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The Tortured Artist

By Jenna Macrory, Creative Producer of Creative Spaces

The stereotype of the tortured artist is ingrained in Western culture. With this trope remaining so pervasive for such a length of time the archetype of the tortured artist has adapted with society over time. With the societal perception of mental illness changing, how has the relationship between creativity and suffering progressed over time?

Historically, mental illness and creativity have always been closely associated. In ancient Greece, madness was perceived as a state of other-worldliness. Madness to the Greeks could be interpreted in two ways: divine or demonic.* Demonic madness was seen as bad and therefore perceived in a negative light similar to how mental health is often stigmatised today.

Conversely, divine madness is a spiritual pursuit that permits an individual to act out with conventional societal standards. For the ancient Greeks, creativity was derived from this subversion of social norms. In other words, creativity comes from madness, albeit a specific type of madness but for numerous centuries creativity and madness have remained intertwined.

Few things have remained as prominent through human history as the trope of the tortured artist. Spanning centuries and infecting every single medium of art, prominent creatives appear to use suffering to their advantage.

Author Sylvia Plath channelled her depression into her only novel The Bell Jar; Louis Wain’s paintings of anthropomorphic cats transformed into psychedelic subjects upon his descent into schizophrenia; Kurt Cobain publicly professed his battles with mental health through many of his songs. The list of creatives battling with mental illness goes on but this alludes to a link between creativity and mental health particularly considering that this trope has remained over centuries.

As such a culturally pervasive topic, recent decades have seen the rise of studies investigating mental health in creatives. Despite the empirical evidence of a link between creativity and mental disorders, several studies have exhibited little to no link between the two.

Creative professions proved no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders according to a study involving 1.2 million Swedish citizens.** Contrarily studies that do exhibit higher rates of mental disorders show only a marginal difference.*** With the link between creativity and mental illness seeming arbitrary, why has the archetype of the tortured artist remained?

Although creativity itself does not correlate with mental wellbeing, many artists find themselves in conditions that allow psychiatric disorders to manifest. A passion to create leads many artists into situations that can be mentally straining such as low-paying career paths, job instability, or substance abuse.

This sentiment is reinforced by figures suggesting that as many as 60 percent of workers in creative industries spoke of having suicidal thoughts. Although the sole act of being creative does not denote an individual to madness, the environment and social networks we are part of contribute to our psychological wellbeing.

While the tortured artist trope was conceived from the concept of a suffering introspective soul, recent years have seen the narrative of this trope shift. The tortured artist is no longer tormented by an inward pain, the suffering of an artist is now amplified by an economic climate that makes living as an artist increasingly difficult.

Despite this shift, the stereotype of the tortured artist will remain although as we continue to witness the gradual destigmatisation of mental health we can address the issues at the core of this trope. As a result, we can begin to move away from this romanticised image of the tortured artist toward a healthier stereotype.

As humanity progresses how will the tortured artist stereotype change? How will changes to the wider society impact on this persona? Will the art economy, already struggling in a post pandemic world plunge more creatives into mental instability?

If you have any thoughts on these and you are under 30 you can join Creative Spaces for our conversation around the tortured artist persona at 7pm, 8th July. For more information and to book a space please click the link below:
The Tortured Artist Stereotype: An Open Conversation

* John Matthews, Creativity and Mental Illness: Exploring the ‘Tortured Artist’,
** Simon Kyaga, Mikael Landen, Marcus Boman, Christina M Hultman, Niklas Langstrom, Paul Lichtenstein, Mental illness, suicide and creativity: 40-year prospective total population study,
*** Stephen A. Stansfeld, Jenny Head, Farhat Rasul, Occupation and mental health: Secondary analyses of the ONS Psychiatric Morbidity Survey of Great Britain,


The Stove Presents: Conversations at Home

The Stove continues to advocate for the power of creative community-led work in supporting and sustainably developing our places. We are doing this by continuing conversations at home, through activity with Homegrown and Atlas Pandemica, and also as part of local, national and international networks that provide opportunities for shared learning and inform and advocate for this Creative Placemaking work.

The Stove’s Embers report defined this placemaking practice as:

“a collaborative practice that uses creative activity to connect and come together with other individuals, groups and organisations and respond to local needs with innovative solutions that focus on social wellbeing and inclusion in our communities.” 


We continue to focus on opportunities for collaboration, shared-resource, cross-sector working and locally led innovation. This month our team will be joining key partners at two major public events (see below for details) to talk about how the Creative Placemaking practice of The Stove has led to significant change in the regeneration and development of Dumfries’ High Street, helping to grow social enterprises and community initiatives for our local communities. A most notable example of this Creative Placemaking work is Midsteeple Quarter (MSQ), now a Community Benefit Society in its own right, MSQ is a community-led regeneration project for the centre of Dumfries and an exemplar of a co-creation, collaborative community and sector led approach to economic development for its place. 

Matt Baker, founding member and Stove Orchestrator, will be joining Community Land Scotland and Carnegie Trust UK for ‘Community Ownership – Shaping the Future of Our Towns’. Katharine Wheeler, Stove Partnerships and Project Development lead, will be joining the Newcastle University Engagement Team for Wor Culture: Re-thinking the High Street and the role for Arts and Culture.

Please join us:
Community Ownership – Shaping the Future of Our Towns – Tuesday 26th January 2-3.30pm

Wor Culture: Re-thinking the High Street – What Role for Arts and Culture? – Wednesday 27th January 12.30-2.00pm


Conversing with a Town

By Matt Baker

Eight years ago a group of artists in Dumfries started a conversation. Standing here in 2019’s ‘A Year of Conversation’, this initial spark has grown into 4 separate social enterprises, which between them provide regular employment for more than 40 people and a working partnership between the community, Council and Government towards a new future for our town. 

And, what have we have learned? We’ve learned that keeping the conversation going is the single most important thing of all – for conversation is an open space of possibility, it is owned by no-one, rather it is stewarded, nurtured and protected by everyone who takes part. Inclusive Growth is the new mantra of Scottish Politics – it’s a vision of a society and an economy that does not simply value numbers, but rather supports economic activity that benefits communities, places and ALL the people who live there. For this idea to make any sense at all, it needs to be shaped and held in a conversation, one that is rooted at a profoundly local level, a conversation that is open and free to roam without limits imposed by those who wield ‘power’. Rather, the true power must be in the principle of conversation itself. 

In 2001, our conversation in Dumfries began with a on open question: ‘What is the purpose of a small market town in 21st Century rural Scotland?’. Dumfries had fallen on hard times, there were in excess of 70 empty shops in the town centre. What is now popularly cried the ‘Death of the High Street’ (big retailers pulling out of High Streets because of online shopping and Out of Town retail parks) was already happening fast. We wondered what creativity and culture could do to help, it wasn’t that we had any answers to the problem that we wished to promote…on the contrary! But, we saw how important the health of the town centre was to the sense of identity within our community. We knew that town centres were places for people to gather to celebrate, to protest, to remember – but what are the mechanisms of interaction between people (commerce, leisure, services etc) that are necessary to maintain a town centre as a place for us all to gather in?? The withdrawal of big national and international concerns from our town centre created a vacuum, but it also presented an incredible opportunity for a new kind of town centre – one founded in an ‘inclusive localism’. We knew that this could only grow from a spirit of conversation which made a space for everyone’s voice to be heard. We have helped steward this conversation for eight years now – asking our question in myriad different dinner parties, a crowd-sourced Town Charter, a giant chalk drawing in the local square, an annual festival celebrating the role of the river in the town, a 2 year exploration of Dumfries’ relationship with Norway, a monthly open-mic evening for new writing – spoken or sung. We now operate two High Street buildings as ‘can-do places’ or ‘arty community centres’ or ‘alternative town halls’ depending on the flavour of the town conversation as you choose to see it. 

This is what could be called ‘Conversational Practice’, but really, it is just a set of shared values about the way to treat people and to operate as a human being. Being in conversation is a useful metaphor that encompasses the three core values of our collective work in Dumfries..which could also be seen as necessary ingredients for a good conversation?: 

  • To work through collaboration (not in isolation) 
  • To take risks  
  • To put people first and consider the emotional landscape of all actions 

The Stove Network is taking part in A Year of Conversation in two ways: through the first two weeks of May we are staging an interactive exhibition and series of events to explore ‘Art in Public Space’ which centres around a series of conversations with artists working in public. Then, in June, we are shaping all of our regular programming activity into a ‘Month of Conversation’.  Our conversation month will also mark a significant shift in our practice as we move onto a new topic of conversation – the new conversation space that we will help to hold for our town is ‘how we grow our own culture’ and how everyone can give themselves permission to be part of that endeavour.  

 Pop in for a chat! 

Matt Baker is a public artist, since 2011 he has focused on long-term activist strategies for the social, economic and political structures of his home region in South West Scotland. He was one of the founders, and is based with, The Stove Network in the heart of Dumfries town centre. 


Doing business, the Stovie way

by Lauren Tuckerman

Lauren is a researcher who has been working with the Stove for over a year looking at the Stove as a business and how it interacts with other organisations, the community and its members.

I first came across The Stove three years ago when I was working in a different job, but as soon as I started this research project I knew I wanted to work with them. My supervisors recently asked me why this was, and that made me reflect on what attracted me to working with The Stove.

The first thing I remember about meeting The Stovies was how friendly they were, and their interest in what I was researching. That was a big plus for me. When I asked to research them, they proposed a more collaborative approach. This was right up my street, I wanted to research with them, rather than do research on them.

From the perspective of my topic, this was also interesting. I’m looking at how ‘open’ organisations are to different sources of information. And already The Stove was showing that they were ready to collaborate with researchers. They understood that it would take up their time and were careful to make sure the research was the right fit for them.

Their openness to working with me did not stop there. I was invited to different events, meetings and discussions. While some of the other researchers I know working with other companies were struggling to get information from organisations, I was heading to meet The Stove’s partners, sitting in on team meetings and attending the board away day.

Throughout this time, I built up a rich picture of how The Stove does business, and how it works with partners, the community and its members. While I am still in the middle of getting all my notes and interviews ready to be analysed, I have a few insights into what makes The Stove an interesting business.

The Stove’s Curatorial Team is one of the ways they are unusual. The majority of charities and community groups will have a voluntary board (which The Stove also have) who are in charge of overseeing the organisation, but who also may have a huge impact on the direction of the organisation. The Stove has two levels to set direction, the board and the CT, and at the board away day, both levels came together to generate ideas for the future of The Stove.

In terms of my research, this was interesting and important. The Curatorial Team is made up of practising artists who have strong ties to the community of Dumfries, and they therefore bring in practical experiences and their ideas help shape The Stove.

When looking at how they decide when to work with another organisation, we spent a lot of time talking about the ‘fit’ between The Stove and the possible partner. There isn’t a set of conditions an organisation or person had to meet to work with The Stove. The way people work is important in making this decision. That’s not to say that The Stove expects everyone to do things their way. It looks more like the ethos of the approach that matters. The values embedded in how people work are important to The Stove.

Although I’m two thirds of the way through this research project, I still feel I have so much to learn and that my observations, thinking and ideas will grow. I know one thing for sure, I’m so grateful I was able to work with The Stove and they have supported me with so much throughout the process.

Lauren will be presenting and sharing alongside researcher Lizzie Smith as part of an open discussion on the role of cultural and third sector organisations like The Stove this month. It’s open to all and takes place on Thursday, 21st February.


Who or What is The Stove? How Does it Work?

Our Orchestrator, Matt Baker is one of the original founders of The Stove Network and offers some personal reflections about how The Stove started and how it works today.

So just Who or What is The Stove? 

‘The Stove’ has existed for 7 years now. Its origins have perhaps been forgotten, and questions and assumptions naturally arise about what The Stove is now, how it functions, for whom and why?

Let me start by stating that I am fiercely proud of The Stove, and believe passionately in its potential to help people shape their own dreams and careers. I also hope that The Stove is a creative force that has become a vital part of supporting local people to re-invent Dumfries as a vibrant and prosperous place, a Dumfries fit for our times.

The Stove started as a conversation in 2011, between 10 artists and creative people working in the area. We all shared a belief that placing a community project with a creative ethos at the heart of Dumfries town centre would have a positive impact on the future of the town and contribute new opportunities for local people, when precious few existed. That was it really – a commitment to the generous way that creative people work together and how that could infuse the life of the town.

There were moments of doubt and significant obstacles to overcome on the journey: ‘how would we run a space?’, ‘where would the money come from?’, ‘how would we organise ourselves and make decisions?’… we have tackled every question and situation in the same spirit – by talking together and applying our founding values:

  • To work through collaboration (not in isolation)
  • To innovate (not be risk-averse)
  • To put people first and consider the emotional landscape of all decision-making

These values bring creative practice into all of the structures and processes that we encounter, developing a working methodology that keeps The Stove open, transparent and flexible. People are genuinely able to shape The Stove in ways that work for them and for the town.

Our values led us to the two foundations of how The Stove works:

  1. The Stove is a membership organisation, membership is free and unrestricted*. Currently we have just over 500 members who, every year, elect a Board of Directors who are responsible for running The Stove.
  2. The Board employ a very small team of core employees who take care of the day to day management of The Stove. The core team supports a much larger group of freelancers – this is a flexible and changing group of people who work on one or more project with The Stove, some of these roles are longer term and some can be just a matter of weeks connected to a particular festival or workshop.

Our doors are always open for members. They can (and do) get in touch at any time with their questions, ideas and projects. Literally anyone can work with the Stove, either in a paid capacity, as a volunteer, for the experience or just the good craic of being involved in something worthwhile. We are proud that in 2017-18 we were able to offer £212,000 in contracts and opportunities for the local creative people and small businesses at all stages of their development. Since 2011, we’ve commissioned £665,775 in total. This is all money that the vision and vibrancy of The Stove has managed to attract to the area. For every £1 of local council support we receive for local projects, we attract an additional £8.00 of income from other sources (check our ‘Key Facts’ for more info about Stove income sources and history)

It has been an extraordinary journey since that original conversation around a table at the Coach and Horses in 2011…but the Stove’s success continues to be drawn from those original founding principles of: people first, collective working, openness and, of course, creativity. Why not see for yourself and come in for a chat – it might just be a conversation that changes your life!

*you don’t have to be an ‘artist’, just interested in our mission to be part of shaping the future of our region. Check it out here

News Project Updates

PRESENCE an Art-in-Between Commission update

By Jo Hodges and Robbie Coleman

We are coming to the end of working on the Art_Inbetween commission and it’s been a fascinating process.  The outcome is a work called PRESENCE which is a set of cards to be used as ‘A divining tool for journeys through the restless territories and blurred boundaries of art in the social or public realm’ the cards are a creative tool to explore and reveal aspects of a project or practice and to provoke discussion and exploration.


PRESENCE is a research led response to some of the questions that arose during the Art_Inbetween Summit held at The Stove Network earlier in 2016. The summit attempted to describe the distinctiveness of an evolving ‘rural’ contemporary arts practice with an emphasis on social/participatory/public art across the UK and our starting point was to try and understand this distinctiveness. What are the differences between rural arts practice and projects in urban settings with similar intentions or processes?


During the research phase, we worked with a number of artists, curators and producers using a word card process to explore core features of practice and context. These conversations were interesting and delved into territories that were slippery and shifting, we felt this area had more to offer to a wider audience. We began to work with the idea that practice was perhaps more important and distinctive than location and so the work began on developing PRESENCE; a method to explore and open up projects and practice that could become a companion on creative journeys, a navigational aid that could help understand and articulate the aims, methods and values of a project or practice. There are 16 CARDS, each exploring a core element of practice. Each card has a number of questions on the reverse. We suggest picking one or more card at regular intervals through a live project (or project development) and letting the questions lead into conversation and discussion.


The Cards

We see the cards as a ‘divining tool’ in the process of making creative work. They cannot be used to navigate the straightest, fastest route through a project or process but provide different positions to view the route from. They are not instructions or a model to build a project around and have no opinions about the best way to conduct a project – each project (and artist) is unique. Their role is to prompt, disrupt habits, to revisit assumptions and reassess progress and to re-excite artists and collaborators about their work and provide a tool for exploring projects and practice.

 We have tried to create a process that will result in a series of overlapping views from different positions (The points of interest in situated or social practice are not stationary and two dimensional, but three dimensional and moving, sometimes through time as well as space) This compound eye allows us to examine the same issues from different positions and so learn different things from each viewpoint.


Open Source Future

PRESENCE is an open source project: all questions, concepts and card designs can be challenged, refuted or replaced. Our version is a starting point from which new sets can be constructed specifically tailored to a project or practice. A website is in the process of being set up that will include all design tools and templates to allow people to easily make new sets and upload their designs for others to use.

Huge thanks to everybody who contributed to the summit and to those who have helped with the development of PRESENCE.

If you are interested in getting a set of the PRESENCE cards – please contact [email protected]

More info about the project can be downloaded here

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