Shelter in Place, collage and mixed media on antique book cover, 9.25 x 6 in
This piece is one of my latest attempts to work through the feelings of anxiety and helplessness I’ve experienced with the global pandemic.
Working Through It
I wasn’t planning to address this here, on my blog. I thought I could just put on my big girl pants, put my head down, and power through it. It couldn’t be as bad as some of the storms I’ve weathered in the past, so this should be no problem, right?
Well, pleh! The actual day-to-day living amidst a global pandemic is not something any of us have had experience with. And I, like many others, find myself at a loss as to how to deal with it. I thought that if I just kept working on my art, it would somehow insulate and protect me, if only by distracting me.
I hadn’t considered the possibility that this would stop me. I didn’t expect to feel so anxious and frightened that I’d be distracted, unfocused, and unable to make even the smallest decisions. But, much to my frustration, that’s what happened.
Falling, mixed media collage, 6 x 4 inches
Art has always been the raft onto which we climb to save our sanity. I don’t see a different purpose for it now. ~ Dorothea Tanning
Being Human, mixed media collage, 7.75 x 5.5 in
So, now what? I realized it was not time to be disappointed in myself, which is my usual modus operandi. Instead, maybe it was time to give myself a break and accept that I’m only human. But if I can’t even make art, how can I access whatever healing power it may have?
Having been in a similar spot before, I know that’s it a change in mindset that’s needed. Instead of thinking of art-making as a way to produce a finished ‘product’, I need to be able to use the process of art to work through what I’m feeling. In other words, just do it without worrying about what it looks like. For me, this is much easier said than done. I’ve written about this problem before here, and here.
Healing Mandala, mixed media collage, 9.5 x 14.5 inches
I made this piece, Don’t Forget to Breathe, when I began having panic attacks on my way to work.
Yes! – “… circumvent the limitations of language”- that’s exactly what I was trying to say. The healing power of art has been recognized since “… the use of the arts in the ‘moral treatment‘ of psychiatric patients in the late 18th century.” (Wikipedia) Apparently, this came about primarily by accident, when physicians noticed a marked improvement in hospitalized and asylum patients who were allowed to draw and paint.
There are many artists, as well as psychiatriatric treatment providers who contributed to the deveopment of art therapy as an accepted form of treatment during the middle of the 20th century. For more information about the history of art therapy, you may want to read the Wikipedia article cited in the paragraph above.
Art as Medicine
Healing Mandala, above, is a piece I created when I was going through the above-mentioned crisis. A dear friend had sent me the four white flowers from a Buddhist healing ceremony. I decided to place them in a mandala with other objects from nature, in the hope that meditating on it would help me to heal. Looking at it still has a calming and centering effect on me.
I believe that the act of creation is especially therapeutic because it’s easier to express what we feel through images than through words. It’s true that images and language are closely related; written language does consist of images. But there is a translation process needed in order to construct meaning. There are steps the reader must go through, and language must be learned. Visual images are more immediate and direct, more closely connected to the emotions of the experience itself.
Fear Not, mixed media collage, 9 x 5 inches
‘Whenever illness is associated with loss of soul,’ writes Shaun McNiff, ‘the arts emerge spontaneously as remedies, soul medicine.’ The medicine of the artist, like that of the shaman, arises from his or her relationship to “familiars”—the themes, methods, and materials that interact with the artist through the creative process.
I guess it was sometime in the late ’80’s that I became of aware of the field of art therapy through the writings of Shaun McNiff, known as the “granddaddy of the creative arts therapies”. As a young mother heading back to college to finish my education, the idea of using art to help people heal was very appealing to me. I didn’t ultimately pursue that path, but my way of thinking about art was forever changed by McNiff’s books such as Art as Medicine and Trust the Process.
Does Art Really Heal?
“Engagement with creative activities has the potential to contribute toward reducing stress and depression and can serve as a vehicle for alleviating the burden of chronic disease.”
~ The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature by Heather L. Stuckey, DEd and Jeremy Nobel, MD, U.S. National Institute of Health
Here are just a few of the effects researchers described in their patients who participated in visual arts activities:
- “Art filled occupational voids, distracted thoughts of illness”
- “Improved well–being by decreasing negative emotions and increasing positive ones”
- “Improved medical outcomes, trends toward reduced depression”
- “Reductions in stress and anxiety; increases in positive emotions”
- “Reductions in distress and negative emotions”
- “Improvements in flow and spontaneity, expression of grief, positive identity, and social networks”
As the above quote from the NIH suggests, there have been decades of studies confirming the healing properties of art. For a great overview of the scientific research in this area, I turned to Art Enhances Brain Function and Well-Being by Renee Philips, founder of The Healing Power of ART and ARTISTS (HPAA).
I was especially fascinated by the results of studies that examine what happens to the brain when subjects were shown beautiful paintings. Neuroaesthetics Professor Semir Zeki of University College London, found that “there is strong activity in that part of the brain related to pleasure”, and that this response is similar to what happens in the brain when we look at a loved one. (Viewing Art Gives the Same Pleasure as Being in Love, The Telegraph)
“Art is a wound turned into light.” ~ Georges Braque
The Dharma and the Dao, mixed media collage, 14.75 x 22
The figure in the mixed media piece above is based on an ancient Tibetan medical drawing illustrating the energy pathways of the body. As evidenced by the symmetrical composition, it is about finding balance and flow. It was done at a time when I had great need of those properties in my life.
Artists themselves have always known that the creative act is essential to their own health and overall well-being. Many have also found that it can be used to help others. Below, the work and thoughts of a few of them are shared.
You are Here, Kim Herringe
“Last week, after a very difficult personal time, I observed with such clarity that I was desperately yearning to channel my emotional energy into my art. It was the first time that I realised WHY I need to create, why my art is so important to me … it has become my sanctuary and safe place. My respite. I can shut the world out and regroup. It is therapy, my own art therapy.” ~ Kim Herringe
Ober-Rae Starr Livingstone, Together We Rise
Ober-Rae Starr Livingstone believes that artistic gifts come with responsibilities. He reminds us to “…remember that the way we view the world enters into our creative expression and that expression can move people so much that it is capable of bringing forth a healing of the heart and soul. A healing that is much needed in the world today.”
Spring Blooms, Lisa Brown
Lisa Brown began teaching “art-as-therapy” workshops “…while suffering myself with Lyme disease for many years and finding the only relief in the time I spent in the process of creating. I have dedicated my life in the belief that art is therapeutic and can help you speak words hard to say, relieve stress and suffering, and allow you to escape for a few hours.”
“I paint in order not to cry.”