For those new to the blog, my “day job” is running an inclusive arts and wellness program geared towards adults of all abilities, Express Yourself Artshop. Though we have a full staff of instructors, I love teaching so I always make sure I have the time to teach one or two classes each semester. One of my favorites is Creative Minds, an art history based class where students learn about a different artist each week and do a quick project based on their work. I especially like to focus on artists with disabilities or mental health struggles. Due to the whole Covid situation, I haven’t taught this class in awhile so I figured I’d share some of my fun ideas online! Cat lovers, today’s artist is for you :).
Louis Wain was a late 19th century artist who made playful illustrations of cats, oftentimes dressed and behaving as humans. Though his art was whimsical and light hearted, he had a very difficult life. He was born with a cleft lip, and doctors at that time advised his parents that he should not go to school with other children because of this. He received no education until age 10. His father passed away when he was 20 and he then became fully responsible for supporting his mother and sisters. He fell in love and got married, but shortly thereafter his wife became ill and passed. His illustrations, most of which he had done for his wife to lift her spirits while she was ill, became wildly popular and were being published in magazines all over the US. However, he did not have a strong business sense and was often taken advantage of. By the early 20th century he was destitute.
As his mental health began to decline, his cats became far more psychedelic, surreal, colorful, geometric, and fragmented. The fact that his art so viscerally reflected what was going on inside has made him an interesting artist to study. Though there is no way to know for sure, it is believed he probably had schizophrenia.
Were Wain “normal”, would his art have looked the same? The answer is undoubtedly no. Our differences give us insight and ideas that others don’t have. Sadly, back then mental health was very much a mystery. Today, help is available so that people can maintain their unique way of thinking, but for the most part not unduly suffer. Until the end of his life, art was an anchor for Wain when all else was instability, as it is for many.