How Seasonal Affective Disorder Impacts Artists’ Productivity

Casey Lesser
Feb 14, 2019 10:59PM
Grace Weaver
undercover, 2018
James Cohan

In the fall of 2015, New York–based artist Juno Shen began experiencing mood swings. She felt irritable and couldn’t motivate herself to leave her apartment, let alone make art. She didn’t know what was happening to her, until she was later diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression commonly known to surge in colder months. “I couldn’t muster the strength or focus to research and develop a concept,” Shen recalled. “SAD makes me I feel like I’m trapped in an unresponsive body that just won’t cooperate.”

Determined to get to the root of her problems, Shen spoke with friends and sought out a therapist until, eventually, she learned about SAD. “[It’s] triggered by inconsistencies in one’s exposure to sunlight, which cause your body’s circadian rhythm to become desynchronized,” she explained. She struggled for years, from September to May, until she found ways to effectively treat it—including maximizing her natural light intake, meditating, and seeing a cognitive behavioral therapist.

Shen is hardly alone: It’s estimated that as much as 13–23 percent of the U.S. population may experience some form of SAD, which has symptoms ranging from long periods of depression, lethargy, and a lack of motivation, to sleeping issues, feelings of hopelessness, agitation, and difficulty concentrating. (Although SAD often presents itself during colder months, it can occur during warm weather, as well.) Artists who experience SAD, like Shen, have long found that their productivity and practices change according to the seasons.

Psychiatrist Dr. Norman Rosenthal, who worked with colleagues to first coin the term “SAD” in the mid-1980s and pioneer light therapy treatments for it, has studied the link between SAD and creativity. “I think that the arts have a very important role in expressing the seasons, and being affected by the seasons,” Dr. Rosenthal explained during a recent phone call. “You often find artists who come alive during the spring and summer.”

He gave the examples of historical artists and poets, like Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and Vincent van Gogh, who all recognized “how the changing light affected their moods, and how that influenced their productivity” and what they created. (Dr. Rosenthal recently started a blog dedicated to the healing power of poetry.)

He pointed to Van Gogh, who spoke about capturing the light in the South of France, and as he was painting, he wrote many heartfelt letters to his brother, Theo. “You can tell, when you look at his letters and see his paintings, how the light and the seasons have influenced his productivity and his creativity,” Dr. Rosenthal explained. But that isn’t to say that artists with SAD are necessarily always more productive during the spring and summer.

In his book, Dr. Rosenthal cites the research of Kay Redfield Jamison, who conducted important studies on the link between mental health and creativity, and surfaced the role of the seasons in one study on acclaimed British writers and artists. Through interviewing her subjects—90 percent of whom reported that “intense moods and feelings” were essential to their work—Jamison found that many were experiencing the lowest moods in the winter and the highest in the summer; however, they were most productive in the spring and fall, with a decline in the summer. (It’s important to note that, separately from SAD, some people who experience bipolar disorder also experience seasonal mood changes, with mania or hypomania seen in warmer months.)

Dr. Rosenthal suggested that this summertime decline may be due to the extremely positive feelings experienced during the season. “When people are too euphoric, they are often not best able to produce,” he wrote in his book. “Their thoughts may race too quickly, and their focus may be scattered.” Or, he added, they may just want to dedicate the summer to taking advantage of the warm weather and having fun.

He also posited that mild mood disorders may actually be conducive to a person’s creativity. “It seems as though the most creative people are those with milder forms of mood disturbance, which is in keeping with my clinical experience,” he wrote in his book.

While “severe depressions or wild manias are not conducive to productivity,” people who experience hypomania have periods of intense feelings when “thoughts and associations flow rapidly, energy and confidence levels are high, the need for sleep is reduced, and ideas are more readily generated and pursued,” Dr. Rosenthal explained. “Mild depressions may be conducive to the drudgery that is required for any creative venture—the daily plodding necessary to execute any grand scheme.” Regardless, if a person is experiencing SAD, they should seek out treatment.

After people are diagnosed with SAD by a doctor or mental health professional, one of the most common forms of treatment is light therapy. This involves regular exposure to a special light (often called a SAD lamp) that imitates natural light in order to lift mood.

But Dr. Rosenthal noted that going for a walk outdoors is another strong option. “I think that cloistering yourself up is the wrong thing to do; you need to go out embrace nature, even in the winter, and capture what life there is,” he said. He also encouraged spending time with others. But when that’s not possible, a SAD lamp can help, as can making your home feel happier.

Dr. Rosenthal suggested making one room in the house (or your studio) very bright by painting it in a cheerful color, or decorating it “in a way that makes you want to go into that room, and makes you feel good when you get there,” he said.

Shen does this in her own home—from maximizing natural light to carefully monitoring air circulation, scents, and sounds. She also found that meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT—which Dr. Rosenthal also recommends—have been effective. “CBT has helped me understand the mechanics of how emotions are formed and why our brain processes things the way it does,” Shen explained. “Instead of just slapping the word ‘crazy’ on the problem, CBT gives me a detailed and structured understanding of what I’m going up against.”

Juno Shen, Make a Fortune. Courtesy of the artist.


She also started sculpting with neon, and found, inadvertently, that that process was helping, too. “When I was first learning to bend neon, I spent over six hours a day forming hot glass in a bright blue flame,” she explained. “I didn’t realize it at first, but neon bending was the perfect combination of meditation and light therapy. Obviously not meditation in the traditional sense, but the practice allowed me to clear my mind of everything but glass and fire.”

Some of the works that came out of Shen’s struggles with SAD are boxes that hold glowing neon symbols. They’re not therapeutic devices, she said, “but there is no doubt that they were forged in the flames of severe mental anguish. The experience was very frightening for me, and I’m very thankful that I was able to emerge from the flames a stronger person.”

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.