Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Mental Health Awareness Month: Winston Churchill's art and fighting the black dog of depression

If it were not for painting, I could not live; I could not bear the strain of things--Winston Churchill, 1921

When I get to heaven, I intend to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject. --Winston Churchill in an interview with Life Magazine in 1946

Painting is like taking a paintbox off on a joyride to lift the blood and tears of the morning. --Winston Churchill

In Churchill's art studio at Chartwell, his home of 50 years. 

                                           In front of Churchill's art studio on a beautiful spring afternoon

Since it is Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to highlight Winston Churchill. Why Churchill? When one has a son with autism who loves Winston Churchill and art, one learns a lot about the private, more silent man behind his nearly 500 paintings. It was our shared dream for a long time to go to his beloved home and refuge, Chartwell, about one hour from London. We wanted to roam the grounds and house, but mostly to view his art studio--a brick, light-filled building about 75 yards from the house. 

Churchill captured many chapters of his life in almost 50 years of painting. Although he was one of the great statesmen and communicators of the 20th century, he also left a prodigious collection of images that confronted his fears, conflicts, and fascinations. He was endlessly intrigued with composition, texture, and color. It allowed him to enter a creative world of refreshment that absorbed him when he felt melancholy and overwhelmed. In his suitcase, he often toted his paints and easel as he traveled. One can see the pyramids of Giza, sunrises in Marackesh, Morocco, and dappled rivers in the Cote of Azure in Southern France, among many others. His art studio is filled with paintings that allow us now to get a lens into Churchill's world--a world that was often in tumultuous upheaval. 

Everyone knows Winston Churchill was a gifted statesman, but he was also unquestionably, an accomplished artist. With his susceptibility to depression, he learned what could bring his unloosed moorings to anchors again: it was painting. His heroic stature during World War 2 is well-known when Britain withstood Hitler--giving hope to a nation under siege. But many do not know the private turmoil he suffered for about 25 years before bombs started falling on his beloved England. It sounds familiar. None of us really knows the private pain and anguish of another, isn't that right?

In his quiet times, he could become sullen and sad--remembering the colossal failure of his military quest at Gallillipoli in northeast Turkey during World War I. Because of his failed military tactics as Head of the Navy, about 45,000 British men lost their life. This dark tragedy deeply scarred him. It was through a relative encouraging him to paint that he brought out the colors, canvas, and brush. He learned that painting coaxed the cheerless spirit out of him--again and again. He referred to his depression as "his black dog." And when that "black dog" came around the corner, he consciously, deliberately, I think, got out his paints. Observing nature, deciphering shapes and lines, and putting brush to canvas made him feel alive again--ready to conquer his own inner world and ultimately, the battle-torn world during WW2. He was ready and prepared to take on much of the world's struggles. But I believe art got him there. 

Andrew Marr, the British BBC commentator and hobbyist artist said about happiness in the documentary  Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Oil Paint, about Churchill's artwork "I think there is a 'flow' in all of us--an essence of happiness. It is finding and being engaged in something as intensely as you can, doing it as much as you can, as hard as you can, but something that is difficult and not easy, but that you can do it. It is a release valve. Doing it can keep us alive in a flickering, iridescent reality that gives us awe and amazement. Art saved Churchill's life and I think it can rescue all of us."

 It does not have to be art, but I believe everyone needs something that relieves mounting pressure. It is discovering what works for you. No one really teaches you, unfortunatley, you have to discvoer where you derive your joy. That means putting head, heart, soul, eyes, and hands together, and then standing in amazement at your creation. Finding that "flow" of happiness is the answer. Churchill is a great example to me of persistently trying to overcome his inner struggles--and finding unbounded joy and beauty in the journey. 

                 Churchill in his garden fish pond on the Chartwell grounds--a pond he made himself. 

                                          On the walk between Chartwell, the house, and Churchill's art studio

                        Churchill in his beloved art studio where he recharged his spirits again and again.

                                                              What it looks like today...

                         This is one of his last paintings--a more loose Impressionist style of his goldfish pond. At this point in his early 90s, he had had several strokes and could not see very well anymore. 

                                       His painting, brushes, and paints as he left them

         It is definitely worth a visit to see someone who relentlessly pursued painting in his private world--a pastime he knew kept the "black dog" at bay. And with that insistance to not cower, he brought so many beautiful worlds for us to now see. As he said, "If it were not painting, I could not live. I could not bear the strain of things."

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