Ask the creators, those who experience art, those who teach it and those with a habit of consuming it regularly, and they will tell you: art can heal.
As a species we have always somehow known this, expressing through shapes, colors, dance and music, all the things that cannot be translated through human language. The urge to create comes from a core that has no wounds, but instead contains eternal wonder and an itch for light. The healing properties of art have been well-documented, its processes studied and the effects proven. Art therapy is now widely practiced and its effectiveness has been confirmed. It cures and supports victims of violence, PTSD, treats dementia and guides one through grief. Whether it is the meticulous process of creating, with brushstrokes on a clean canvas, hands molding clay, or the practice of experiencing it, with intimate observations of masterpieces in a gallery or attending open-air piano concertos, or even being in a hospital ward painted in a specific color – these aid the soul, enlighten the mind and improve bodily wellbeing.
The modes and processes can be various, but all are integral parts of how art can be utilized and how it can impact health.
Art helps you slow down
In a world that rushes by, where information and trauma go through us in lightning speed, it can be difficult to slow down and properly reconnect with crucial pieces of ourselves we often leave behind when we rush somewhere. Or to take the time to understand something within ourselves or in our lives, to grieve and rest, to gather our thoughts, to regain strength or to simply learn to appreciate without a haste. Art slows you down, lowering your gaze to the colors on your palette and the canvas in front of you, slows down your pace in an exhibition hall, halting your wandering mind in front of exhilarated brushwork, wistful bodies on a canvas, taking you into the state of heart and soul in which the artist dwelt once, a long time ago.
By time, with art, slowing down becomes a habit and we become self-aware. Like in meditation, thoughts come and go as we observe them, without judgement or approval, as we mix one color with another watching the traces of the little hairs of the brush on the whiteness of the canvas filling our minds and our hearts.
Art allows you to purge the negative and reconnect with the innermost
The image of an artist – excited, angry or in pain, striking the canvas with bold strokes of color has become somewhat of a stereotype, but it contains a common wisdom: creative pursuits, often done with passion, purge us of negative energies that halt our growth. Most if not all artists have utilized this power of art. Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” is a display of unsettling anxiety, experienced by the artist during a stroll with his friends at sunset when he sensed what he called “the enormous, infinite scream of nature”. Frida Kahlo painted her heartbreak during her husband Diego Rivera’s numerous escapades, as well as the pain of miscarriage and the breakdown of her fragile body as she lay in a hospital bed for months. Composers such as Beethoven, Mozart and Bach used the power of music to purge out fear, rage and grief.
Today, organisations such as Hagar USA and Art to Healing , an Australian humanitarian charity organization, work with victims of violence and sex trafficking to let go of their trauma, help them in purging out the horrors they have gone through and reconnect with their inner tranquility through the utilization of art and creativity.
Art helps you regain control
Sometimes many aspects of our lives go out of our control, chaotic synergies of human existence take over and it becomes very difficult not to feel destitute and powerless. These incidents create a chain of events that are amplified by our sense of helplessness and can eventually lead us to give up on a dream or a pursuit.
Practicing art helps bring back that key sense of control, even if it may seem small at first. Leading the movements of colors and shaping a form, creating depth and mastering details, makes one practice to guide oneself, to try again and again, to control what it is that one wants to express. This is an important exercise in regaining that control and little by little bringing back the power to live life with the hard work, unhindered principles, relentless methods and rigid habits that can lead to the realization of dreams.
Art is about creating a vision
Imagination is leap of faith, a thrive into the wonderful “what-ifs” and “one days” and creativity is a key tool in molding that vision, as brilliant and bold as we want it to be. By translating this vision into an art form one makes the first step in materializing it, making it tangible. Sometimes this exercise can lead one to expand or discover a new vision, to explore parts of our imaginations and desires we tend to ignore or forget. By visualizing and actually seeing that vision translated onto a surface which we can actually touch and trace with our hands, creates faith and an intense impulse in attaining that vision. The urge to create is tightly woven into the philosophy of the human vision which stipulates that we are creatures who seek beauty, we are wanderers and craftsmen, part of the wide network of dreamers who can turn even the most fleeting of thoughts and senses into reality.
Art is an escape
All living creatures when wounded succumb into a space where they can heal. For humans wounds of the heart and of the mind need special escape routes, sanctuaries and landscapes.
On a balmy June night in 1889 in an asylum in the south of France, where he lived after an especially harsh episode of inner turmoil and severing his left ear, Vincent van Gogh painted the enchanting “Starry Night”. In a letter to his brother Theo he wrote: “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big”. Interestingly enough, the view from his window and the one which he painted were not the same. The “Starry Night” depicts a restless magnificent universe with Kolmogorov’s fluid dynamics above a quaint comforting village. The painting all steeped in deep blue and swirling in heartwarming yellows is literally buzzing with wonder, hope, yet remaining quiet with a warm sense of comfort. This painting is what van Gogh imagined, it is what he desired and needed, where he ultimately escaped to.
This painting now hanging at the Museum of Modern Art in New York offers this escape still to anyone who craves it. Ultimately, for each person there is a special work of art or a process of creating that can offer a special portal into a space and time, mindset and state of heart where one can remain, heal and be uplifted.
Art reconnects you with the sublime
Beauty and inspiration is what we seek constantly, whether by sight or through experience. We seek the sublime when we sketch according to our urges, subconsciously, through the silent music coming from within, when we listen to a composition that smooths our anguish and heightens our breath, when we interlace one color with another and watch them merge and transform.
This search for the sublime is as old as humanity and it has been carried out by great men and women throughout history through bold and creative mediums. Witnessing their legacy reconnects us with the beauty that we so fervently seek in our lives, confirming that truly only art can depict it so grandiosely, reaching into our souls and pulling out that unique ability to fully recognize and appreciate the beautiful twists and turns of the human mind.
Finally, no human being that tilts his gaze above and witnesses the miracle that is the Sistine Chapel can truly remain the same. The sublime transforms us.
Colours impact emotions and behaviours
There is a certain pattern to how colors are utilized, be it advertisements, restaurants or even hospitals. Research suggests that certain colors lead to certain emotional states and thus their use is strategic to boost morale and mental health. For Hospital Rooms, a London-based charity the mission is to utilize the color theory in creating artworks within mental health hospitals in tandem with the belief that art has the power “to provide joy and dignity and to stimulate and heal”. They have successfully transformed entire premises in accordance to this strategy and received overwhelming positive response.
Now imagine a world where people fill their life with colorful art specifically tailored to their emotional needs and drives. A world where the pursuit of happiness is tightly interlaced with creativity, color, art.
Art encourages appreciation for human wonder and creativity
It is a challenge to appreciate anything when in a state of turmoil, anguish and pain; the world seems bleak and cold. Art, however, with its intricacy, detail, connection to the innermost, has the ability to raise curiosity, nudging one to at least nod in approval of a work of art that took skill, patience, hard work, imagination. Even to the most cynical out there, there must be at least one work of art that stirs and moves something inside. And when one appreciates human creativity, one starts on a journey of discovering and experiencing much more.
Art refreshes the senses and reboots the mind
Basically, creating and experiencing art stimulates communication between various parts of the brain. And the more interconnections there are between different parts of the brain the more intelligent, aware and enlightened you are. Art triggers the brain’s ability to grow new connections, which is called neuroplasticity, a vital phenomenon for mental health and the prevention of neurological diseases.
Art diminishes stress
Picasso has famously said that “Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life”. And truly, immersing oneself in an act of creation is an endeavor that unburdens, allowing one to let go and flow through the creative process. This, most evidently, is a gateway to tranquility and reducing stress. Art therapists have been successful in not only relieving stress, but have gone beyond it by actually aiding those with post-traumatic stress syndrome, all through creative exploits and exercises.
Art teaches endurance
The “art bug”, as I like to call it, is a magical disease that can affect nearly anyone. It is the unquenchable thirst to be inspired, to witness and experience art, to create and most importantly to work tirelessly. In an exciting pursuit such as creating art endurance comes naturally and remains as a habit to aid aspects of our lives that do not necessarily contain much excitement. And those who have the talent to endure persistently enough usually end up on gallery walls far beyond the times they have lived. These unstoppable creators work bedridden, while ill and or even when dying. They know that art is their medicine, their cure and their ultimate deliverance.
Matisse who was semi-invalid and bedridden designed his famous Chapel of the Rosary by drawing on the hotel room walls where he resided, with an extended pole. Frida Kahlo created most of her prominent works while bedridden, sometimes even painting on her body cast.
Creating art impacts self-esteem
As children we would be filled with pride and a sense of accomplishment whenever our parents would exhibit our works. That feeling does not diminish as we age. The moment when you fill up the canvas with your surges and colorful impulses and step back, you allow another gush of that feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine into your brain, otherwise known as the “motivation molecule” which boosts drive, concentration, self-esteem, achievement. It is the creation drug, created by your creativity, encouraging you to create more. As its final and most important effect it enormously impacts self-esteem, a widely sought-after and necessary feeling.
Creating art encourages improvement
Giacometti was famously never satisfied with his works. He would paint over his artworks again and again, tormenting his sitters and continuously working on one piece for months. Not everyone is like Giacometti, and probably should not be, but art does have the peculiar tendency to create an itch for improvement in the one that practices it. After each time, the line you trace becomes more vivid, more alive, more apt. This translates into other areas of your life which you will observe like paintings subject to improvement, growth and magic.
Art encourages practicing patience
In tandem with slowing down and attention to detail, art has the ability to mold us into patient beings, allowing the work to flow with fine rhythm and in an appropriate standard. With patience being underrated nowadays, it is an especially worthy pursuit to learn to sustain motivation, unhurried meticulousness and persistence to grow as long as it should take.
Art refines the sense of seeing
It is one thing to look and quite another to see. When you become acquainted with the dynamics, synergies and layers of art and creativity, you learn to observe more carefully. You learn to notice, not just beauty, but the conventional, you learn to love the blemishes and the cracks in between the colors of life. You become a true art-lover, in the sense that you accept art and hence life in its different forms. You embrace the new and behold the wisdom of the ancient. And you finally realize that with all its pain and even occasional ugliness, life is actually a meticulous and sometimes misinterpreted masterpiece.
Ani Poghosyan is an inspiration seeker with an MA degree in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, with experience working at the UN. She explores and researches the utilization of art and creativity in achieving change, especially in regards to its implementation in non-formal education methods. She currently resides in ornate Uzbekistan with her husband and beautiful little daughter.