On Thursday afternoon, Joe Blodgett and I were at the bird sanctuary, chasing rainbows, walking Caravaggio and Dorothy. We were talking about Dr. Oliver Sacks — the widely published neurologist who has something to say about everything from Alzheimer’s to Zoroastrianism. Readers may remember his observations of the calming and animating effects of art exhibitions on mentally disturbed patients.
Joe knows my interest in the neurology of art. He told me that while Dr. Sacks blurred science and art, he thought that his studies of isolated peoples had shed light on the actions of the creative mind. Current Art Therapy practice has certainly been affected by his writings — and his ideas have implications for active artists. Joe said that there was stuff going on around our studios that could be just what the doctor ordered. We came up with a few:
Focusing the mind on a higher purpose.
Exercising skills for sensitivity and understanding.
Employing idiosyncrasies and weaknesses for enrichment.
Blurring the area between reality and imagination.
Enduring monotony as the keys to freedom and action.
Yielding to and articulating the condition of isolation.
Making a contribution to the greater community.
Satisfying the inborn need for creation itself.
Attaching oneself to the miracles of nature.
Building of self-esteem by consecutive jobs well done.
Exploiting the richness of the childlike dreaming world.
Activating the mind to delay potential dementia.
Exercising the body through thought-gathering travel.
Making and sustaining friendships with interesting people.
Exercising the brain with bicameral interaction.
Building purpose-filled activity for joy of achievement.
Enhancing life through praise and appreciation.
Feeling of well-being derived from taking control.
Pacing work periods to suit individual capacity.
Seeking perfection in an imperfect world.
When we came to the place where the squirrels are, we let the dogs run. It was an imperfect pursuit. We still had more studio Sacksisms — all beginning with “ing” words. You’ll notice that I didn’t mention the feeling of well-being that one gets from a decent bank balance — the natural outcome of persistent labour. Joe mentioned that. Sacks never did. The squirrels won.
PS: “For the past century, clinical neurology has looked at illnesses, diseases, damages, abnormalities and the lower parts of the nervous system. It is only just now beginning to address itself to questions of sensibility, talent, skill, imagination, dreaming and consciousness.” (Dr. Oliver Sacks)
Esoterica: When artists enter their studios and begin to work, they intuitively know that there is something deeper going on — perhaps some sort of collective consciousness. We submit to this mystery and the timelessness of our craft. For some of us this understanding is the key to our feelings of well-being. By implication, it may be the well-being of our planet. “Creativity involves the depth of a mind, and many, many depths of unconsciousness.” (Dr. Oliver Sacks)
Truth in the blueprint
by Constance Cavan, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Since moving to San Miguel de Allende, I have been painting nearly every day and now have been accepted into the “best” contemporary art gallery in town. All of the “isms” apply to what has been happening to me through application and transformation and “something in the air” here. I am finally pulling it all together and Dr. Sacks’s theories seem like a blueprint I was following without knowing it. Thanks so much for your insight.
Healing power of art
by Judy Segal, Freeport, ME, USA
There is so much truth to the healing power of art. I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (a neurological disorder) 5 years ago — one of the symptoms is disturbed sleep patterns. Instead of tossing and turning when this hits me, I go into the studio and paint — the time goes by unnoticed, and I feel relaxed and happy. While it is not curing my disease, it is making the quality of my life much better, and making me feel peaceful and happy inside.
Empowerment of art
by Carole Borges, Knoxville, TN, USA
Empowerment seems to me to be one of the greatest gifts of creative endeavors. In a world where chaos often reigns and individual souls seem to be at the mercy of popular ethics and trends, art alone allows us to have ultimate control. It allows us to experience the primordial exaltation of creation as perhaps only gods can know it. To fill a blank space, whether it is a piece of paper, a garden plot, or a canvas, with our own sense of order allows us to feel powerful and fulfilled. Is there anything more heady than bringing something into being? And art does not discriminate. The mentally ill are welcomed into its arena as heartily as the prizewinners, the amateur gets as much delight in creation as the lauded. Art is a very personal thing. It supersedes the concept of career or success. It is available to us all and because of it all things are possible. Without the empowerment of art, surely our souls would wither and languish in hopelessness. When we create art we are one with the gods and the love that the gods surely feel for all their creations fills us with joy. Art empowers us in ways nothing else can. It is a cosmic gift.
Value your own strengths
by John Fitzsimmons, Fayetteville, NY, USA
I have gone through a 40-year cycle of how I value and appreciate my own creativity. When I was a kid, I ran with it, then went to art school, painted full time, etc. Suddenly I was out in the real world working at a job that I had no preparation for in industry and surrounded by no nonsense people who rejected anything that did not give an immediate measurable return, i.e. a roi > 150%/annum. I learned a great deal, and enjoyed the work and the benefits while raising a family (actually 1.5 families). However, that immersion in the business world suppressed my appreciation for my own creative powers and at times the appreciation for the value of art. My wonderfully supportive second wife has encouraged me to rekindle my painting and from her appreciation and encouragement I have found the confidence to peruse that direction with a high level of commitment. I have realized that I have ability that not everyone has. This continues to surprise me, but I will take that. (I would like to think everyone has creative abilities but is undeveloped in some, however I could be convinced otherwise with some people.) My long-winded point here is to understand and value your own strengths and have the confidence to exploit those strengths. I wish I had many years ago!
Sheer joy in the moment
by Valerie Kent, Richmond Hill, ON, Canada
You left out one of the most important components in the process of art making, as well as one of the important goals of inviting art into your life. Even if you open that door just a crack, in slides sunlight, a goldenness of glowing, a skip to your step, a music to your heartbeat. This is called joy, hope, the happiness that comes with the wonder of aliveness in this moment and it allows you to appreciate this gift of being. Losing yourself in your creation, the universe speaks with you. Through your action of opening yourself to receiving what is offered, this sheer joy takes hold and your heart dances, sometimes in calmness, sometimes in unbridled, wild gladness.
It has nothing whatever to do with the quality of the art you produce nor the art you appreciate when you look at it. It is not about making judgments. It has everything to do with creating, looking, feeling, sensing, touching with your thoughts and your soul something that comes to you and through you. It is the clarity of that joyfulness that adds grace and beauty to your life.
Value in monotony
by Claudia Person, Sacramento, CA, USA
I’m not sure what was meant by “Enduring monotony as the keys to freedom and action.” I have thought and thought and can find nothing with the name of monotony when referring to the beautiful and exciting world of putting paint upon canvas or even the clean-up afterwards, as the memories are often wonderful though exasperating at times.
(RG note) Thanks Claudia. Starting perhaps with the French writer Jean Cocteau, creative types have remarked on the value of monotonous activity as the genesis for creative thinking. It’s as if the human mind has been programmed to ‘fill in’ the dull spots.
by Katherine Ziff, Athens, OH, USA
I may never have completed my dissertation a couple of years ago without art. Copying Carl Jung’s practice of painting a mandala a day to bring himself back to sanity after a breakdown, I painted, drew, or otherwise cobbled together three inch mandalas every few days for three years while I researched and wrote about the history of a lunatic asylum located in my hometown of Athens, Ohio.
The art process somehow translated over into the research and writing and helped me create a coherent whole picture out of a zillion bits of seemingly unrelated information. It also supported the transition from collecting information to crafting a narrative.
E.R. night drawing
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
We all know that the simple act of doing art enhances our lives in countless ways.
I volunteer at the local hospital (Shands at AGH) in the Arts in Medicine program and my favorite activity is drawing pastel portraits in the emergency room in the middle of the night. I give the portraits to my models. When I began, five or six years ago, I imagined that the most I could offer patients was a diversion and maybe a little entertainment. Now, I know there’s a lot more going on. My presence in the triage area, which one would imagine to be annoying, invasive and possibly dangerous, seems to have a very positive effect on everyone — patients, family and staff. Patients claim, after a few minutes of watching me draw, that they’ve stopped thinking about their pain. Family members relax and start sharing their own art stories. I bring extra supplies because every once in a while I encounter a kindred spirit who is obviously itching to get his hands on some pastels, but most people seem to enjoy just watching. The patients get some attention and everyone’s mood improves. I’ve learned that being in the presence of art is a healing experience.
by Joy Gush, New York, NY, USA
“Attaching oneself to the miracles of nature” is what I have focused on in my life of painting scenes in which I have been able to “feel” a higher consciousness in landscape scenes and of flowers. I know my mind was guiding my hand with paint and brushes to paint the dream I had imagined.
When it came time to publish my manuscript in 2004 for my autobiography, Picture Galleries of the Soul, I gave my first copy to a friend who was going to be 104 years of age that year. Her daughter told me that it was the best gift, as each day my book would be on her mother’s lap all the time, while she studied all the 70 color images, over and over… recognizing all the photos she had, years before, placed on greetings cards for me, and enjoying them again in complete happiness.
As I quoted at the end of my Press Release “…illustrating my art book was an oasis in a world gone mad.”
Tax deductions for donated works
by Mary Pettis, Taylors Falls, MN, USA
Do you by any chance know the status of the law allowing tax deductions for the documented value of artist-donated works? I think they were working on changing that again… We don’t want to raise red flags, but if it is a legitimate deduction, we want to take it.
I donated 17 paintings to a local hospital. They paid me for the cost of the frames 5 years ago at the time of delivery. Our agreement was if they would like to retain the paintings after 5 years they could find a donor to pay 10% of my going rate and I would donate the rest. That is what happened… they sent a check for $4100.00 and the donation is $36,000. They sent me a “written acknowledgement of donation for contributions of $250 or greater as required under IRS section 170 (f) (8)” to that effect. I have (at least) dozens of sales documented at $7.00 per square inch and the galleries would verify that if necessary. Can you give me a lead?
(RG note) Thanks Mary. The trouble with advising on this sort of thing is that the laws differ in different countries — even different states and provinces. My advice is to talk to a nearby accountant — there’s probably a short, satisfying answer for you — then you can get it off your mind and off your books. Establishing an accounting friendship is one of the best things an artist can do. The other night Bob McMurray, FCA, AFCA, brought over a bottle of wine. We do this once a year. He was the one who told me to deduct 50% of my kids’ weddings. Nuts, but we did it. Successfully. In both cases it was noted that the reception was half filled with my collectors — and a new bunch who are apparently going to be.
Peculiar retraining of hand results
by Joe Kazimierczyk, New Jersey, USA
I’m right-handed. I started doodling left-handed. It was very awkward at first, so I was just doing repetitions of simple shapes, lines and circles — just like kindergarten penmanship exercises. Oddly, I’ve noticed that my right-handed drawing has improved. I think it’s because I found left-handedness so awkward that I started to consciously observe all those unconscious movements my right hand already knows how to do — how the fingers, wrist and arm all move together to draw a simple shape. I have to consciously make my left hand do the same, but it’s interesting how my right hand seems to be positively influenced by my new awareness of those movements. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this.
(RG note) Thanks Joe. Interesting. Handedness is a facility we take for granted and as they say you don’t know what you’ve lost till it’s gone.
by Kim Blair, Edmonton, AB, Canada
For the past few weeks my attention has been on mulling over the drug-like euphoria one may experience while painting, drawing or pursuing some form of creativity. I am highly sensitive to my physiology and can feel when my parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system takes over my body. As my mind settles into the creative mode I can feel my consciousness slip into a waking meditative state which will last for the duration of my creative pursuit. Plus the residual effects linger on after the brush is laid down for the day. My body has been placed in a healing mode which is a product of the parasympathetic response.
I feel fortunate to have access to this powerful healing “drug” called Art. I wish that more people could have the opportunity to experience these euphoric feelings. Some days it borders on a religious or spiritual experience and other days it is a mellow “knowing” that my body is being brought back into homeostasis (equilibrium) just from swirling paint on paper. Imagine the twelve step programs that could include self-administered Art Therapy. The high that one can induce from being immersed in a creative project could replace the high induced from drugs or alcohol while at the same time create the right conditions to assist the body in healing. The pursuit of art on a regular basis may be the key to healing our minds and bodies.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Linda Blazonis Maine, USA who wrote, “I am surprised you would call the mentally ill disturbed. That is a term long past civil use, just as mentally insane and crazy are.”