeing.

For me, it was almost a case of accepting what I am (I did my ceramics degree in 1983) and embracing it. To have the opportunity to do what you’re good at is hugely rewarding and far better than enduring endless Annual Appraisals and Mid-Year Reviews, laced with so-called SMART objectives laid down by employers who fail to acknowledge individuality.

Of course, I’m fortunate to have been able to do this but it is my hope and intention to try to share that good fortune with others who would in some way benefit from it.

A Community Of Like-Minded Artisans

One of the main goals of Artisanry Co. is to create a community of like-minded makers, artists and crafters, who can support one another in their craft and creative journey.

If these stories have resonated with you, or you’d like to find out more about what it means to be part of the Artisanry Co. community, then you can join here.