How the Element of “Line” Helps me Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

If I tell you that line – the design element – helped me to weather the depression of winter and decreased my Seasonal Affective Disorder, you might smile and nod politely, while wondering what the hell I was drinking. So let me explain.

About 15 years ago, I started my first 8-to-5 job in a windowless office. By mid-November, I was both arriving at work and leaving in the dark and the lack of sunshine was really getting to me. I began having depression and anxiety issues that I hadn’t experienced before. I dreaded the cold, brown, dreary winter so much that it was impacting my ability to enjoy much of anything. Even Christmas didn’t inspire joy in me – and that’s really saying something! Since neither moving to Florida nor quitting my job seemed to be an option, I decided I’d better find a way to appreciate winter. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) impacts millions of people each year and the winter of 2020-2021 is poised to be even more intense. Lack of sunlight decreases our serotonin which regulates our moods, decreases depression and just generally facilitates happiness. Of course, one ideal remedy for SAD is to immerse yourself in sunlight, but that’s not always possible, even if you don’t work in a windowless office. 

The year I first started experiencing this seasonal depression, I came across both Sol Le Witt’s pure, pared-down lines, and Jeff and Collette Bangert’s linear explorations. In studying the ways they used line, I started to see the lines in everything. The black fingers of trees as they reach toward the sun against a washed-out sky. Dry grass blades stacked against one another, turning a sad roadside blur to a decadence of texture and color. 

Untitled, artist unknown, circa 1997

My focus on line became a sort of informal meditation, repeatedly reminding me to savor the moment I was in. This appreciation, in turn, helped me to see the winter more positively. It’s the only time I can delight in lines that are hidden the rest of the year. Both changing negative perspectives to positive, and practicing meditation are treatments for SAD. Each winter since, I try to immerse myself in a study of lines. Here are a few ways I’ve done that. 

Sol Le Witt wall drawing

One winter, I created a mural in my spare bedroom inspired by Sol LeWitt’s wall drawing instructions. Le Witt believed anyone could do art if they just started with a strong idea. So he designed about 1,350 “wall drawings,”: poetic instructions that anyone could follow to install the piece in their own venue. 

Of course, the same instructions can yield dramatically different executions, depending on the location. Sitting on the floor of my guest bedroom that winter, I made my own instructions and then followed them. 

  1. Using graphite, draw three rectangles evenly spaced on one wall. Each should be one foot from the ceiling and floor, with 6-inches spaced between them. 
  2. Divide each rectangle evenly into a grid of approximately 6-inch squares. 
  3. Within each square, draw five lines from one edge to the other. Alternate top to bottom and left to right in adjoining squares. 

As I drew lines in my approximately 150 squares, I listened to the sound of the pencil moving across the wall, and watched the lines multiply. I thought about how the artwork might grow or shrink depending on the nature of the wall, and who was wielding the pencil. I wondered if life could have a simple set of instructions like this and how it might expand or contract depending on circumstances. What choices was I going to make when drawing the lines of my life? 

Winter drawings

Another winter, I imagined a story I wanted to tell in pictures. The figures relied heavily on line, contour drawing and very little shading. I limited my palette to ochres, rusts, charcoals, and beige. By focusing my attention on a limited palette and simple lines, I heightened my appreciation for those elements, both in my own artwork, and in the world around me.  

The Drylands, Jessica Johnson Webb, 2008

Studying the Bangerts’ collaboration

While I worked at the Spencer Museum of Art, I had the great joy of learning about and meeting Jeff and Colette Bangert. Colette studied art in the early 1950s and met and married mathematician Jeff Bangert in 1959. In the 1960s they began a collaboration in which Jeff designed computer coding to mimic Colette’s use of line in her own artwork. Their many creations earned critical acclaim in the early field of computer-generated art and beyond, even to this day. 

Looking at their work, the lines take on a life of their own. Just like the layered grass stalks in the Kansas prairie, the individual marks wave and flow across a still piece of paper. I am simultaneously reminded of grass, sheets of rain, cloud formations and a general wildness. Their collaboration finds the overlap between the seemingly disparate disciplines of art and mathematics. What an inspiration to see their repeated answers to the puzzle of Math + Art = ? 

Line as a form of meditation is one of my purest interactions with art. It’s still my favorite Element and I am always thrilled to find another way to admire lines, in art or in nature. And the fact that meditation and appreciation are two ways to increase serotonin and decrease SAD? Bonus!

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