It was the holiday season, my day off, and I was up to my eyeballs with things to do. So when my daughter phoned inviting me to make baked dough ornaments, I thought I just don’t have the time. But I really wanted to spend time with her so I happily put tasks on hold. I figured we’d hang out together, make a few ornaments and I’d get back to my to-do list. I arrived to a warm, sunny kitchen where she and a friend already had the first pan out of the oven displaying a few traditional cookie cutter shapes – stars, trees, angels – and some interesting one-of-a-kind creations. My daughter had inherited her father’s prodigious artistic talent so I was not surprised. My own drawing never got much beyond kindergarten mode — a cat made of circles, triangles and squiggly lines.
Scattered across my daughter’s woodblock table were cookie cutters, kitchen utensils, jars of paints and dishes with seeds. My daughter said, “Use anything you want. Just play around and try stuff.” I knew my limits and pressed out some cookie cutter shapes. But I could not help noticing that my daughter and her friend, using a free-hand approach, were clearly having more fun.
Oh, what the heck! I thought. Go for it! Discarding the cookie molds, I shaped bits of dough, tentatively and self-consciously at first. As I realized no one was paying attention, I relaxed and started to play. I folded and rolled, made designs with forks, spoons and fingers, and three-dimensional objects. I moved on to wall hangings and masks. I went outside for materials — leaves, grasses, seed pods, feathers. No more shyness about whether it was good enough. If something didn’t turn out, just rework the dough and try something else. I was so absorbed and focused that I completely lost track of time.
By the time I arrived home, I felt as if I had been away on vacation, totally relaxed, rested and renewed. I had forgotten about my problems and stresses for a few hours by simply playing at being an artist.
Twenty years later I still have some of those creations. They would never win a juried competition, but they represent something more relevant. They are tangible reminders of the restorative function of creativity when we simply let go of judgment and allow ourselves to play.
Pablo Picasso said: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Picasso? Paint like a child? Indeed! This legendary artist was conceding the importance of letting the inner child out to play. As children, we are uninhibited in our capacity to create alternate reality out of whatever is at hand — a box becomes a pirate ship, a stick is a sword, a pile of leaves a mountain. What if we could apply some of that same unreserved nonjudgmental attitude to our adult lives? What would it mean to our sense of self to “paint like a child”? Or dance, or write or sing? Could indulging in these activities with that child-like sense of wonderment and exploration actually contribute to our health? Scientific research is showing that it can.
Though dramatic advancements such as penicillin, MRIs and heart transplants have garnered major attention during the past century, artistic approaches to healing have been around for thousands of years. Some societies simply continued the practices as part of their culture. However, as western medicine came to rely more and more on technology, an ethos of skepticism crept into the cultural discussion. Anything that could not be backed by verifiable scientific data was dismissed and ridiculed as just so much fairy dust. Behind the scenes, a small number of people in various disciplines who believed the anecdotal evidence, not only kept the practices alive, but eventually began to use science and technology to verify the outcomes.
An article titled “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature” was published in the American Journal of Public Health, February, 2010. The review “explores the relationship between engagement with the creative arts and health outcomes.” Listing 104 references it affirms the worldwide scope of research that is being done. One of the authors, Jeremy Nobel, is founder and president of the Foundation for Art & Healing whose stated mission is to understand the science behind the connection between art and healing.
And the science is showing that the connection does exist, that art can provide a sanctuary and refuge from the intensity of traumatic illness. As a result, more and more hospitals, clinics and medical professionals now include some aspect of the arts in their treatments. Modalities such as music, drawing, writing and movement have proved to be significant factors in relieving stress, reducing pain, restful sleep, strengthening the immune system and improving patient self-awareness.
Relaxation seems to be the foundation of it all, something that is hard to come by in today’s supercharged environment. Going shopping at the mall is not relaxing. The entire design and atmosphere of any retail facility is geared toward the shopper staying hyper alert, the antithesis of relaxation.
One early pioneer in the mid-70s was Steven Halpern, an award-winning composer and recording artist. He systematically validated the effects of his “sound healing” stating that “Relaxation is fundamental to most healing processes…Most music is too fast. You can’t relax if your heart is beating faster than 60 beats per minute, and most music is 80-130 beats per minute! Your heartbeat automatically… synchronizes with the rhythm.” Throughout history artists have transcended debilitating and life-threatening injury, illness and trauma through their art. Mexican artist Frida Kahlo survived a near fatal bus crash at age 18 but continued to endure intense pain. Using a specially-made easel so she could paint in bed, she produced 143 works by the time of her death at age 47. One piece was purchased by the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Robert Schumann, one of the most influential composers of the 19th century, suffered from a lifelong mental disorder. By the time of his death in an asylum at age 46, he had completed 148 compositions across multiple genres – orchestral, piano, choral and chamber music.
Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the most legendary male dancers in history, showed signs of schizophrenia when he was just 27 years old. As a premier dancer and choreographer, he stretched the boundaries of traditional ballet and inspired future generations of dancers and choreographers.
At age 47, Gustav Mahler was a successful composer and conductor. Within one year he lost his post as music director at the Vienna Court Opera, was diagnosed with a defective heart condition and suffered the death of his five-year-old daughter. He found refuge in his music and continued to compose some of his most memorable works right up to the time of his death at age 51.
Non-artists, too, have been helped by art. Many holocaust survivors and former prisoners of war give credit to storytelling and music for keeping them alive. Various cultures face grief and mourning through ritualized music and dance. In 1991, Estonia emerged from decades of Soviet occupation not with guns and tanks, but by hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathering in public places and singing forbidden patriotic songs. It came to be known as “The Singing Revolution.” Although fictional, the scene in the movie Casablanca in which French nightclub patrons stand and sing La Marseillaise in defiance of German officers who were singing a German anthem is a poignant depiction of empowerment.
Watching a recent PBS documentary about immigrants, one is struck by the role music played in helping them deal with the challenges of adjusting to life in a new country. They made their own music, played instruments, sang and danced, not for an audience but for themselves.
So what about the rest of us? If we are not part of a revolution, not in a movie, not facing crushing illness, traumatic events or terminal disease, does art still matter for our health and well-being? It would seem so. Whatever our social, economic or cultural status, we are all impacted by day-to-day stresses. Routine, consistent self-care is fundamental to maintaining good health and prepares us to better face the bigger traumas that inevitably arrive.
How do we make art a regular part of our life? Two artists can get us started. Author Neil Gaiman says, “The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, yur visiton. So writer and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.” Picasso said, “The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place; from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.”
You are alive; you are walking the earth; you are interacting with everything along your path. If you stay mindful and aware, then every single thing along that path contributes to your “receptacle for emotions.” The most seemingly mundane and ordinary things, like Picasso’s “spider web” or “scrap of paper”, can contain a resonance unique to the “you…that nobody else has”.
Let the child in you break free and just play; make it up as you go, give in to imaginative instincts. The possibilities are limitless — draw (paint, watercolor, charcoal, pencil, chalk), sing, dance, write, photograph, weave, sculpt, crochet, sew, carve wood, cook, garden. Anything that asks you to focus on creating something is your artistic expression. Starting with a single thought, image or emotion, see where it takes you.
Two rules: 1) Ignore quantity. You don’t have to write a 50,000 word novel. Haiku poetry, revered for thousands of years, has a basic form of just 17 syllables, and 2) Ignore quality. Museums and galleries are full of expensive art works that many would say belong in a flea market! Your creation is only between you and you.
Any artist will tell you they get inspiration by observing, by being open to whatever wants to show up. And so it is with our health and wellbeing. People pay good money for an Ansel Adams photograph of an oak tree, or a Georgia O’Keeffe painting of a flower. You can see the same thing every day for free! All you have to do is step outdoors and go for a walk. Leave the headphones, iPod and camera behind. Annie Dillard, in her 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, writes that the day she set out on a hike and forgot to pack her camera, she discovered that she became the camera.
Walking in nature boosts creativity. The physical act of walking in and of itself is beneficial to health. Along the way, neurons get renewed, the imagination percolates. Countless writers speak of working out some literary conundrum while on a walk. The Twin Cities metro area offers walking opportunities no matter where you live. Even if you walk at the same time every day, no two walks will be alike. Light and shadows shift, moisture creates new smells, birds come and go. If you are able to rotate your walk times, something that appears quite common in the morning, say, a fence post, can take on a spectacular personality when reflected in a bright orange sunset.
Using your artist’s sensitivity, observe everything: the sharp edge of a roof against an azure sky; the curve of branches in a downed tree; the shadow of a lace curtain pattern on a wall, a snow-covered bench; notice the variety of flower petals, how a droplet of water hangs on a leaf, the twitch of a squirrel’s tail, a crow watching traffic so he can grab a morsel of food from a discarded hamburger.
If you open to each and every day as an opportunity to view through your artist sensibility, you’ll find (a) you can never, ever be bored; and (b) the artistry that surrounds you is as potent, relevant and inspiring as anything in a museum. And note that memorable art can be found without the sun. Walk at night. Walk in winter. Walk in the rain. Walk in the fog.
Eleanor A. Leonard is writer and creater in the Twin Cities.