Art as Therapy

Sometimes, life gets you down.

By the time you’re reading this article, it’s been written and re-written several times over. Just when I think I know how to gather my thoughts about this particular subject, I hit a roadblock and start fresh. What I learned is that I need to be honest from the jump: I’m having a hard time. I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m depressed, I’m disillusioned, I’m disappointed; I feel hopeless and powerless.

Depression is a very real issue that’s hard to talk about, and certainly one I felt nervous about discussing here at Toy Photographers. Luckily I was emboldened by Leila Cheiko, who used her art to speak up about her political frustrations, and Harley Quin, who did a wonderful and touching series about her own depression and how it effects her as an artist. So, here it goes…


About a month ago, I was hit with depression. Hard.

It invaded every aspect of my life. I felt sad the minute I woke up, I lost interest in things that usually brought me joy (like photography), I felt disconnected from my wife, friends, and co-workers. I felt alone, and most of all, guilty about being depressed. I bottled it in for several weeks, pretending like everything was normal and trying to just smile more and move on. Instead of letting myself feel it, I hid it away from myself, and the world.

This is, of course, not a healthy way of dealing with depression, and in the end it only made things worse. It wasn’t until my wife asked me to open up to her about it that I was able to face it head-on. Over time, it subsided and my life (generally) went back to normal. Such is the nature of depression: It has its ups and downs, it hits me at unexpected times, and can depart as quickly as it arrived.

One of the things that helped me get through it was art. More specifically, my art. I used to use photography simply as a way of telling the stories in my head, or putting jokes out there with fun setups and characters that I love. As I’ve grown as an artist, my photography has become more personal, and I’ve learned to use it as a method of self expression.

Sometimes, art is the very best medicine

Art can be very therapeutic.

I’m not nearly qualified enough to speak on just how helpful it can be, or why; for that I recommend Alain de Botton’s book Art as Therapy and its accompanying website. I also found a great blog, which discusses the therapeutic nature of art in detail:

Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that uses the creative process of making art to improve a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being… The creative process involved in expressing one’s self artistically can help people to resolve issues as well as develop and manage their behaviors and feelings, reduce stress, and improve self-esteem and awareness.

While I was able to overcome my latest bout of depression, I was hit with sadness again this past week. The threat of nuclear war and the sight of white supremacists rallying in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia will do that to you. Again, I felt hopeless and powerless in the face of evil. I felt angry at the world for being so dark. I wanted to disappear and shut myself away from all of it, while at the same time knowing I couldn’t just bury my head in the sand.

I’m still working through how I can turn to art, and specifically my own art, to help overcome this latest wave of darkness. I’m also thankful to have the supportive Toy Photographers community to lean on. We aren’t just a group of photographers sharing our work. We’re friends who are there for each other in times of need. Shelly helped me accept that I could turn to photography when I was sad, and not just as a means of therapy, but as a quick escape from the world. In a discussion we had on Google+, Shelly told me:

I think we have to allow ourselves to escape. Otherwise we will go crazy. Never apologize for directing your energies to art.

She’s absolutely right. So I will unapologetically go back into the studio, turn on my camera, and see what stories I can tell – either to escape the troubling current events for a little while, or work my way through them. One therapeutic photo at a time.

– James

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  1. Thanks for writing this James. I needed to hear this today – and every day. I can barely think or function these days. I make a to do list every morning of my must do’s and I get them done. I have no energy to go any further. Which is so stupid since I have several amazing opportunities in the next two months, but I cant focus. I blame my house being under construction and national politics. I don’t blame you for keeping your head down – these times will try mens souls.

    I’ve always used my art as a form of self expression. I don’t think people know how deeply personal some of my posts are. I know that I would have imploded in anger and sadness (in equal measures) years ago if I didn’t have this outlet. Ive worked through so many personal issues in the past and Im working through them still. Life is an endless journey of learning and art is a great tool to help on that path.

    Thank you for writing this. I cant imagine it was easy, but Im so glad you did. We’re all in this together. I for one am grateful for my toy photography friends. Kristina, Brett and Jason all helped me get through this particularly rough week. So yeah, I get it.


    • Thank you for the kind words, Shelly. I’m learning more and more to turn to art when I need to. It’s an extremely powerful outlet indeed. I’m very grateful for my toy photographers friends too! We really are all in this together and it brightens my day to have the blog to read, photos to check out, and other photogs to interact with. 🙂

  2. James, this is a great post. I feel similarly as you and Shelly (without really being depressive yet) – about the world seemingly going darker and darker. Artistically the issues at hand in my eyes bear the question if we escape into art or if we should look our fear and anger into the eye and put it into pictures… I tend to do the first and maybe love it more than I should, I virutally live in the places my pictures take me to – but sometimes I think I probably should be more outspoken. [Then again, rereading these lines I think shining a light of beauty may be a good thing too!]

    Whatever – I wish you the best of luck!

    …and I love the little guy under the black cloud! I can very well relate to that feeling.

    • Thanks, Tobias! Whatever your methods may be – escaping into art or shining a beautiful light – it’s good that you have SOMETHING to use as a tool to get through these times.

      That black cloud image was the clearest way I could convey my feelings in LEGO. While I’m under the cloud getting drenched, there are others out there taking photos, talking to friends, or spending time with loved ones. It can be very isolating at times.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story James! I can relate to exactly how you are feeling and I’m sure many others can also. Everything has been so negative lately. I try to cheer myself up by taking photos of happy, smiling minifigs and sometimes it actually helps. It’s great that we have the toy photography community to turn to for support. We can all help each other get through this!

    Keep up the wonderful photos James!


    • Thank you, Lynn! Seeing the little cheery yellow faces of my minifigures sure does help; it’s something I really need to do more often. I’m extremely thankful to have the community for support, you guys have helped me more than you know!

  4. A really great article! Thank you for taking the time nessecary to make it so.

    I have never really experienced depression as you describe; I guess I can feel it coming on sometimes but it never overtakes me. My wife on the other hand has been in that dark cloud before. I don’t quite understand it. Toy photography for me is definitely an outlet for creativity. I think by actively creating something even as simple or complex as a toy shot – gets you creating and to create is to go against destruction. The act of creating flys in the face of all that is dark in the world. It shines beauty on ideas and that light breaks through the deepest dark. In the wisdom of Winston Churchill; If you are going through hell, by all means, keep going.

    • Thank you Joe. I love your take on creating to go against the destruction. I’ll try to think of that next time I need to retreat into my art.

      Thanks for always shining beauty with your photos! And excellent Churchill quote. If only we still had world leaders like him…

  5. Kim Bozarth

    I vacillate between thinking I should just never watch the news again because I can rationalize that the events taking place around the world don’t really affect my day to day life. I tell myself that I should just focus all my loving energy on the people in my sphere of influence. Then I feel guilty and like I’m just practicing avoidance. Thank you for sharing your very personal feelings about depression and for reminding me that I can turn to my art for relief. I’m also going to just take a little news fast. 🙂

    • YES! I’m constantly struggling with whether to never turn on the news again and just be happy in my ignorance, or keep myself educated in order to live in such a way where I can actively rally against all the dark stuff. It’s tough. I like your idea of a news fast – even the smallest break will help!

      I’m so glad that you too have your art that you can turn to. It’s an extremely powerful thing and one I feel I often take for granted.

  6. Stefan K / fubiken

    What a great post! I could see myself i things you wrote, like thinking of life, politics and the world. Often, often I just want to hide. It is to much, can’t take it. It’s a black hole.
    I’m glad you found your way to deal with and thank you for spreading light on depression!
    Hugs and love to you
    Stefan K

  7. brett_wilson

    So brave of you to share this mate.
    Depression is such a horrible heavy fog that affects so many. I’ve been there too. Sharing your experiences is a wonderful way to demystify and debunk assumptions about depression. I applaud you!
    If your words help just one person, you’ve done an amazing job. Well done. And, as with anyone reading this, if you ever need someone to talk to, I’m here mate.

    • Thanks man! I appreciate your support and friendship. That invitation extends to you as well, I’m hear for ya if you ever need!

      It’s a tough thing to do, but being open and honest about depression and mental illness is the best way to tear down the assumptions about it, and spread the message that sometimes, it’s okay to not be okay. I’m glad I was able to help even in a small way.

  8. I hear you loud and clear. I have the days I can barely move and thankfully, like you seem to have, I have a partner that understands how bad those days can be… and for seemingly no reason at all. It’s the lack of reason that is the hardest thing with depression.

    The loss of focus and the inability to find interest in the things we’ve always loved is sometimes painful and just seems to pile on top of what we’re already going through.

    One of my coping mechanisms is what I call my Humanity Hiatus. Sometimes I withdraw from the world of social media and news so I can limit the interruptions in my life.

    Every time I pop open a new tab in a browser and attempt to go to, or Google+, or Instagram, or any of the news sites, I’m redirected to a page that gently let’s me know I can’t do that. I have even suspended my Facebook account for a time.

    If I didn’t do these things, I see the crap that’s going on in the world and I fixate on it with a kind of gusto you’d see from a kid who has been given free run of a giant toy store. So I avoid it. It aids me in focusing my attentions to more productive things.

    Thankfully, I have a loving partner who supports my weird days, who graciously, and without complaint, picks up the slack I create in the business we share when he sees I can’t get shit done.

    And I’m also grateful to blogs like these, that exist beyond the social and don’t come with all the negativity that social media seems to thrive on.

    So thank you for sharing your story. It’s not always an easy thing to talk about and I’m glad for the conversation.

    • You’re absolutely right, the lack of reason is a huge part of what makes depression so difficult, and what makes me feel so guilty when it comes on. Luckily I’m learning to deal with it more and more. I love your idea of Humanity Hiatus. I do that too I suppose, without realizing it. Perhaps it’s a subconscious coping mechanism.

      I’m glad you have a loving partner who understands and helps when you get down. That’s incredibly important, and something I’m thankful to have as well. I can’t imagine going through it alone.

      I appreciate your kind words and support. Keep on keepin’ on, brother!

  9. James, thank you for putting this out there. It really does help to know you aren’t alone. Depression [the brain-chemical kind] triggered by over a year in near-constant pain, health challenges, massive work upheaval, and the terrifying things in the news, can surround me and press in like a menacing crowd of black robed demons, and it’s hard to function. I’ve been learning to give myself free reign, in response, to the things that make me happy, make me feel “normal”. And toy photography is big on that list.

    Your quote from Shelly hits the nail on the head. Here’s to pushing through, however we can do it.

    • Thank you, Ryan! I’m sorry to hear what you’re going through, but understand. Not just from my own experience, but the experiences of those close to me as well. It can be really difficult, and sometimes when it rains, it really pours.

      I love that you’re giving yourself free reign to be happy and do the things that make you feel normal. We’ll get through it!

  10. Cynthia

    James, thank you for this post! The more depression is talked about the better. My most recent bout was last year and it was a heavy hitter that lasted for months. I was in the same boat as you. Lost interest in the things I found joy in and I kept asking myself why? Why am I so sad? Why? WHY?! I had no valid reason. None. But the black cloud was too heavy to deny. The frustration of wading against the fog can be so overwhelming. Reading your post and the replies makes me feel that I’m not alone and that’s a comforting thing. I too take a Humanity Hiatus when the weight of the world becomes too much for me. I have to say now that the fog has receded I make efforts to make myself happy. I call it keeping the sads away. I have turned a spare bedroom in our house into my art / collection room. Having my own space to “play” with my little plastic people really has helped in such a huge way. I wish everyone that has gone through depression never has to again.

    Thank you again for sharing and I applaud you! 🙂

    -Cynthia aka general_sneers

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