Drawing Against Depression: The Story of Elizabeth Layton

Elizabeth Layton was an elderly woman who had suffered severe life-long depression as a result of bi-polar illness. She healed herself through the use of contour drawing, which she began in 1977 at the age of 68.

laytonBorn in Wellsville, Kansas, to a newspaper publisher father and a mother who was the Kansas poet laureate in the 1920s, after high school she attended two years of college, married and left the state. Soon she began having children – five in a ten-year period. She first suffered depression after the birth of her first child.

Her marriage was not a good one, and after her father died in 1942 she moved back to Kansas, separating from her husband, to take over the newspaper. She was not divorced until 1957. That year she was hospitalized for depression, underwent electroshock therapy 13 times and began taking lithium.

The Depression Begins

In March of 1957 she married her second husband and stopped working outside the home. During that time she became addicted to amphetamines and “downers.” From 1971 to 1973 she saw a therapist at the Ottawa Guidance Center in Kansas and took both Elavil and Tofranil for “adjustment reaction to later life.”

After one of her sons died in 1976, she was overwhelmed with grief. A relative suggested she take art classes to help take her mind off this loss when she seemed overwhelmed by her grief. Throughout the fall of 1977 she worked as much as 10 hours a day, making drawings and writing about them. After nine months her depression had begun to lift and by a year’s time she was completely healed, never to suffer from depression again, according to author, Sara Epstein, M.D.

Art as Healer

According to Vivian Rogers, Ph.D., a gerontology counselor and art therapist, “A class in blind contour drawing prodded her to turn inward to confront her new terror head-on, tracing the details mercilessly until it became something she could live with. Self-acceptance, new directions and an intractable optimism were to be her rewards.”

Layton began by drawing her body and then drawing pictures about her feelings. Eventually the subjects of many of her drawings became social justice issues such as homelessness and ageism.

She explained her process when she talked about one of her drawings that dealt with the death of her son, saying, “If we have an emotion, if we can just face it head on, look right at it and do something and talk about it, our problems seem to get better. I was feeling grief. So I decided to draw a picture of the grief. I picked out what to me was the hardest subject I could find. And I drew it, I got a little used to the idea, and by the time I did some more, I got more used to the idea, and the first thing I knew, it was something I could live with. It never goes clear away, but then it isn’t something you sit around and mourn, because you’re used to it.”

A Matter of Balance

She used a two-step process, believing that the contour drawing provided catharsis and relief from emotional pain. Reflecting on the images through writing about them helped her to make meaning from them. Both drawing and then writing were essential, she said, stating, “When you live with or are involved with something in your right brain, paradoxically, it helps you to think logically. If I’m doing something with my drawings, I think through this problem without a bit of trouble. It becomes very clear. But you just can’t live completely on your right side. If you did, you’d be a guru sitting cross-legged on the mountainside for 50 years. Is it helping you? Is it helping anybody? The issue is balance.”

Layton’s pictures began to be exhibited, eventually by the Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of Women in Art and the Smithsonian. Although she died at 83 in 1993, her drawings continue to be exhibited throughout the country and have even been exhibited in Paris.

To find our more about her life and see more of her pictures click here.