When I Get Home: Solange’s Cartography

The map of Houston, Texas looks like a star break on a windshield. When the glass has been pierced by a sharp point, leaving a spiral of injury. Perhaps, due to a stone. A bullet. On the fourth track of Solange Knowles’ new album When I Get Home, there are gunshots. You could almost miss it; the clocking of the gun, interspersed with its firing, is so effortlessly melded into the melody. Much like news of recent deaths often sink beneath the frantic newness of news.

Unlike this album’s predecessor, the magnificent A Seat at the Table, When I Get Home is less construction than map, a route along the roots of a steady, reflective driver: Solange. She is credited as a writer on every track. But it’s important to acknowledge that this is not her story – “I realize how much wider, figuratively and literally, my work could be if I took myself away as subject” – but stories, plural, that are narrated by her. Here, Solange creates conceptual cartography: of her Southern roots, of black empowerment, black women, and their intersections with their own personal and collective histories, and their love, spirituality, emotions, and power.

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There are numerous, predominantly black, collaborators on this album, all in various capacities, ranging from features, production to writing. The lineup includes such names as Tyler, the Creator, The Dream, Metro Boomin’, Pharrell, The Dream, Cassie, Earl Sweatshirt, Gucci Mane, Raphael Saadiq, Abra, and Playboi Carti. The most interesting “collaborations” however are the interludes featuring a variety of black female voices, including the artist’s. One interlude is titled “Can I Hold the Mic” which choppily samples a video of crunk group Crime Mob’s female rappers Diamond and Princess faux-interviewing each other – “Uh, bitch, can I hold the mic?” This leads into a spoken-word section by Solange herself:

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“I can’t be a singular expression of myself, there’s too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations, too many lines, too many curves, too many troubles, too many journeys, too many mountains, too many rivers, so many – “

This instability of identity, of the failure to contain and distill Solange’s specific experience as a black woman, perhaps explains her decision to produce a sonic map instead, one that stops focusing on an inconstant, non-singular self, but instead actually charts out the terrain of self, exploring those many “mountains” and “rivers” that make up her emotional-historical-cultural-political being and existence. Part of this is paying a nod to those that came before her; on S McGregor, Solange includes a recording of Houston-born women Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad reciting a poem by their prolific mother Vivian Ayers: “I boarded a train/Kissed all goodbye.” The track comes very early in the album, right after the repetitive, one-liner opener Things I Imagined, as if to foreshadow the movement, both literal and figurative, and the endings or goodbyes that Solange has undertaken to realize her visions. When she asks Can I Hold the Mic, it is not to profess a personal declaration, not to ask to be accepted as one self, or embodiment of self, not even to ask for a seat at the table, but instead, to ask us, to invite the world, along with her as she moves and retraces the “lines” and “curves” of her map of being.

Image result for solange when i get home

The cartography begins, as Solange’s life itself did, in Texas. If the map of Houston, her city, is a fractured spiral, then it revolves around its blackness. Houston Third Ward, where Solange grew up, is known for its black community. It was a civil rights epicenter in the sixties and had the first nonprofit hospital for black patients in the thick of the Jim Crow era. A profile by The New York Times Style Magazine states that “[Solange’s] output is infused by a fundamental orientation – culturally, politically, psychically – to blackness.” And this is her central spin throughout. Solange frequently incorporates the chopped n screwed hip-hop style in her core jazz and hip-hop music, inflecting her work with black musical forms that specifically nod to her city. A song celebrating black and brown things – “Black baes, black days”‘ – is named Almeda, an area in south-west Houston. S McGregor is for S MacGregor Way, where the aforementioned sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad grew up. Way to the Show’s “candy paint” lyric pays homage to Houston’s staple slab scene, where cars are painted to look candy-coated. Meanwhile, Beltway refers to the road looping around Houston, which, on the tracklist, is cleverly followed by Exit Scott, a real exit off the Beltway 8 in southern Houston. In visuals for the album, Solange prominently features a ranch, with horses and dancers in modern cowboy outfits. “Hundreds and hundreds of people every weekend are getting on horses and trail-riding from Texas to Louisiana,” Solange told Billboard. “It’s a part of black history you don’t hear about.” It is clear the geography serves as scaffolding for the album, propping up every vision executed by the artist.

It is in Exit Scott (interlude) where Solange showcases the poetry of Pat Parker, a lesbian black woman from Houston itself. The poem is about love. In the intermission, We Deal With the Freak’n, Solange includes audio of Alexyss Tylor from her show Sperm Power 2: “We are not only sexual beings, we are the walking embodiment of god consciousness”, a track that is preceded by the Gucci Mane feature My Skin My Logo, which contains an outro resembling sexual climax. Solange explores the nuances and spaces of black love and sexuality through the lens of actual black women, from Parker to Tylor, each exercising agency and ownership of their sexual and romantic narratives.

These also expand to the topic of spirituality. In ‘Nothing Without Intention’, Solange cites the black beauty blogger Goddess Lula Belle’s video on Florida water, an item Solange carried with her to the Met Gala in 2018. Florida water is a unisex cologne made with alcohol and essential oils, used for purification, spells and spiritual cleansing. It is also a prominent part of Afro-American spiritual culture. In the track Almeda, there is a lyric that declares “Black faith still can’t be washed away/ Not even in that Florida water.” Solange simultaneously celebrates black spirituality while asserting the resilience and strength of black faith as transcending every hope symbolized by any spiritual object; black faith is stronger than any spell. On top of that, the refrain “nothing without intention” is a call to the listener, perhaps, to examine Solange’s full cartography as painstakingly and thoroughly mapped. As in an exquisitely made poem, every element is cherry-picked for maximum fruition. But invoking intention is also a rallying cry to her community, to the black community, to the black women before, with, and after her, to know and find and search for their beauty and being.

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The title My Skin My Logo is a reclamation of the idea of using blackness as a brand (re: blaxploitation) and exacting power over it. Binz offers a similar celebration of wealth in this lens – “Dollars never come on CP time/ Wish I could wake up on CP time” – where CP time is ‘colored people time’, a historically derogatory phrase used to imply that black people were lazy and tardy. Solange basks in her wealth and power, spinning the narrative that has historically held people like her down for their success.

Pride, having pride in an inconstant state of self and history, and comfort with this pride, are key factors of When I Get Home. A lyric in My Skin My Logo states to “blackberry the masses”, a gorgeous play on words that recalls the saying “The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice”, which elevates dark skin. At the same time, there is the darker double meaning in “bury the masses.” It’s an invocation, to and for the black community, that is sweet-bitter; like the Houston cars lacquered to look like candy, this lyric draws on both the pain and beauty of blackness in a political world, invoking, above all, hope, the sweetness and necessity of it.

In the same NYT magazine profile mentioned earlier, Solange recalls being afraid of the Holy Ghost as a young girl at church. This fear, not just of that imaginary phantom, but a wide-encompassing fear, found in the pit of every artist’s chest, manifests in the intro track Things I Imagined. Solange ends this song with the lyric “Takin’ on the lie.” By the time we reach the last track, Solange no longer imagines but declares: I’m a Witness. This song transforms the old lyric into “Takin’ on the light.” There is a movement here between imagination and vision, fear and realization, off-track to grounded, intention to execution. In When I Get Home, a title itself implying a road and destination tied to self, Solange sketches for us this journey, maps out the paths that have led her to this exact moment as both artist and woman and black being. How strange, how searching, and how beautiful it all is.

Map of Houston, Texas

D-Natural Blues

Galinsky was killing my buzz. I couldn’t see his face behind the fuming joint, clenched between his tarry teeth, but I could see his hands—one holding a deck of playing cards, one opened gesturally. They wove with the languid rhythm of a Greek rhetorician as he droned on about the pratfalls of legalized cannabis: how the government had screwed up a good thing, how the government was greedy, how the government had put the kibosh on a thriving subculture—a tribe to which we, after all, at this game, belonged. The black market had provided a beautiful service, in his words, without all the red tape and documentation blah blah blah. I could barely see the other boys behind a gray-blue indica haze, each squinting into their own throbbing hum, probing their own low-level wells of despair. The moody jazz muttering over the speakers—muted Miles—spoke for them.

“Deal the cards, Galinsky!” I beseeched.

Max, the resident Buddhist, fond of sherpa-wear, sandals and patchouli-scented antiperspirant, presented his wide, smooth face. “Are we ever going to play a hand?” he asked, perhaps rhetorically.

Johnny Fields, violently coughing, emerged as from a toxic cloud with his white goatee bristling and milky blue eyes bugged out. He suffered from a respiratory illness, and thus should not have been in the smoke-stained, faux-wood-paneled environs of the Applewood Club, under any circumstances. Then again, a degenerate gambler will go to extraordinary lengths to accommodate and nurture his vice. Johnny tried wearing a mask for a time, starting with a cheap industrial model, then moving on to a menacing North 5400 Full-Face respirator, with an anti-scratch polycarbonate lens. But unable to endure the withering attacks of the others, he gave up on the masks, and resigned himself to a shortened life.

“Deal the cards, Galinsky!”

“He’s frozen.”


“Sorry, sorry, guys. Lost my train of thought there for a sec.”

He sheepishly picked up the deal, sliding cards to himself and the five other players at the table. Carmine had fallen asleep minutes before, succumbing to a bowl of shatter, his massive head heaped like a prairie bison’s on the grass green felt—but when his turn came up his anemic sidekick, Little Man Cass, nudged his neck.

“What the hell!” a startled Carmine loudly slobbered, his lips a red atoll in the ocean of black beard, his teeth tanned faces of tiny screaming men.

I started laughing uncontrollably, though nothing, not even Carmine, really struck me as funny. It belonged more to a branch of hysteria, my laughter. Indeed, my thoughts staggered like drunkards negotiating stadium steps during a baseball game. Weaving from one stanchion to another, they stumble and fall, cracking teeth, occipital bones and ocular cavities, much to the low-grade delight of the zombified fans. I dared not scream in front of the men, but in the confines of my skull, how could I not?

“Someone change the music,” Johnny said.

“The music is fine,” I said. “It’s perfect.”

“It’s jazz, man. Who the fuck listens to jazz?”

I stood up and slapped my hands down on the felt with ill intent.

“Take it easy, Sammy,” Carmine urged, pointing a thick finger of reproach. He then turned to Johnny. “And you, you know he’s fucking sensitive. Why poke the bear?”

“Bear?” Johnny said. “What bear? I don’t see no bear. He’s a jazz guitarist. Big fucking whip. So he deserves extra respect? It’s like being a haiku poet, you know. Or an origami master. Kinda useless. Like, who gives a fuck?”

Before he could go on with his vile assessment, and before I could leap across the table and rip out his throat, a tiny djinn of karma tickled his throat and he burst into another phlegmy coughing fit that forced him to rise from the table and perform a horrible choke-dance, bending at the waist and shaking his head from side to side, like a dog, to dislodge the obstructing gob.

“Luckily, “ said Little Man Cass, bringing his pale head to rest on the green felt and shutting his eyes, “you won’t have to kill him.”

“Yes,” Carmine said, “nature takes its course with the Johnny Fields of the world.”

This drew collective guffaws from the boys and momentarily relaxed my teeming, antlike anxieties. They had become commonplace for me, exacerbated mightily by cannabis. People who say cannabis relaxes them have never experienced the frenzies of paranoid kush psychosis. This is a thing, believe me. I glanced at my hands: shaking. Relax, I told myself. relax. But the ants were having none of it.

After a minute or so of hacking and spewing, a red-eyed Johnny wiped his mouth with a large, sheet-like handkerchief, stuffed it back into his pocket, and returned to his seat, wheezing like an organetto. Galinsky had not yet dealt the cards. He stood there silent, statuesque, unblinking, perhaps moored on the rocks of some abstract thought.

I was reaching my limits. The game had all but broken down, everyone too stoned to play poker with any coherence. This had become all too common, this turbidity, this moronic muddle. New strains of cannabis flower and distillates overwhelmed even the most chronic users, myself included. We used to play a more serious game, crisp, tight, clean, the banter reserved, the stonage more moderate. No one complained about the jazz back then. Our gatherings had since become a sort of recreation time for mental patients, no offense to diagnosed sufferers. But we would have transitioned smoothly to their game, had they played one and invited us, I am convinced. And Johnny’s slur about my vocation—I dare say profession as I could never make a living at it—cut deep. I had wasted most of my adult life pursuing a chimera, and now, at the age of fifty, was resigned to it being just that.

“Do you still play?” Max asked, perhaps innocently enough.

“Of course I still play!” I shouted. “Playing is my life!”

“Who’s your favourite guitarist?”

“Wes Montgomery,” I said without hesitation. I both worshipped and envied him.


“Of course,” I said. “Of course.”

“Does jazz come naturally to Italians?’ he asked, with a disarming gravity.

“What the fuck are you talking about, Max? What does Italian have to do with anything? It’s jazz, it’s music. And besides, I was born in this fucking country.”

“I’m just saying, jazz is an African-American art form. Opera, on the other hand, is totally Italian, no?”

“He has a point,” Galinsky said. “I saw Pagliacci a few years back at the Royal Alex, great stuff, great stuff. The weeping clown and so forth.”

Before I could respond, Johnny again pulled out his ludicrous handkerchief, flapped it open, and blew his nose with a piercing double high C that made me wince.

“Italians didn’t invent pasta,” Galinsky added.

“It was the Chinese,” Max said.

“That’s right,” Galinsky said. “Marco Polo brought it back to Italy from China.”

“Haven’t heard that name since like high school,” Max chuckled. “Marco Polo, haha. What a name. Those Italians got around, huh?”

Fear of committing violence kept me from responding to these slurs, as no words I could summon, no matter how pointed and hard, could have penetrated the dense fog that surrounded these idiots. I would never have been at the Applewood Club on a Tuesday evening playing stoned poker had I a family. I would have been at home humoring and edifying the little ones, watching a pleasant television program, or massaging the wife’s feet. Same was likely true of the others, inhabiting that time and space with mixed motives, none meritorious. Except for Carmine, none of these men were married, and if they had children, they never mentioned them. Indeed, no one except Carmine—who could not even under threat of death stop yapping about his mail-order bride Keiko, Keiko this, Keiko that—ever discussed their home lives as such. Occasionally, a parent or someone familial died and everyone acknowledged the announcement with a semi-respectful nod, then moved on.

Perhaps I had grown weary of these silly men, their vices, their games. But what would have been left of me had I walked away? Playing guitar in shabby little clubs with my half-baked trio to a few comatose stragglers appealed to me as much as a knife in the liver. That was a life I had left behind, a non-life. After a decade of Applewood, my very atoms were scattered among the bridge chairs and the paneling, and irretrievably conjoined with those of these men, whom I despised as much as I sought out every week, and who formed a category distinct from my other friends, indeed from the rest of humanity at large.

“Deal the cards!”

“The fuck is the matter with you, Galinsky!”

“Deal the fucking cards!”

I could barely hear the music now—faintly, something screechy from Coltrane—as my ears rang and a leaden sheath of a migraine enveloped and compressed my head, in effect elongating it like one of those Paracas skulls unearthed in Peru.

Galinsky finally dealt the cards, laughing with wet mouth and lidded eyes at some personal consideration. He reputedly held a PhD in Classics, or some such thing, a learned but garrulous man. Who knew what went on in that cucuzza of his.

I slapped my forehead, as if this might have chased away Mr. Migraine, but he had parked himself in my right temple, removed his sharp black boots, and was tapping my inner skull with a tiny hammer. My right eye shut of its own accord. The music of pain had begun in earnest. Nevertheless, I peeked at my cards and when I saw two black aces my heart fluttered. Mr. Migraine tapped harder, faster.

Holding up three cards, Carmine declared a misdeal.

“Are you kidding me?” I said.

“This is the reality,” he said.

Galinsky shrugged. “It happens,” he said. “These cards are sticky.”

I turned over my hand and the fellas chuckled.

“You might consider washing them,” Max said.

“Why don’t you fucking wash them?” Galinsky cried, offended by the suggestion.

“No need to bite by head off.”

“He doesn’t wash himself, why would he wash the cards,” piped in Little Man Cass, who looked like he needed an immediate plasma transfusion.

I seethed momentarily. As usual, the poker Gods and Lady Luck were fucking with me. Fate was fucking me over. Lucky men and women live among us. Variance blesses their path. They walk lightly. They are golden. Light shines from their souls. Then there are folks who form the great majority, those neither lucky nor unlucky. Variance plays a small role in their lives. They walk on gray feet over gray paths through gray zones, unmolested for the most part, achieving neither bracing highs nor crushing lows. Then there are those sorry bastards that Fate likes to set alight with gasoline or sodomize on a regular basis, for sport: the unlucky ones. It was against the defiled walls of that bottom category that I found myself, unable to gain purchase, clawing vainly for egress.

“With whom do you have the greatest conflict here?” Max asked me apropos of nothing.

I stared at his smooth face trying to surmise if any swellings of mockery blemished it, but the seamless, unguent quality of his skin, particularly around the eyes, evidenced the earnestness of his inquisition. I scanned the table with little hope of deciphering another face behind the smoke, that is to say discerning subtleties of expression and whatnot. Carmine, a blunt man, as if to further stymy me, lit up a reserved torpedo and within a few billowing seconds completely obscured his side of the table.

“Little Man Cass,” I said, clutching my right temple, “please switch on the fan.”

“It’ll blow the cards around,” he replied quickly, head still resting on the felt.

“I can’t see you guys,” I said.

“I don’t want to see you guys,” Galinsky quipped, his nostrils opening and closing like wet valves as he dealt the cards again.

“I would say Johnny annoys me most,” I said to Max.

He nodded. “Look at your cards, Sammy,” he said, trying to hasten the game along.

I took a peek: pocket aces again. Damn. What were the odds? Had to wonder how I’d get poleaxed this time. “As I was saying,” I continued, “Johnny annoys me the most. But except for the violence to the eyes—I mean, look at him—he’s as harmless as a big rabbit. By the way, I raise.”

Carmine called my raise with malign emphasis. Little Man Cass raised his head and also called. Max folded and Johnny stared at his cards for a full minute before tossing them into the muck.

“But who really stands in the way of my psychological equilibrium,” I said, “is none other than Galinsky.”

Galinsky started. “Sammy,” he said, “I had no idea you have a hate on for me.”

“Hate is a strong word, man. I wouldn’t go so far as that. Part of me enjoys your company. But sometimes when you talk I feel the little wheels inside my head spinning off their bearings.”

“That doesn’t sound kosher.”

“Right now I have a headache hammering me like you wouldn’t believe.”

“And you’re suggesting I triggered it?”

“You may well have.”

“Hey boys,” Galinsky declared, “Sammy has a headache. Anyone got an aspirin?”

“Do people still take aspirin for headaches?” Max asked.

“Aspirin don’t do shit,” said Little Man Cass. He took out a small white cylinder, uncapped it, and shook out two blue pills. “Take these,” he said. “They’ll kill any pain.”

“But this is a migraine,” I said.

“Believe me,” he said. “I know from migraines.”

“Better not be fentanyl.”

“Fentanyl? Come on. Why would you say that? It’s phenobarbital, old school.”

“Thought it was only for epilepsy or something like that.”

“Epilepsy shmepilespy. It’ll make you feel nice.”

“Okay Dr. Cass.” I swallowed the two pills with a drink of rye whiskey. They stuck in my throat and it took two or three more gulps to get them down. My thorax burned. I punched my sternum.

“You okay?” Little Man Cass asked me.

I could feel the lesser and greater wings of my right sphenoid bone delicately cracking as Mr. Migraine tapped away. “Thanks for your concern,” I said, biting back the blinding pain.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “in moments you’ll feel mighty fine.”

Galinsky dealt out the flop, which featured two threes and a jack. Carmine bet right out. Little Man Cass folded, and without hesitation, I shoved all my chips toward the middle of the table, convinced Carmine had no three in his hand. To my surprise and horror, he snap-called my all-in and opened not a three, but pocket jacks. The turn and river altered nothing and my beautiful black aces fell to his full boat like pierced rubber dinghies. Not only had he stacked me, but Mr. Migraine, perhaps in reaction, flew into a rage, splintering my right temporal bone.

“And Marconi didn’t invent the radio,” Galinsky said.

I wasn’t going to argue. I wasn’t going to lose my cool. A jazzman has to keep his cool, even when he’s in a bad place.

“You’re looking unwell,” Max said, touching my elbow.

“I should have stayed home tonight.”

“Maybe we all should have stayed home,” he said.

Wes Montgomery came over the speakers, lithe, rhythmic, effortless. I buried my face in my trembling hands, praying for the phenobarbital to quickly take.

Header image sourced here

Flow with the Water

Flow with the water
Everyone’s stream is different
Rain clouds approach

Közeleg az eső
S megissza a mező
Körforgás, szerető

Aus Erde geschaffen
In einer Wolke
Die Inti in Kreisen folgte

Pes pestro preskočil prúd
Vietor veje
Zemeguľa žije

La tormenta vinió
Ya llegó la lluvia
El pequeño río tiene sed

Photograph courtesy of author.

cambridge, ma

somebody’s gone & torn all
the paper.
waved his wand
fingers about & emptied
the white sodden load over:
i am wet
cotton cutout doing the trick
i am working
i work, when
the water hurt
-les inside me. cold
takes time to unwrap himself
from things that haven’t yet learned
to warm. i am
a body, in the end; tongue
out like a pesky strap, unable to hook
onto things that melt, fairy



as once the great stars fell
on alabama, & the great muscles
of land pushed into continents, & the great space
between the thighs of
our countries widened, i learned
that when we held
hands with history
we could almost forgive it.

For Gilbert Sorrentino.

Artwork by Wassily Kandinsky, “Winter Landscape” 1910


I choose to sit
in the arse indentation
near the deep fryer.
Your organizational skills
are what first attracted me,
after that, your visor
the way it keeps focus.
The choices are dependable –
yes, yes and yes.
I must complain to the manager
these gloves are vintage latex.
You can tell by the yellow stains,
underlying graveyard grease.
I am passing through the drive-in now,
embossed in the lights.

Written by Colin James

Photograph of the original Ronald McDonald.

van Gogh and Romanticizing the Tortured Artist

Vincent van Gogh is experiencing a 21st-century renaissance. Popular portrayals of the troubled artist are increasingly appearing on both the small and big screen  – a Doctor Who episode, the film Loving Vincent, and the most recent movie depiction from director Julian Schnabel, At Eternity’s Gate, starring Willem Dafoe.

In all of these representations, van Gogh’s mental health is at the forefront of the story — it is hard to mention him without bringing up the self-inflicted severing of his ear in the following sentence. Perhaps the cliché of the ‘starving, tortured artist’ can be attributed most notably to him. This is certainly how we view his art—through the lens of a man who grappled against life, cornered by his own mind’s wolves.

In the late 1880s, after cutting off his left ear and offering it up to a prostitute, van Gogh was admitted to a hospital in Arles in southern France, where he was living at the time. He was severely bleeding, in the throes of a manic depressive episode.

van Gogh was discharged a little over two weeks later in January 1889. One of his first paintings afterward was a still life: a teapot, a candle, a bowl of onions, a letter to his brother Theo, his pipe, a medical self-help book and an empty bottle of absinthe. The quotidian details of his life.

It looks like the painting of a man trying to revive creativity back into his life. van Gogh’s reason for placing the bottle and medical book was, perhaps, to show that he had tried to return to living a normal life, but was ultimately failed by his inability to overcome his mental illnesses. As a result, he had fallen back into his old ways of self-medicating with strong liquor.

In a 2014 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Wijnand van Tillburg, a psychologist at the University of Southampton, led a research team who discovered that we perceive an artists’ work as ‘better’ if we are told they are of an eccentric nature.

In the study, 38 students were shown an image of van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Half of those students were informed that the artist is suspected of heavily mutilating his own body, while the other half were not given this information. They were then asked to give an evaluation of the painting. “As predicted,” the researchers wrote in the paper, “the art was evaluated more positively when van Gogh’s eccentric behavior was mentioned.”

But why is this? It seems like the more we view an artist as idiosyncratic, the more authentic we believe them to be. This is a pernicious standard to set – particularly for young artists trying to break into the field. Mental health struggles and creative talent do not need to go hand-in-hand. Jim Morrison drank himself to death at the age of 27; Kurt Cobain, at the same age, pushed a shotgun to the roof of his mouth and pulled the trigger. Sylvia Plath ended her life by putting her head in a microwave. Each had much creative potential extinguished by early death.

But Picasso lived to be 91. Salvador Dali until 84. Harper Lee passed away only a few years ago at 89. Indeed, there are great artists out there, deserving of myriad superlatives, who have never struggled with mental illness. At least, none that were life-ending or destructive. We do not view the works of Jane Austen, John Milton, or Igor Stravinsky as any less deserving of credit simply because their works did not come from a place of instability.

Sadly, even these examples may not mollify those who believe creativity flourishes better under mental strain. The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, who produced likely the most iconic artwork of the 19th century in ‘The Scream’, once wrote in his diary that: ‘My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness.’ He was often concerned that if he lost his illness, he would also lose his ability to paint.

Albert Rothenberg, an American psychiatrist, and Doctor of Medicine, has carried out long-term research on the creative process in literature and art. Of creativity and depression, he has said: “Studies using test or clinical assessments have not proven a connection between creativity and mental illness. Almost all have had methodological and conceptual inadequacies: absent or poor controls, investigator bias, unreliable testing tools. None have demonstrated validity with respect to actual creative performance.”

Throughout the centuries, artistic mediums have existed as a form of escapism. Art exists to bring joy to our world or to help us work through something painful in our lives—to make it through to the other side, perhaps scathed, but still surviving. But one should not fall victim to the mindset that one must suffer needlessly for their creation. Depression is not a pre-requisite for creativity. If anything, it stunts it. Suffering, in the end, rarely contributes directly to creative inspiration, despite the widely held romantic beliefs which commonly suggest otherwise.

In fact, creative periods tend to become less frequent the more mentally ill a person is. The last thing on someone’s mind who is struggling with depression or severe anxiety would be to pick up a paintbrush or begin writing a novel. They simply wouldn’t have a desire for such a task, considering it likely too onerous. However, one fascinating element of Vincent van Gogh’s life is that he seems to be an exception. From his moving to Arles, to the time of his eventual suicide—van Gogh painted somewhere between one hundred to two hundred pieces of artwork, 75 of which came in an 80-day creative burst. But still, it was not enough to save him.

One of his final paintings, completed the month of his death in July 1890 (some believe it to be his very last, although this is still debated), is Wheatfield with Crows – an ominous dark blue sky with storm clouds forming, signaling impending destruction. The wheat extends as far as the eye can see, blowing violently in the wind. Above these wheat fields are crows flying in the distance, getting further and further away until those most distant are nothing more than a speck.

There is an ineffable sadness to this painting. One that was not lost on its creator, who, when writing to his brother Theo that same month, said of it: “They are vast stretches of wheat under troubled skies, and I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness… I’m fairly sure that these canvasses will tell you what I cannot say in words.”

It is not hard to imagine that van Gogh may have seen himself in his last few weeks as one of those tiny birds in the infinite troubled sky: frail, afraid, departing to somewhere unknown. The hurricane of his thoughts sweeping him, and his creative potential, away forever.

Artwork by Vincent van Gogh, “Wheatfield with Crows”


where is it? the child
scrambles underneath
her skirt
& below the skin
of the city, subway trains rattle
tissue-blot faces in cells
white as cold milk

such color rushes up
to the wound, healing
the place where you were split
open, where two roads inched
away from each other, where
it leaked & the tissue tore
from sudden ocean

is it across that
bridge? the one she made
in kindergarten, fingers full
of paper cuts & inexperience,
the tiny stitch on widening mouth

or is it up there?
where they keep telling her
to go to see
to bind her arms
to find Him
to soak, to harden, to call it love
to measure the breadth of new
wing & sputter into the air

the child looks down
at arms tied & painted white
body, caterpillar
hair on unshaved shins &
home left behind like a cracked eggshell –
she needed to find it

press down into soil skin
soft for a new country, pick
into the brownness:

Artwork by Nada Krstajic, “Rainbow Cities – Crane”