There’s a bit of excitement in the medical world these days. It seems that Britt-Maj Wikstrom of the Ersta & Skondal University College in Stockholm, Sweden has had twenty elderly women gather once a week to discuss different works of art. “Their attitudes became more positive, more creative, their blood pressure went down and they needed fewer laxatives,” she reported. As a control she used another group who discussed their own hobbies and interests. This second group of ladies did not experience these beneficial effects. In the meantime everybody is jumping up and down and agreeing that talking about art is good for you. Whoa, hold on here!
I’ve noticed that if I ask a group to discuss their own hobbies and interests — including their own work — only a small percentage will relish the idea. They may do it, but they’re uncomfortable. This reaction may be because a lot of people feel they are inadequate and perhaps undeserving — or that they feel there’s not much to say about what they do. However, the few who do jump at the opportunity are gung-ho. This verbal minority is often more than verbal — they can go on and on. But here’s the interesting part. When that same group is shown the work of someone else — perhaps a well-known Van Gogh or the work of one of their peers, nearly everyone is itching to put in their bit. Because of the more neutral nature of the request, the pressure is off. People feel empowered, at ease, eager to advise, give opinions and to generally help out. Fact is, giving out gives happy feelings. People leave these sorts of encounters feeling better about themselves. My guess is that their bowels might work better too.
Wikstroem’s research may shed some light on this dichotomy. In order to feel good about yourself through art, the idea — for many of us anyway — is to separate ourselves from our work. That gung-ho, verbal minority I was talking about, are often folks who have done just this. In a way they are an odd bunch. Creative people need some sort of an alter ego — some might say a split personality. Many successful artists tell me that they have trained themselves to separate their working persona from their public persona. On occasions they are unable to take themselves seriously. At other times they take themselves very seriously indeed. In any case, distancing yourself is probably good for your art. It might be good for your health as well.
Esoterica: I’m laptopping you from under a dripping canvas canopy in Battery Park in New York City. There’s a roaring monsoon here and my galoshes are sloshing. I’ve just read through and noted some of the informative and amusing responses to the last letter What’s in a name?. Please consider googling yourself. If you happen to be one of the artists who is listed in the Painter’s Keys Art Directory, you might find out just how good we are at giving you the high placement you deserve. While it’s wet and cold in New York, your humour is dry and your friendship is warm.
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I always separate my artist self from my art business self. I believe in order to be both, in the business of selling my work and to be creative as a painter, it is necessary to be two completely different people.
Connection between motives
by Bruce Wood, Rockville, MD, USA
What a marvelous perspective! Considering something that reminds people they are part of something greater than themselves has tangible benefits to them. The observation that people feel somehow inadequate talking about their daily lives turned on a light bulb for me.
In an organizational perspective, people feel energized when they feel good about embodying the vision and mission of their work community. I’ll be looking forward to opening my next meeting with a display of a piece of art and engaging folks in conversation. (Most organizations would benefit from bowels that were a bit more loose.)
As an artist, I draw energy from finding ways to physically and emotionally include people in my art. As a person, I also draw energy from making the world a better place. Now I understand the connection between these two motives. I love the synergy. My art gives people a chance to glimpse their connection with the greater whole. What a wonderful gift!
by Alev Oguz, Istanbul, Turkey
Once an art instructor whom I truly appreciated told me, “You are telling so much about what you are trying to express. If you want to express with words, write a novel.”
I think he had a point. You don’t need words for a visual statement. Let the others discover. Everybody sees and relates a painting according to their own life experience; their state of mind, past, present, future dreams. The observer sees his own story in a painting. It is a mirror to his soul. You may try to express something, however, you may touch him with something else, something very personal that you are not aware of. Anything other than that is a technical criticism of art.
Danger of the tongue
by Duncan Long, Manhattan, KS, USA
Most major publishers buy book cover artwork without letting the writer into the loop. There’s a reason for this. Often writers create scenes that can be imagined, but which are physically impossible and therefore either “look wrong” to the eye or even are also impossible to create due to color/light conflicts.
I ran into this in spades when I was doing a cover for a writer who was self-publishing. The scene called for a bright sky — with lights glowing in it. Glow requires a dark background. He wouldn’t give any ground and we ended up with a cover that he was happy with, but which I hated to even look at — and which took me so long to rework that any spontaneity had been crushed out of it.
by Carol Hama Chang, Edmonton, AB, Canada
No wonder people are so stressed everywhere… they have taken up occupations that have nothing to do with their passions but everything to do with their earning potential. In fact it seems as though the medical community is taking art more seriously in another area as well… memory loss. These days universities offering courses in psychology offer a course relating art to triggering memories and opening a few doors to people experiencing mild to severe memory loss. Seniors residences with members suffering from Alzheimers are putting this theory to practice and prefer putting up those “old timers” paintings of old farm scenes, hoping these images would trigger a flood of forgotten memories to return. For years they have been using colour, just colour, to trigger certain things in the mind as well. Ask any interior designer. I think the laxative effect may have a lot to do with what is in that image they see. Sometimes I think some artists used too much laxatives in their paintings, as well!
by Sue Williams A’Court, London, England
Your letter got me thinking of the healing power in the contemplation of art. There has been some controversy here regarding the large sums of money spent commissioning the Art Program for University College London hospital — a question of priority. I concur with the view that in this frenetic and stimulating modern age (overloaded senses) art provides a way to fulfill a deep human need — the universal hunger for the esthetic experience. This function of art within a healing environment is so relevant today. I find when I spend time contemplating other artists’ work it feels like I’m feeding an “inner-need.” Touching that ‘inner life’ is a great way to get to that wonderful balanced and calm place of non-judging detachment.
Negative thinking reframed
by Ellen Barnett, Moorestown, NJ, USA
Today I brought my work to a show in support of the art education departments in my home town. My work had to be limited in size for the wire screen that was designated to me. If a piece sold, I would contribute 30% of the sale to support art education. One piece had to be donated for auction at the reception. No problem here. I realized that when hanging my work that I was pleased to contribute, all of a sudden it looked boring and old hat compared to the other work that was already hanging by other artists. So I agree with you, it is so much easier to admire other artists’ work. I left the building feeling a little down.
Then I read your letter and reframed (no pun intended) my negative thinking. My passion for making art quickly let those unwanted judgments go and I’m back to expressing my creativity in my studio, away from the “competition,” knowing that I am supporting art education, where an art teacher saved my life and doing what I must do to feel alive; create art, no matter what.
Scared into modesty
by Scott Pynn, St. John, NB, Canada
I think it is possible to make someone despise your art even if it is wonderful. You can simply do this (I advise against it) by constantly talking about your own work. Everyone knows somebody who stammers on incessantly about themselves or their work or hobbies, etc. etc. It personally drives me crazy and just the thought of being one of those people scares me into being a little more modest about my own work. Instead, I use my own artistic abilities to ask others questions which I know will give interesting responses and everyone wins. They get to talk about the things which interest them, I get to hear genuine enthusiasm about someone’s life, and if they are curious they will ask me some questions about my art which I can answer without feeling as if I am stammering on.
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Just before reading your letter I was thinking about a day walking in Tribeca not far from the Hudson River. I realized one of the reasons for my love for NYC was that it is an island. You often see glimpses of water as you walk the city, and the element of water has great beauty and an uplifting vibration. So there you are in more water than I was thinking of. My memory was of a bright, sunny day, the kind that also enlivens the city.
Regarding the idea of distance, it is a great tool. In fact I think it is the way to create for me. In yoga we would refer to it as connecting with the One the “Self” as opposed to the small “self.” It is the way to get out of small mind and connect with vastness. I have also had to do this in the business side of art. I was tripped up this summer when the sale of two of my paintings caused me to freeze in the studio, questioning the value of painting stroke by stroke. A friend of mind, Swami Ramananda in NYC gave me the advice to wear my painter’s hat in the studio and wear the business hat in the business of selling art. They are different and trying to make them the same was causing me great confusion. A little distance and accepting the natural cause and effect of art and its relationship with the world is a healthy awareness to attain. As they say in Zen, “When drinking tea, drink tea.” Let the rest go!
by Jeri Corbin, Carnegie, PA, USA
As an Art Therapist, I find clients become less inhibited about doing their own art when I am careful to use examples of masters who are espressive artists, more than masters of realism and perfection. Clients see distortions in the execution of forms and realize they, themselves, can “do art.” In art therapy, the goals are process oriented, more than product oriented.
by Orythia Johnston, Toronto, ON, Canada
Thank you for this interesting bit of information. I’m an art therapist and a lot of what I do relates to the older adult. My recent presentation notes the purpose of art therapy or the creative experience for the older adult. As you can imagine not all seniors have the same capabilities so in my position the older adult can work through issues and concerns in a supportive environment. This concept of art therapy or art as therapy has been around only for about 60 years, but it is helping those older adults who need this type of therapeutic environment to explore their potential and self-awareness through creativity. It might sound as if it is not exactly what you are talking about, however it can address the diversity of the older adult in ways that suit their creative interests so that they have a treasure of new self-awareness. And yes, I really believe that making art is good for your health, especially if it is done in fun.
Surviving the madness
by Karoll Dalyce Brinton, Sherwood Park, AB, Canada
Why do so many artists clam up about their own creations? Much of our society isn’t too impressed with someone that likes themselves too much. We are labelled as arrogant, bold, self-serving, full of ourselves, etc. As if this was a bad thing. Yet countless hours and dollars are invested in someone suffering from low self-esteem. It’s almost an ugliness to be so self-loathing.
Now, consider that artists are typically sensitive people. We are fighting an uphill battle with being considered either too vain or overlooked like the runt of the litter if we don’t have some bravado. Is it any wonder we develop multiple personalities just to survive the psychological madness?
My solution is to ignore the opinions of self-appointed experts and get on with enjoying our gift. Stay connected with our hearts’ desires and accept that we will never finish who we are.
by Pam Weber, Calgary, AB, Canada
I’m not particularly comfortable talking about my work and certainly don’t leaf through my myriad portfolio pages to gather inspiration. Whenever I’m in a slump, whether it be a creative one or not, I find it absolutely invigorating to take a walk down and visit galleries, as many as time allows. A breath of fresh air.
I recently returned from a trip to Chicago and was completely taken by their Art Institute. The Impressionism and Post-Impressionism rooms had me salivating.
Keeping young through art
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA
I am making a copy of your letter to take to my class at Westminister Retirement Village. They will be glad to know why they need fewer laxatives!
I have been teaching a watercolor class there weekly for 3 years now to a class of all women, mostly in their 80s. The men attend one or two times and don’t come back for some reason. Some of the women have painted for years and others have never painted. The only requirement is that they are interested. They must be because they keep coming back. I have found that many people carry around an inner voice about their artistic worthiness, probably planted early in life by some off-hand remark of a thoughtless teacher. They say to themselves, “I can’t draw,” “I could never be an artist,” “I must not be an artist because I can’t do it perfectly.” I also find that what the person thinks about their abilities has nothing to do with their actual ablities. Sometimes through encouragement and practice they are able to overcome these inner voices but others quickly give up.
I might add, this is not an art therapy class. These are artists who work hard and show their work in an annual show. I present to them the same information about design, contrast, color, technique, etc. that I do in my studio class. I encourage class members to critique each other’s work as well as my work, and bring them information about local exhibits. The retirement home does provide transportation to some of these.
I believe the intellectual stimulation of painting and art in general certainly does keep one young and more active.
The Arts heal
by Barbara Timberman, Newland, NC, USA
It not only “may be good for you’ but it actually is good for you. Talking about, looking at, or making art releases the endorphins and allows the good cells to work. Using the arts to heal is a medically proven technique that strengthens body, mind and spirit. It can help you reduce symptoms, alleviate pain, improve your attitude and the quality of your life, lower your blood pressure, ease tensions and release negative feelings. It takes you ‘away’ to some other place, and so you’re not aware of your aches and pains. Art heals by changing a person’s physiology and attitude. The body’s physiology changes from one of stress to one of deep relaxation, from one of fear to one of creativity and inspiration. Arts put a person in a different brain wave pattern; art and music affect a person’s autonomic nervous system, their hormonal balance and their brain neurotransmitters. There are worldwide hospitals using art in this manner.
The PlaneTree Organization, which is in our local hospital, bases much of its philisophy on art as healing. I’ve taught several semesters of classes to registered nurses on the healing capabilities of the arts. The Shands Hospital at the U. of Florida in Gainesville, FL is a good example of the arts as used in hospitals for healing. Their program is called Arts In Medicine.
Power of make-believe
by Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, TX, USA
Are you giving us permission to indulge in schizo behaviour? Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? This letter is actually related to the previous “names letter” for me. I gladly adopted my husband’s name when we got married. I am a shy person and had always had difficulty introducing myself to people. It became easier when I had a new name to say because I was not that person. Internal games can help us make progress sometimes because the power of make-believe is so strong. Now, I want to go call my grandmother and get her talking about art!
by Steve Alvin, Miami, FL, USA
I am an artist of some repute from Miami, Florida. I have traveled a lot over the last four years and I am seeking a place to paint in southern France or Southern Spain or southern Italy. I hope to leave within the next week or so. Could you help me find a place to paint? I am not seeking classes or instruction, just a cheap, quiet place to paint for upcoming shows.
(RG note) Thanks Steve. A couple of years ago I rented an ancient ecclesiastical retreat Heurta de Santa Maria near Galaroza in the Sierra de Aracena in Southern Spain. It was really off the beaten track and surrounded by terrific “white” villages. Javier, the owner, is a friend of mine. You can find it and other destinations I like on our Studios Worldwide pages. I wrote about Santa Maria in the Bounty letter. Incidentally if others wish to recommend their favorite spots for these pages, please do so.
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, 2005.
That includes Marilynn Poore who wrote, “I am always amazed that individuals are so fearful of the term art therapy — when it is something that is truly a natural effect of doing, discussing and immersing themselves in the process of creating/examining a piece of art. The art comes right from our unconscious thus is an expression of who we really are. Why would we not want to explore that more to acquire a better understanding of ourselves?”
And also Luann Udell who wrote, “I was interviewed yesterday for a national magazine — my art and how I live with art is the focus — and I was amazed how uplifted and connected I felt afterwards. So I can definitely appreciate the points you are sharing. Maybe art in general creates a shared experience, even if it’s our art, and I can see how that appeals to us (as intrinsically social beings).