Winston Churchill painted to relieve depression. I discovered the therapeutic effects of scale modelling during lockdown – Alastair Stewart

An explosion rocks the Starship Enterprise
An explosion rocks the Starship Enterprise

“Jeez,” you think, “he spends his time imagining and staring at his USS Enterprise on his desk.” Not quite.

Like many others during lockdown, I have struggled to reconcile work, home and family life and a barrage of bad news. Home and office were the same, but I was never particularly good at unwinding long before Covid.

In April 2020, while some were starting a menagerie of plants and spoon carvings, I bought old Star Trek model kits. Before I knew it, I was assembling paints, buying soldering irons, and even a blowtorch pen to do custom battle damage. Having never been particularly hands-on, I was and still am amazed at the impact it has had on my mental health.

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In his brilliant 1921 essay Painting as Pastime, Winston Churchill articulated how painting had the same cathartic effect on his troubled mind. Shortly after the failed Dardanelles campaign forced his resignation, he was overcome by depression and anxiety, which he dubbed “the black dog.”

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His sister-in-law, Lady Gwendoline Bertie, encouraged him to try painting. Beginning in 1915, a late bloomer at the age of 40, Churchill never stopped and produced over 550 paintings until he died at the age of 90.

For Winston, it offered a respite from the melancholy. “Painting came to my aid at an extremely difficult time and I will dare in the following pages to express the gratitude I feel.”

A sleek spaceship floats in space, or at least in space (courtesy of Alastair Stewart)

My office shelves are crammed with a mishmash of twin loves: books about Churchill and Star Trek models. Model making has counteracted my obsessive thinking, anxiety and oppressive sense of worry. Sometimes it settles panic attacks. Mind and body can shift from overthinking into a soothing, white glow of creation.

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Do you think Winston Churchill hated Scotland? Think again – Alastair Stewart

American psychologist Andrea Macari’s 2008 assessment of our increasing reliance on the digital realm for survival was eerily prescient of the coming pandemic.

“Scale model making is a great hobby,” she notes. “Not only does the activity provide much-needed free time, which is beneficial in relieving anxiety and depression, but it also improves certain cognitive skills.”

It goes some way to explaining why hobbies, be it exercise, reading, cooking, music or art therapy, have been taken up so readily during lockdown.

Professor Kelly Lambert argues that our brains are wired to take pleasure in producing something “tangible, visible and, most importantly, meaningful in order to gain the resources necessary to survive”.

The addictive danger of video games, as Professor Jordan Peterson notes, is that they are designed to delay winning. Completion is always far away. Scale modeling provides a shelf of tangible memorabilia and rewards.

As Churchill notes in his essay: “In all battles two things are normally required of the commander-in-chief: to make a good plan for his army, and, second, to keep a strong reserve. Both are also obligatory for the painter. Creating a plan requires a thorough exploration of the land where the battle is to be fought.”

The same applies to the model builder. Lambert argues, “Hobbies and activities that use our hands take up more space in our brains. Gardening, building model airplanes and knitting could be key to mental health because they activate a large part of our brain.”

When I first got into model building in earnest, I threw myself into the online forums by asking elementary questions about proper paintwork, wiring, reference photos, and materials. I knew nothing.

Groups like the Star Trek Modelers Group on Facebook have been a godsend. With over 15,000 members, it’s a wonderful community representing all skill levels where no question is considered stupid. There is a genuine camaraderie of model makers around the world.

Wonderland Models, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, was an essential resource with staff only too willing to help a newbie. Before Covid, I would walk into the shop on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road and stare at the finished models hanging from the roof. It still remains a place of special fantasy.

The fun got even more chaotic as my adventures in making dioramas out of resin, warped metals and clay work unfolded. It has also given me a new skillset; Exploring electronics challenged my resignation that I would never be good at such things.

Today is Scale Scotland 2022 at Murrayfield Stadium. Come and enjoy if you can. Covid meant the 2020 and 2021 events had to be postponed. Watching model makers and their creations is a pleasure. There is a deep community for such a solo hobby, such as the International Plastic Modellers’ Society and its Edinburgh and Lothian Modellers Club, which has been welcoming and encouraging.

Nothing makes me happier than settling down with a cold brew coffee, new gear, and an idea. It brings the same relief and relaxation as writing, and reading Churchill’s words about his love of painting reinforces the ubiquity and usefulness of hobbies.

As the world limps from crisis to crisis, these lessons still seem relevant. A mental health crisis lingers in our society because we’ve never found the language to talk about how we’re feeling without suspecting someone thinks you’re just being overly dramatic.

I didn’t particularly like art, engineering, or design classes at school. Now in my thirties, with fingers taped together, a desk covered in paint, and having just shocked myself with a 12v battery, I see the utility and need for a creative outlet, whatever it may be.

If there’s a downside, it’s my social media algorithmic recommendations, “models close by” and “simple models” that would never yield easy-to-explain results.

Let me borrow Churchill again for modeling: “Then try before it’s too late and before you make fun of me.”

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