Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Selling Lies

I had a weird day this week. I worked a retail shift with a good friend of mine who runs a caricature operation here in town, and he started discussing his cousin's kid, who has been in about a zillion pageants and is always showing up on his Facebook feed in glitzy not-so-age-appropriate outfits, pancake makeup, and with photoshop smoothing to boot. It creeps him out, understandably. We talked about over-the-top pageant looks, visual lies, manipulation, image, and all sorts of concepts that come up when child pageants are discussed . . . and, as caricature artists who regularly see moms primp and polish their kid before ordering the kid to sit down and project a fake perfect smile for us, we both had opinions.
"Now hold on, Brittany, let's get you
ready for your caricature drawing . . . "

If anyone's seen Johnny Knoxville's recent movie Bad Grandpa, there is a scene where his "grandson" is dolled up to look like an adorable (if scantily-clad and overly-made-up) little girl in order to compete in the Pretty Princess Pageant. That makes a big point about these pageants: it's so full of artifice that you can slather any kid with the trappings of pageantry and they can look like they fit in. Children's faces don't have sexual characteristics, there's no defined jawline or specifically feminine or masculine features yet, so it doesn't matter--boy, girl, potato--the thing under the makeup will end up looking however the mom (or stylist) decides to make them look. Total freedom to reinvent. It's all a visual lie.

But some of the kids LOVE it, right? The girls absolutely adore the pageant primping and being onstage, so it's okay, right? It's what they want. Even if the mom may have pushed it on her daughter a little, or a lot, at first, and sure, maybe mom could have instead pushed soccer, or gymnastics, or robotics club, or beekeeping . . . what's the harm, the kid has been exposed to pageant dress-up and loves it now, right?

Then after our discussion on child beauty pageants, I met one of the new artists as she came in to work the night shift. She excitedly told us of a little epiphany she'd had last time she worked: she had drawn one of the nearby vendors, an older lady, and after she finished, she asked for criticism and feedback. What did the lady like or not like about the drawing? Big shock, she wanted a few things to be changed about her appearance, had always hated her nose and wanted a different one, and to be younger and prettier. The hopeful newbie then did a second drawing with a much smaller nose, much more model-type good looks, and although it bore no real resemblance to the subject, of course we all know which one the recipient preferred. The new artist said she was just going to ask folks from now on, "Which features about yourself do you not like? What do you want me to change, and how?" It would be a great improvement in customer service, her patrons would be so much happier that way, she reasoned.

My coworker and I groaned and looked at each other. "No, you really don't want to do that." She was insistent and optimistic, saying "But I can, so why not? It's what people want!"

And I have to admit, I had a little trouble putting it into words why that was a bad idea. She had a major point: it does seem to be what some people really want. And they are the customer, they are paying you. I'm sure I had similar ideas when I started out drawing caricatures too. In high school, drawing my friends, I remember trying to "fix" things about my friends and then wondering why it turned out not looking like them--but they always liked the drawings and appreciated the enhancements.

On the drive home I mentally listed out the problems I had with this customer-is-always-right approach:

1. First, I would worry about turning the caricature experience into a buffet of artistic requests. I don't want to listen to an insecure woman rattle off all the things she wants drawn differently from her actual face. I mean, I have to listen to that anyway. If I were to actually INVITE the list, I fear how long that list would grow and how demanding some patrons would become.
"Can you fix my hair, like make it longer,  and can you add makeup? And
make my nose smaller than it is, and I don't want to show you my teeth
because they're all janked up, can you just make up a better smile?
I totally hate my brown eyes, can you make them blue? And add
eyelashes and fix my brows. And no double-chin. OMIGOD I LOVE
IT! But dang, why it don't look like me?"

2. Putting this into practice would be a good way to un-learn how to draw. Or rather, un-learn how to observe. You would be willfully ignoring what you see in front of you and instead aiming for some imagined, described ideal.

3. The people walking by will all think, "Wow, looks nothing like that person." An insecure person who wants to change their face might sit for a drawing, and they might like it if you lie to them on the paper, but spectators are impressed with truth. A good likeness is what gets their attention. They can see store mannequins anytime they want.

4. Because I've done it before. We all have. When faced with a demanding customer, who hasn't stretched the truth, or agreed to "fix" something on someone's face? And after you have a large number of drawings under your belt, you can look back and see that this approach has a good chance of BACKFIRING. The very fact that someone is telling a caricature artists to fix this or change that is a red flag that you may be dealing with a very problematic customer. Usually you can muddle by and reduce the wrinkles just a little, ignore the gap in the teeth, maybe not go too crazy on the nose wart that she is nervous about, or minimize the freckles that the kid is sensitive over, but still make it look enough like the person so you don't feel like a total failure. And with luck you will get paid. But the number one indicator that a drawing will be rejected is not the quality of the drawing, or the artist's temperament, or the price . . . it is whether or not the client sits down and immediately tells you how to do your job. When someone sits down like this at a fair, we all wince and know there's a better-than-average chance the drawing will end up rejected no matter what.

5. For me, personally, blatantly giving in and taking requests like this would completely, utterly, horribly, take away my job satisfaction. Do I like making people happy? Of course. But above that, it makes me happy to get a likenes. To pull off a drawing that is funny, whimsical, stretched, and captures the model. Deep down, I want to believe that the drawing will be more valuable to the person if it does look like them, with no interference from the model about what I have permission to draw and what I should replace with some feature from Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt. What are they going to do with a drawing that bears no resemblance? Will they keep it? Will anyone they know view it as something of worth?

At the first ISCA convention I ever attended, I remember Tom "Huf" Hofsteadt saying one thing over and over again during his caricature seminar: "If it has no likeness, it has no value." If ever there was a retail caricature mantra, I'd vote for that one right there.

But when you think about it, about our society today and the typical customer-service model, it's understandable if some folks expect to be able to dictate the rules of how they are drawn, and it's even understandable if some artists let the customer have their comforting lies if they want to pay for them. Commerce, capitalism, supply and demand. If someone demands their picture be a certain way, you need to supply it if you can--right?

There are many, many places where people can pay a professional to craft a nice lie for them. The ladies working the makeup counter will help you reduce the appearance of wrinkles and lengthen your lashes. If makeup is too temporary a lie, plastic surgeons will permanently reconstruct a feature you'd rather not live with (there is even an urban legend about a chinese man who felt so "lied to" because of his wife's extensive plastic surgery that he sued her when their baby came out ugly). The costume shop can turn you into a sexy pirate, even if you've never set foot on a ship. And there are those aforementioned child pageants that will turn your delightful toddler into a miniature version of an over-the-top drag queen and give her a trophy to remember the occasion.

Is the caricature booth one of those places? Should it be?

There are also jobs where lying is literally a criminal act. Lawyers cannot lie to their clients, nor can doctors--even if falsely telling someone their cholesterol numbers are totally fine would, in fact, be comforting to them. Plumbers, carpenters, auto mechanics . . . no one wants one of those professionals to be dishonest with them, even if, jokingly, you might say "aw, c'mon, please tell me that rattle I hear isn't the transmission! Tell me it's something cheap like a hose or a belt!"

Now, when I say something like this to my mechanic, I don't actually mean that I want him to lie to me. He understands I am kidding. He fixes my car, and my life can literally depend on him doing his job. And although caricatures aren't exactly life-or-death, they are actually kind of important to me. I like to think (in fact, I often force myself to assume) that when customers tell me to change this, fix that, alter these, etc., they are at some level, also kidding around. They must surely know that I'm a professional and I know how to draw them better than they could draw themselves. If they wanted to dictate the features used in the caricature, they could just cut out bits of celebrities from magazines and make their own for free.

One guy I worked with had a foolproof (if passive-agressive) system for dealing with this type of request-heavy customer. Whatever she/he asked for, this artist would say "Suuuuure, no problem. You bet. Absolutely. You got it, coming right up." And see, he'd be very soothing and then chat them up and have a good time. And he would ignore every single vain request he ever got and just draw how he drew. I found that he had a lot of success with this method, it seemed to work better than trying to explain that you don't want to alter features and educate a dumb-ass fairgoer on the whole philosophy behind caricature and why you have too much artistic integrity to sling generic Barbie cartoons. So he just agreed to anything, and the customer thought they were getting what they wanted, so when they saw the end result they liked it. I guess he was lying--just not in the way the customer was asking him to.

Customers can also be brought around with a smile, a joke or two, and a little tough-love honesty. When asked to "pretend" someone is fifty pounds lighter, or fifteen years younger, I often say "Sure, I'll pretend that. And YOU can pretend that I take requests." If you smile with the deadpan delivery, you won't get beat up. Probably. I haven't been yet.

My point is that I try to hold the gate, in my own small way, keeping this profession as honest as I can try and make it. I don't always succeed, but I try. And while I want customers to be happy, I also don't want them to start thinking of caricatures as drawings that aren't supposed to look like you. Everyone who does caricatures has, at some point, heard that line uttered behind them, and it sucks to hear. Nor should every caricature artist be treated like a pair of mindless artistic hands for hire that can be completely controlled (even when doing so results in a shitty drawing because of shitty requests for lies). Too many aspects of life these days seems to rely on lies or artifice. I have no idea how these young girls on Toddlers & Tiaras will turn out . . . but if they grow up and decide to get a caricatures, I sure hope they will have outgrown their need to have their faces covered up with falseness until they are bland Barbies in ruffles, all the same, without a flaw or a feature.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Radiation and You: Working in the Sun

Aaaaah, summer is here. Fucking awful, hot, disgusting, dangerous, deadly summer. And with it are tons of party planners organizing picnics, pool parties, and other events that, unfortunately, invite the sun--and he can be a very annoying guest.

Don't worry, I'm not just blogging to complain. I'll share some helpful hints (well, hopefully they will help). I'm no stranger to out-of-doors caricaturing. I work fairs that sometimes end up sunny, and my first eight or nine years was spent caricaturing at Baltimore's Camden Yards during the baseball season for Rick Wright, and the sun for those day games was brutal. Rick never seemed to mind the heat--and some coworkers even speculated that he had some lizard DNA that allowed him to happily soak up the sun and draw while the rest of us sweated buckets. It was always a long, painful wait as we watched the shadow of the warehouse wall creep ever-so-slowly until it finally covered our whole booth in blessed, cool shade.

One of the less disgustingly hot days at Camden Yards (with
Emily Anthony, who still draws there more often than I can!).
There are three things that you have to contend with, as a caricaturist, when you're working in a hot, full-sun environment: your own physical discomfort (dehydration, sapped energy, being blinded by the white paper), your model's squinty-eyed scowl due to the sun, and the technical problems that a hot environment poses to your media (sweat dripping on paper or chalk, markers drying out immediately, even printers frying if it's a digital gig).

The best possible solution to all three of these problems is to avoid the sun altogether. I try not to come off as a prima donna and I use careful language like "for best results" or "for the comfort of your guests and for the artist's safety" in emails where I am specifying that I'll need to be placed in the shade. That usually does the trick. Living in Las Vegas, I have gotten to the point where I have just refused to book the event if it's in the sun during the months of July or August. Those are seriously dangerous months. Most people who have lived here for any stretch of time understand how awful the heat gets during summer, so it's not usually an issue. Still, every once in a while someone calls and seems to think it's no big deal if the hired help will be in the sun for several hours--because we're getting paid, right? Avoid clients and agents who think like that.

More often, thankfully, you are dealing with a rational, friendly person who is just trying to put together a nice outdoor event for their kid's birthday or a company outing. Sometimes an outdoor event has mist coolers, which will help you remain comfortable but also soak your paper! So you might have to set up in a hot area just to keep the paper dry. Or you're set up at a festival where, despite your best efforts, the sun will be hitting your booth for a stretch of hours. And sometimes events get shuffled around, or the agents had no idea it was in the open air with no shade structures. In other words, shit happens, and if you need to be in the sun to pay your bills, sometimes you just gotta make due.
I loved the neat beach bucket-and-shovel snack buffet
this swim party had . . . the sun, I didn't love so much.

I worked two events this past week that were in partial sun: one, at a high-school football field, had literally no structure that could provide shade, and the other, at a municipal pool, had a mixture of danger zones--some shade, but it meant setting up by showers or poolside with splashing kids, so I had to pick my danger. It's pretty humbling: normally I'm good to go, without even a pee break, for four or five hours of straight drawing. Yet I was pretty sapped of energy after finishing these quick two-hour gigs.

Sunscreen is probably a big "well duh." Use it! It will help keep you from looking like a prune in your early 40s. But test it out first--make sure you don't have a sensitivity to it. I found out I have to stick with the baby stuff for my face or I end up rubbing my eyes and blinking like I'm chopping onions. In Florida one time I had to keep explaining to people that I wasn't crying because they were so ugly and hard to draw, it was just a reaction to the sunscreen I'd picked up from the convenience mart.

Wearing a big sun hat is imperative, preferably one that breathes a little so the top of your head gets some air circulation. Staying hydrated is also key, as you will keel over before you know it if you're lacking water. So it makes you pee often? Too bad, that's better than dying, so get a couple bottles of H2O and keep them by your easel leg where you can grab them between drawings. Bring sunglasses, even if you don't want to compromise the tones you see on people's faces . . . you won't be able to see ANYTHING if you're blinded by the sun reflecting off the white paper.
They may not be fashionable, but
they work. 

My years at the ballpark taught me some other tricks too. Your neck is a giant blood circulating conduit, so a few ice cubes wrapped in a bandana and tied around your neck can do wonders. For a little while anyway. I later discovered nifty gel neckerchiefs at the sporting goods store that you could stick in ice water for a while and then enjoy coolness from for hours (it's also a lot less drippy than ice cubes). I highly recommend those to anyone who has to work outdoors for any stretch of time. You can buy them all over the place, at big box stores and online and there's even video tutorials on how to make your own if you're a crafty person.

None of these things will protect you completely. Once you start feeling the effects of sun stroke, you need to cool down. Don't "power through," just excuse yourself and take a goddamn break. Weakness or cramps, lack of sweat, nausea, headache, dizziness, and rapid heartbeat are some of the nicer symptoms of sun stroke. Some of the later symptoms you could develop are seizures or unconsciousness. No color double sale is worth that. Find an air-conditioned area or someplace shady and just rest a while. Get some cold water into yourself. If you really overdid it, you might need to call it quits for the day and feel miserable for the next FEW days!
It's not just for baby butts.

But if you're not dangerously overheated, just uncomfortable and sweaty, it will still make for some annoying problems with your paper. Sweaty hands do not glide over paper the way you're used to. Buy a little travel-size shaker of baby powder and use it on your drawing hand--I was surprised at how well this worked, it kept me drawing fast and loose even in swampy, humid, awful weather.

For outdoor gigs, I have also taken to bringing both graphite and markers. I had never had a problem with markers drying out spontaneously in humid weather, but in the dry, arid desert air I have had my markers fail me. New ones ran dry within a few strokes and it was terribly annoying. I switched to my old Caran D'ache graphite holder and it worked much better (for that outdoor gig anyway).

Hopefully this helps, and please share any other tips in the comments--I'm always looking for ways to help get cool during July and August.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Orange Is the New Black

Robert and I have a few shows we binge on when they come out. Orange is the New Black was a quick favorite when it debuted on Netflix last year, and we have been pretty excited about the new season. Over the past few days, we dug in and watched the lives of Piper, Crazy Eyes, Red, Tasty, and all the other folks at Litchfield Women's Prison. I will try not to have any spoilers below, so fear not if you're still partway though the 13-episode release.
Rob played around with Piper's weird skull
and sunken eyes and Crazy Eyes' scowl.

For all you cartoonists, there's a little sub-plot that harkens back to what all of us were probably doing in high school: drawing pictures of ourselves with our crushes and drawing mean caricatures of the administration. You'll get to see Daya, the pregnant inmate, develop her drawing ability and even put it to use in some animal-themed caricatures that poke fun at some of the prison staffers.

This show offers another unique thing that should appeal to caricature artists: very "imperfect" female faces with no makeup, every episode, all episode. I cannot recall any television show that showcased women's looks quite like this. And sure there is makeup of a sort--it's television, everyone has some makeup done in some way--but the look on OITNB is definitely "natural and haggard," with just a few traditional shots at beauty makeup here and there . . . we have the transgender Amazon who goes to great lengths to maintain her appearance, the shaggy-haired lesbian who is never seen without panda-like circles of cheap mascara, and the red lips of the Italian mail-fraud queen (who ends up getting asked to write a "makeup tips" column for the prison newsletter and recommends instant coffee as an eyeshadow alternative). Oh wait, I said no spoilers, sorry.

It's a treat, visually, to see all these female characters stripped down bare to their humanity. I don't mean stripped bare literally--though that certainly happens quite a few times--but just laid out without the artifice that usually accompanies every female character on television. I have rolled my eyes at shows that feature a plucky female sidekick who is supposedly "not comfortable" wearing makeup and makes a point of saying she never uses it, when it's clear that there's an inch of smoothing foundation, lip color, natural-shade eyeshadow, and mascara on that actress. Just because it's just not glaring, like Mimi from The Drew Carey Show, doesn't mean we don't notice it's there, honey. We all have HDTVs today.
"Golly, this prison would be insufferable if it weren't for the
unlimited rations of hair spray, concealer, and pantyhose."

This laying out of female features, unsmoothed and raw, is reinforced by the opening sequence. Close ups of lips, noses, eyebrows, all beset with age spots, creases, blemishes, and the scars of everyday living. The lyrics of the theme song ring out "Animals, animals, trapped trapped trapped, till the cage is full . . . " making you think of these women as primates living in a confined space, which is what they are. They certainly don't embody the typical femininity portrayed on television and movies. There is no Vaseline-smeared lens in this TV show, no soft focus. Scenes of women stuck in solitary confinement aren't shot with dim lighting, which has become a trope in prison films . . . rather, Kohen shoots those scenes with harsh florescent lighting, bright and inescapable.

Femininity's mystique goes out the window too. There are conversations about female anatomy that are usually taboo on television. One scene has the transgender woman deftly explaining the different holes, vagina versus urethra, and the labia majora and labia minora, to a mesmerized group of young women who have never learned their own anatomy. When asked how she knew so much about the hoo-hoo, the trans Amazon replies "Please, honey, I had to design one." Jokes and remarks about menses and blood-stained panties are served up with unabashed glee. Two older women discuss female masturbation.

While in some ways the characters can typify stereotypical "masculine" behavior, usually to comic effect (two of the more adventurous lesbians have a "sex contest" and assign point values to all the other inmates), there is a noticeable difference in how these characters act compared to what we might expect from male prisoners. This is not Oz with vaginas. Several moments felt like they were building to a violent climax, only to have the women talk things out, figure out a compromise on their own, and even remark that they should be able to settle things diplomatically because they are women. This is not to say the show is without violence . . . just, it won't come to blows as often as you might expect it to.

There's this thing called a "Bechdel Test" (named for a cartoonist, Alison Bechdel, who came up with the idea and presented it in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For). It asks whether a movie features at least one scene where two female characters talk to each other, and the conversation is not about a man. Think about that--how many movies out there fail this test? Even Avengers, from Joss Wheden, who is known for writing excellent strong female characters, fails this test. With Orange Is the New Black, it's honestly hard for me to figure out if there's even a single episode that lives up to the REVERSE of the Bechdel test. When two male guards are conversing, it's generally about a female inmate. It's like Jenji Kohan has purposely taken the typical entertainment model and turned it upside down.
Alison Bechdel, Dykes to Watch Out For, circa 1985.

Anyway, it was a blast watching these new episodes, and I couldn't help but draw a bit. Rob doodled out some studies in his sketchbook and I sat with my Ipad and knocked out a Piper and a Crazy Eyes.  

Crazy Eyes (Suzanne Watson, played by Uzo Aduba) has been a favorite since the start--she is such an unpredictable, yet endearing character. Crazy Eyes takes a dark turn this season, coming under the influence of a new, incredibly manipulative inmate that seems to make everyone else in Litchfield look like a girl scout in comparison. All the characters take different turns this season, and you find yourself rooting for people who before had seemed irredeemable; likewise, characters that you thought were in the "nice" category show some pretty glaring flaws as they deal with problems that are too big for them to handle.

Now I just have to wait another year before season 3. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Artists and Mental Illness, part 2

I am not a scholar. Bear that in mind as you read this. I have worked with scholars, having spent nearly a decade working at an academic press and having helped out with the odd PhD dissertation here and there, so I can sometimes sound scholarly. And I do have a fascination with the brain and how it works (I have already bought my ticket to The Amazing Meeting in July, which this year has a theme of "Skepticism and the Brain"). But academic research is not my trade. I looked at online sources, talked to a few people, and digested all this information from my own point of view as a working caricature artist. I had my own questions to answer, like:
From Ellen Forney's Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me
(more about Michelangelo later . . .)

--Am I or my coworkers more at risk for mental illness because of our trade?

--How can a link like that be measured? 

--Is the actual link exaggerated by journalists, and therefore in the public's mind?

So, with a week to look around, here's what I found. 

First, A Meta-Review of the Numbers

There have been quite a few studies about creativity being entwined with madness; and it's a popular topic to get snatched up by journalists, so nearly everyone can remember reading some article, somewhere, that states artists are more likely to have mental health issues. A 2012 meta-review looked at 32 such studies and found "the effect sizes were heterogeneous, but the overall mean effect size was small (r = .16)." That's not a very impressive coefficient of correlation. (If you don't want to download a statistics refresher PDF file, like I was forced to: r can be between -1 and 1, and zero indicates no linear effect). The coefficient went up when a particular test was used and "uniqueness" was the index of creativity, but that smacks of cherry-picking, so I'd trust the initial r value.

So, with this in mind, I kept wondering as a I read articles: are we making a mountain out of a molehill? Popular science writers often sway from the real meaning of studies to "dress up" otherwise drab findings into a snazzy eye-catching headline. It's amazing how many scientists are "baffled!" or "astounded!" according to popular headlines, even though the actual studies they quote are more blah than astounding or baffling. Plus the idea of creativity being associated with mental illess was such a pervasive one; the association first appeared in the 1970s, but a link between "genius" and "madness" dates back as far as the time of Aristotle, if Wikipedia is to be trusted. I waded through a bunch of articles to see what's out there.

Popular Science Articles

A 2012 BBC article titled "Creativity 'Closely Entwined with Mental Illness'" summarizes the research of a Swedish team at the Karolinska Institute and makes some general statements about creative types, especially writers but also visual artists. The article states that "those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people. But they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder." This article, too, tries to link the traits of some mental illness with the drive that leads some to enter an artistic field: "The restrictive and intense interests of someone with autism and the manic dive of a person with bipolar disorder might provide the necessary focus and determination for genius and creativity."

An earlier article by the same BBC health editor, titled "Creative Minds 'Mimic Schizophrenia,'"reports that "Brain scans reveal striking similarities in the thought pathways of highly creative people and those with scizophrenia. Both groups lack important receptors used to filter and direct thought." This study, too, draws on work from the Karolinska Institute, which apparently has been studying crazy artist types for a while now. The article goes on to state that "Creativity is known to be associated with an increased risk of depression, schizophenia, and bipolar disorder," but does not elaborate on how that was determined. But it quotes Professor Fredrik Ullen's findings that the brain's dopamine (D2) receptor genes (which experts think govern "divergent thought") might be key. People who did well on tests of divergent thought had a lower than expected density of D2 receptors in the thalamus--schizophrenics also show this lower density. The thalamus is a filter, parsing information and relaying it to the cortex (the seat of cognition and reasoning). So, this line of theorizing goes, some people have faulty filters, which means more of the everyday data that constantly hits us gets to the higher reasoning centers. That sounds like a good thing, I mean who doesn't want MORE information to get into their cortex (stupid brain, censoring what I get to think hard about!) . . . but if one's cognition center overflows constantly with every little bit of life's minutia (Look! A squirrel!) then it's easy to see how mental illness is the end result. The article ends on a happy note, quoting a psychologist who coaches people to be more creative: "The result is typically a significant rise in their well being, so as opposed to creativity being associated with mental illness it becomes associated with good mental health."
Art can be a way to cope.

So creative endeavors like art might actually be a recipe for mental health . . . I guess that makes sense, right? Art therapy happens in the mental health profession all the time.

A Science Daily news release mentions a small Stanford study from 2005 that found children of bipolar parents scored higher on creativity tests than "the healthy children." It goes on to repeat that many studies have found links and that "artists and writers may have two to three times more incidences of psychosis, mood disorders or suicide when compared with people in less creative professions." Rather than a filtering problem, like the schizophrenia link is theorized as, the bipolar-creativity link is explained as "mobilizing energy that results from negative emotion to initiate some sort of solution to their problems. 'In this case,' [says Dr. Terence Ketter,] 'discontent is the mother of invention.'"

So in this model, art can also be viewed as a means of quieting a mind, not stirring it up more. A coping mechanism. Again I'm thinking of the art therapy given in mental health facilities.

But already we have differing mechanisms to explain links of different cognitive disorders with "creativity," which can be described so broadly as to either mean "uniqueness" or working in a creative field, or doing well on a creative problem-solving test. These are all very complicated areas, no wonder people spend their lives working on some small aspect of these big, big questions. How can we simplify such complicated notions?

Nearly all these articles appear with a few choice examples of famous artists who were well-known sufferers of mental illness--or just really odd ducks. Along with writers like Plath, Hemmingway, and Poe, there were snippets about Van Gogh, Warhol, and Dali. Journalists do love sticking in some celebrity information to spice up any article, and by putting a famous face to a disease, or a trend, the article gets more tread and readers identify with the concepts more easily.
Turns out that soup cans weren't the only thing he held onto.

I learned that Andy Warhol was apparently a hoarder . . . 20 years after his death, archivist Matt Wrbican has only made it through 19 of the artist's 610 "time capsules," according to an article on the science of hoarding published in the Pacific Standard. The reporter goes on to share the thoughts of Randy Frost, a psychology professor who authored the first systematic study of hoarding: "the neurological hallmarks of hoarding might indicate a giftedness in the aesthetic appreciation of the physical world, rather than pure illness . . . People who hoard tend to live their lives visually and spatially instead of categorically, like the rest of us do." Sound artistic to you? I had heard that hoarders, who in the DSM-4 are placed on the OCD spectrum, had a higher-than-average sense of 3-D visualization and recall, but I was unable to find any articles mentioning that.
WTF was wrong with Michelangelo anyway?

But the online lists of artists, or famous people in general, who had (or may have had) mental illness go on and on. A list of "historical geniuses" from Mental Floss speculates as to whether Michelangelo had autism. Painters Paul Gauguin and Jackson Pollock are believed to have suffered from bipolar disorder according to a snippet on the "Top 5 Mad Geniuses" (interestingly, though, only one visual artist made that top five--Vincent Van Gogh; there was also John Nash, a mathematician; Sir Isaac Newton, a physicist; Edgar Allen Poe, a writer; and Ludwig van Beethoven, a composer). Content provider Brainz has a not-so-gently-titled list "10 Great Painters Who Were Mentally Disturbed" in which Michelangelo is suspected of having depressive tendencies or bipolar disorder, but not autism. featured a list titled "7 Eccentric Geniuses Who Were Clearly Just Insane" and yep, Michelangelo made this list too . . . this time for ignoring personal hygiene and being unable to converse with people, so we're back to autism with him. If you have several hours to kill, you could google your brains out looking up more of these lists. Clearly there is a market for them, people are interested to know exactly what the fuck was wrong with Michelangelo, at least.

So, these lists frame the question one way: How many artists are (or were) mentally ill? What about approaching it from the other direction: How many of the mentally ill are artists?

I was able to speak with an old friend of mine who has spent the last 20 years working with troubled kids. The teens he sees are suffering from depression, anxiety, sometimes schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. While it still is anecdotal evidence, I wanted his take on the whole "creativity-mental illness" link. He told me, to my surprise, that he found these kids as a whole to be "not really a creative group." Out of the couple thousand or so young people he has worked with, he said he only remembered two that could draw pretty well. Two out of two thousand? Not exactly the kind of ratio that I'd expect after reading all those articles. I told him about all the stuff I'd been reading and asked, "so, in a group home for troubled youngsters, you don't exactly walk in and see half of them sitting in corners doodling?" He laughed. No, definitely not, he said. These kids have enough trouble doing typical life-skill things.

Suicide Rates

Mental illness can lead to suicide, so I thought that looking into suicide rates listed by profession might be illuminating. Oddly enough, the few lists I surveyed online didn't even mention artists! Though lawyers, farm managers, dentists, and chiropractors (among others) were all listed in the Business Insider's 19 Jobs Where You're Most Likely to Kill Yourself, artists were nowhere mentioned. And these lists (there are many) looked more like typical trumped-up clickbait than serious data. The American Psychological Association takes a more reserved stance in a 2001 overview: "Experts on suicide say that statistics on its relation to occupation are not clear. There is no national data set on occupation and suicide." The article quotes Ronald Maris, PhD, director of the Center for the Study of Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior: "Occupation is not a major predictor of suicide and it does not explain much about why the person commits suicide." Though the APA goes on to say there were some larger studies in the last few years that have provided some thought-provoking questions. One 1997 study analyzed death certificates from 1980-1984 and did find statistically significant elevated rates for:
  * White male physicians.
  * Black male guards (supervisors, crossing guards, police, protective service)
  * White female painters, sculptors, craft-artists and artist printmakers.

So . . . we're in the top three! In fact, I, specifically, as a white female sculptor/craft-artist made it into the top three! Woooo! At least, in the early 1980s.

Much of this older data doesn't even mention soldiers, who, thanks to over a decade of conflict, are in the news more and more for elevated suicide risk. USA Today reported just last month that the Army suicide rate, which has historically been "far lower than the civilian figure, surpassed it in 2008 and kept climbing." Mental health issues have risen 65% in the military since 2000, and there are serious efforts underway to treat the depression and post-traumatic stress disorder that soldiers are returning home with.

Environmental Factors

Soldiers at war have obvious environmental factors at work against their mental well-being. Yet caricature artists, I can easily state, do not face the occupational risks and trauma that soldiers at war have to deal with. People who earn their living by art have, historically, had problems with poverty, persecution, alienation, and stress, which are all associated with higher risks for mental illness.

Do we, specifically as caricature artists, deal with being poor? Yes, certainly that's true for most of us at some point or another. Do we have social or family alienation issues? Many do. (I once worked with a crew of artists who discovered, that out of all four of us, not a single one was on speaking terms with their father). Do we deal with jerks? Well, yes, sometimes daily. Do we deal with annoying customer-service issues, overbearing moms, and aggravating crowd-control issues? Yes, yes, and yes. But what we deal with is also dealt with by so many other service workers, from retail staff to mall photographers. And I find that, generally, these experiences temper us, make us stronger and better at dealing with people. I have witnessed it not just in myself but in other colleagues, who were awkward at first but became much better at dealing with people given the practice.

If you think hard enough about the environment versus the inborn tendencies, it becomes like the chicken and the egg. Do creative fields simply attract people who have neurological dispositions that are more prone to mental illness? Or does the job itself change you in ways that are detrimental to your sanity? What about artists who work hard to cultivate a quirky or eccentric persona just for the marketing advantages . . . anyone know the story of Salvador Dali showing up to his gallery show wearing a scuba suit? I cannot verify this online, but had heard that when questioned about why he was wearing such a thing, he said "because no one will forget it." Mad, or just a marketing genius?

Not everyone is a marketing genius--or a genius of any kind. And I'm just speculating at this point, based on personal interaction and meeting a LOT of artists over the years. How much of the depression, anxiety, narcissism, and so on, can be attributed to (for lack of a better, more clinical term) "unfulfilled dreams"? So many people get into the visual arts, just as they get into music, singing, sports, or writing the great American novel, with an underlying hope of "getting discovered" and becoming famous. It might be harder for artists to face their own mediocrity--for there is no age cap on success in this field. Once youth fades away, athletic hopefuls must put away their dreams of the NFL or Major League Baseball and readjust their career goals to coaching high school or college ball. Not many singers in their 50s believe they can be the next American Idol. But Grandma Moses didn't even start painting until she was in her 80s. I have worked with quite a few folks who honestly believed that artistic recognition, even fame, was always just around the corner, they just had to schlep caricatures until they could be "discovered" by someone. One old timer asked me to edit his autobiography, which he had been working on obsessively for decades. Guys (and gals) like this usually are overly dramatic when they get a caricature rejected by a customer, and they take it as a paper-cut to their soul rather than an everyday part of the business. (Well hopefully not every day, but you gotta take 'em when you get 'em and move on.)

Though I'm not sure I'd categorize that particular brand of artists as having mental illness. Maybe their mom told them one too many times that they were a brilliant artist, and they believed her. Maybe it's an ingrained sense of entitlement coupled with an inability to train their eye. Maybe they're just insufferable pricks who can draw passably well but "think they're the next funny picture messiah" (that's an exact quote from one of my old managers about a cocky young upstart who, oddly enough, went on to display quite a few of the problems that plague bipolar sufferers, including substance abuse and bouts of homelessness). Still, there's annoying and then there's mentally ill, and plenty of room between the two. If only there were a category for folks that aren't quite "crazy" themselves but drive people around them up a wall. Oh wait, there is . . .

Personality Disorders

The DSM, which has gone through many revisions and attempts at grouping mental health issues under various models, currently lists clinical disorders under Axis 1 and personality disorders under Axis 2. While the things listed as Axis 1 include schizophrenia, bipolar, anorexia, depression, anxiety, and many others that are recognizable to the layperson as clinical issues, the Axis 2 disorders are a bit less overtly clinical: intellectual disabilities and a whole litany of personality disorders. A non-diagnostic shorthand way of thinking of personality disorders is the immediate classification of "Wow, that person is an ASSHOLE!" In my first clinical psychology class, the first day, the professor asked the class how many people wanted to work in the mental health industry, with patients. About half the class raised their hands. Then he said "You realize they're jerks, right? Just so you know, you won't like them. You'll be irritated and annoyed and really, really want to hate them. Be aware of that." Personality disorders seem like a clinical way of sorting out different types of jerks.

That friend of mine who works in the mental health profession admitted that he uses a few "red flag" shortcuts when identifying clients with personality disorders--a trick he said he got from his mother, who also spent decades in the field. One was rings: if a white, suburban woman came in and was wearing an overabundance of rings, it was a marker (not a clinical marker, more like an informal clue) that she might have a personality disorder. I remembered instantly my days caricaturing at Ocean City, Maryland, where a shiver ran up my spine whenever an overly-made-up woman with tons of rings and super long fingernails would sit down for a caricature: the rings were a marker for me, too, of a customer that would likely be a problem.

There are many types of personality disorders, which aren't a solidly differentiated scientific class; these disorders tend to blur into one another and are described more as models, sometimes vague and imprecise but still helpful to psychologists and psychiatrists. Rather than list all of them, I'm going to copy and paste Dr. Neel Burton's description of just the "cluster B" disorders, labelled as "erratic/dramatic" and comprising the antisocial, borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic. I am making a judgment call by doing so, as I think the "troubled" artists I have known, especially in the entry-level ranks of caricature recruits over the years, tend to group more under this umbrellas than the others.

Until Schneider broadened the concept of personality disorder to include those who ‘suffer from their abnormality’, personality disorder was more or less synonymous with antisocial personality disorder. Antisocial personality disorder is far more common in men than in women, and is characterized by a callous unconcern for the feelings of others. The person disregards social rules and obligations, is irritable and aggressive, acts impulsively, lacks guilt, and fails to learn from experience. In many cases he has no difficulty finding relationships, and can even appear superficially charming (the so-called ‘charming psychopath’). However, his relationships are usually fiery, turbulent, and short-lived. People with antisocial personality disorder often have a criminal record or even a history of being in and out of prison.

In borderline personality disorder, the person essentially lacks a sense of self, and as a result experiences feelings of emptiness and fears of abandonment. There is a pattern of intense but unstable relationships, emotional instability, outbursts of anger and violence (especially in response to criticism), and impulsive behaviour. Suicidal threats and acts of self-harm are common, for which reason people with borderline personality disorder frequently come into contact with healthcare services. Borderline personality disorder was so-called because it was thought to lie on the ‘borderline’ between neurotic (anxiety) disorders and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar affective disorder. It has been suggested that borderline personality disorder often results from childhood sexual abuse, and that the reason why it is more common in women is because women are more likely to be victims of childhood sexual abuse. However, feminists have argued that borderline personality disorder merely appears to be more common in women, since women presenting with angry and promiscuous behaviour tend to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, whereas men presenting with identical behaviour tend to be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.

People with histrionic personality disorder lack a sense of self-worth, for which reason they depend on the attention and approval of others. They often seem to be dramatizing or ‘playing a part’ (‘histrionic’ derives from the Latin ‘histrionicus’, ‘pertaining to the actor’) in a bid to attract and manipulate attention. They may take great care of their physical appearance and behave in a manner that is overly charming or inappropriately seductive. As they crave excitement and act on impulse or suggestion, they may put themselves at great risk of having an accident or being exploited. Their dealings with other people often seem insincere or superficial, which can impact on their social and romantic relationships. This is especially distressing for them, because they are especially sensitive to criticism and rejection and react badly to loss or failure.

Narcissistic personality disorder
Narcissistic personality disorder takes its name from the myth of Narcissus, a beautiful youth who fell in love with his own reflection. In narcissistic personality disorder the person has a grandiose sense of self-importance, a sense of entitlement, and a need to be admired. He or she is envious of others and expects them to be the same of him or her. He or she lacks empathy and readily exploits others to achieve his or her goals. To others he or she may seem self-absorbed, controlling, intolerant, selfish, and insensitive. If he or she feels slighted or ridiculed, he or she may be provoked into a fit of destructive anger and revenge-seeking. Such ‘narcissistic rage’ can have disastrous consequences for all those involved.

Are you a stock photo?

Now, did anyone read through those and immediately think of coworkers--or even, of yourself? Don't feel guilty, it's a normal reaction when you read something like that. These are lists of traits . . . but it's not categorized as a disorder unless those traits are so overwhelmingly present, and exaggerated, that it impedes one's career, social life, family life, and well-beling. I mean, we all get satisfaction out of being admired: when you're the life of the party and everyone absolutely loves your drawings, it's hard not to bask in that. But unless that takes over to the point of pissing everyone off around you, all the time, then it's not a disorder.

The Forer Effect: Hey, That Sounds Just Like Me!

The Forer Effect, which is said to be behind just about every horoscope ever written, is the tendency to interpret general statements as being accurate about oneself, even when they are not. It's also called the Barnum Effect (yes, named after the "sucker born every minute" fellow). It's amazing how natural it is to apply whatever you're reading to your own life. Back when I worked as an editor, I spent a few weeks on a book called The Guide to Living with Bladder Cancer. I swear, never have I spent so many worried moments on the toilet. How many times have I peed today? Is my pee looking a little pink? I think my bladder feels funny, I should really get this checked out. Meantime one of my coworkers was working on a book about skin cancer and spent considerable time scrutinizing the freckles on her arm.

When I talked to a few of my caricature artist friends about their thoughts on this topic, they responded by pointing out that they did see hints of "mental illness" in their own dedication to the craft. Not in a pathological way but in the way they felt their brain worked. Like that example of being "a bit OCD" because you're capable of focusing really hard on a project and redoing something 85 times until it looks "just right." They had read an odd article here and there, and though they couldn't remember particulars, it all made sense. We're artists, we're a little "off."

After reading about all this, though, I think many of my friends (and I myself) are displaying the Forer Effect. Which doesn't mean we're gullible or self-aggrandizing. Just that we're human, and we like participatory narratives. It's how we think.

Regardless of whether or not I'm at a higher risk of mental illness because of my job, I gotta step back and look at my luck. I get to draw funny pictures of people, and I get paid to do it.

That's a career I'd have to be crazy to turn down.