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Artist as outcast

Everyone knows someone who is “creative.” I used quotation marks because that’s how many people talk about someone who is creative, as if the quotation marks both qualify and disqualify the individual simultaneously. It’s how the older generation often spoke of a younger girl who had gotten herself in trouble and I don’t mean with the law. Also, cancer. It was always said in a whisper as if speaking it in a normal tone of voice somehow made it more real; made it valid; perhaps less potentially deadly. As if the person who was ill was responsible.

Before I continue I should qualify the above paragraph: I in no way, shape or form meant to convey that I think of creativity as a disease. Except that it is sometimes. Many artists have been driven crazy by their talent. It has been theorized that Vincent Van Gogh suffered from schizophrenia, that Michelangelo suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder, that Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, among others, probably suffered from clinical depression. It made them celebrated but they never seemed to actually fit into the society in which they lived. They probably wouldn’t today, though at least today, they might have been properly diagnosed and perhaps received treatment. That begs the question: if they received treatment, would their creativity suffer? Is part of the creative process rooted in the brain not being wired correctly? I don’t know and I’m not qualified to make a diagnosis. My co-blogger here in the Loft is a licensed psychotherapist. Perhaps she knows.

Artists who live on the edge of mental illness are often outcasts. People don’t understand how they think and often look at their work with horror, or worse, apathy. I think simply being creative makes one an outcast because the very idea of looking at something and seeing what other’s do not and cannot immediately sets the artist apart from more lay-people.

I know an artist, I’ll call him Roy, who is well loved by everyone who is blessed to meet him. His talent is often spoke of in hushed terms, not because of illness but because of reverence. He lives within society, right in the middle of it as a matter of fact, but I sometimes wonder if he actually sees himself more wandering the desert, pitching a tent, to paint under the stars; or holing up in a warehouse somewhere with windows high above, filtering in light that catches the dust on the way down. I think he’d be happy there, with some really good wine and a daily delivery of healthy food. He could simply live in his imagination and explore and create.

When I had an office job, I was part of the creative department. We had a reputation, largely undeserved, as pets, coddled by one of the company’s owners because she was the creative director and we served at her pleasure. The other departments sneered at us, rolled their eyes. Oh, the aaarrrtttt department, they’d snicker. They’re probably not even in yet since it’s only 10:30. I always found it funny because it was largely untrue. We were almost always in by 9:30 at the latest and often worked until 8 at night. We were the outcasts of the company though because nobody, other than the creative director, really understood what made us tick. We were wired differently, our brains didn’t think linearly. Form rarely followed function for us. Form usually went off on a tangent somewhere to have a taco and while there it morphed into a fire-breathing dragon who was fostering a puppy and lived in an Italian villa. People didn’t understand how we ever got to that villa while to us it was quite logical, though we could never explain the process.

In a recent essay reviewing a new book by Daniel Sutherland entitled Whistler: A life for art’s sake, Barry Schwabsky writes this about the famed artist:

the painter might have been “brutalized…by the brutalities of his world.” That might be putting it a bit too strongly, but still, something must account for Whistler’s conviction that “the Master stands in no relation to the moment at which he occurs—a monument of isolation—hinting at sadness—having no part in the progress of his fellow men.”

In other words, an outcast.

This is why artists often live on the fringe. They can’t explain the way they see and interpret the world and the world of their imagination. If they could, it wouldn’t be art; it would be what the rest of us do.

Artists by virtue of their title suffer from the curse of being “creative” and because they think differently, it sets them apart. Some call it outcast. But look at the Sistine Ceiling in Rome, and be awed by the outcast that created such a work, one that has lasted for centuries. Would that today’s outcasts make such an eternal impression, such a statement; such true, agonizing, reflective, personal, blood and guts art that blogs of the future will be writing about with awe, musing about what it must have been like back then, filling the blank space.


Lorin Shields-Michel is a writer, author and editor. She blogs daily at, weekly at and bi-weekly at The Artist’s Loft. For more about Lorin, visit

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