If it weren’t for art and music, I don’t know where I would be, now. I’m not entirely sure I would have made it. There were times when music was my refuge and sanctuary and it’s certainly the case that art (i.e. painting and drawing) provided enough of a fresh challenge, which was sufficiently immersive, that I could temporarily escape from the cares and woes and various stresses that befall any life (ok, maybe I had a few extraordinary woes and stresses, but on the whole, I still count myself as very lucky).
When things were not going well, or the challenges were overwhelming, music was always a place I could go where I felt I was safe, competent and where I could succeed. Similarly, painting gave me the freedom to develop new skills, experiment, express myself in new ways and to explore the simple aesthetic pleasure of colour. Not only that, but it was a way to set myself challenges and watch my own progress, as I met each one. It’s a never ending source of challenges, so I don’t anticipate getting bored with painting any time in the foreseeable future. Recently, I’ve started to actively look for musical challenges, to move my music forward in a similar way, too.
I lost touch with my music, for a while. During a period of my life when housing, starting and raising a family were first priorities, I let my music atrophy and slide from view. In some ways I wish I had maintained continuity, but in others, I am certainly grateful that I was able to establish a family and raise two fine young musicians and creative beings. Compared to that wonderful outcome, temporarily losing touch with my music was a relatively small sacrifice. Fortunately, I have my music back and I feel like I am making the best music I have ever made. It still gives me comfort and joy, but it is much harder to schedule time to do it, because of the noise it makes. Painting, on the other hand, is clocked by an art class, which you just have to show up for and get on with your painting in. I like that constraint. A regular jam session works in the same way for music.
They say that making art is the new meditation. It says so in this very interesting article:
While I know very little about meditation, I have to say that the line of argument, in the article, is quite persuasive. Making art does give you many of the benefits of taking some quiet, contemplative time to yourself, free from the cares and worries that beset most people; unshackled from thoughts of the past or concerns for the future. When you are in the flow, being an artist is a relaxing way to spend time in the present, with your own thoughts, concentrating on the manifestation of beauty. After you have spent any time focused on your art, you do feel a sense of well-being, as if you had been in a meditative state of mind and I’m sure that this must be a profound way of healing your battered body and mind.
When the world around you is conspiring to drive you insane, creating art is a guarantee to sanity, they say. I think I agree. It’s an excellent tool for coping with overwhelming emotions; both positive and negative. If you are on the verge of some kind of burnout, through overwork or other frustrations, being able to uncouple from all that cognitive noise and instead spend some peaceful time, making musical notes sound out, or applying paint to canvas, is a blissful place to be, mentally.
There is such a profession as “Art Therapist” (I know a very good one) and these people work with troubled individuals to help them express what troubles them, through creative outpourings, without having to necessarily say it in words, or confronting the full weight of their feelings, about the story they tell, through the art they make. They are helped to find a way to access their own creativity to solve their own problems and to heal their troubled state of mind. Art therapy works, whether self administered or in a clinical setting.
Of course, the healing that takes place is as much physical as it is emotional. People become visibly healthier. Trauma is gently washed away, by degrees. Symptoms are lessened. Pain, fatigue and anxiety are reduced and quietened. It’s quite correct to say that the creative process that is involved in the making of art is healing, life enhancing and life affirming. Learning to cope with your art materials is surprisingly applicable to coping with physical symptoms and adapting to stressful and traumatic experiences.
But, why should creative activity be so potent in promoting psychological well-being? How does it work?
Connecting with yourself, when everybody wants a piece of you, seems to be the key. While you are making art, you can find yourself in an exceptionally stable emotional state, of your own making. You accept yourself, your talents and limitations and you simply do what you can. You awareness is heightened and you find yourself accepting feelings and thoughts without judgement. What you are making will either be good or it won’t, but all you can do is your best, with what you have. There is a great satisfaction in simply progressing from empty canvas to finished painting. With that calm acceptance comes a corresponding relaxation of mind and body. If you started the art making session tense and wound up, you very soon feel your muscles relaxing, as others are brought into play. Your mind is stilled from all the concerns you had and your only concern is making the thing directly in front of you – your artwork.
Anxious thoughts and self-criticisms can melt away as we find ourselves in touch with our most authentic and true selves. We don’t feel the sense of false identity or like an imposter, as we might feel in our ordinary daily activities. It’s possible to know what you are doing and to just do it, or if you don’t, to treat the whole thing as an exploratory experiment whose outcomes can turn out either way and it will still have been a worthwhile thing to have done. If your normal state of mind is one of unease, you can genuinely experience happiness and fulfilment, through making your art. The negative self-talk is silenced.
Of course, even artists can feel like imposters, or be anxious about how their work will turn out. They can be paralysed by self-doubt and sabotaged by negative self-talk about their artistic capabilities, value and identity. That definitely is a hazard. However, it’s possible, through making art, to discipline your own mind to ignore all of that and to focus on the work. This is the point. Learning to focus on the making of art is how you can escape the chaotic internal noise that blights your thoughts, induced by a too-fast-paced world.
When we have dreams about flying or floating, most people experience a sense of freedom and well-being. We can go wherever we desire and see whatever we want. There’s nothing holding you down. When you are in the flow of creating art, the feeling is similar to flying or floating in a dream. You aren’t constrained. There is a freedom to express whatever you want; however you want. The rules are there to be broken. Musical notes and brush strokes alike flow out of you, with a mellifluous viscosity; effortlessly and easily. While the art flows out of us, our internal being is quiet. This inner stillness is what makes it possible to connect pure emotion to emotionally affective artistic expression. We articulate our deepest feelings, through the art we make.
The flow an artist experiences, while creating, is akin to something limitless, laden with pure possibility, with no physical form or parameters, until we make it manifest and affix it to our chosen medium. While it exists in our imagination, it is formless, plastic, infinitely malleable and within our ultimate control. Our power to shape and form is a remarkable freedom, when one normally feels controlled and manipulated in other spheres of one’s life.
This ability to express oneself, as previously noted, can override the need for verbal communication and indeed, can allow the expression of much more powerful emotions than words allow. It was the singer-songwriter Don McLean who wrote, “Weathered faces lined with pain are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand.” Creating your own world, a controlled reality where you may empathically heal and comfort, by the simple act of painting, is what makes the self-expression such a powerful vehicle for psychological relief. What we are unable to accomplish in real life we can easily, humanely, kindly and sensitively create in our art.
I’ve previously written that creativity is like a language, because it enables artists to express emotion, honestly and truthfully and for the finished artwork to be emotionally affective to people that experience it. In that sense, it’s a highly connective form of social communication. It enables humans to connect with each other, to feel what each other feel and to empathically communicate solace and comfort. The unspeakable not only becomes expressible, but also comprehensible and harmlessly palatable. There is no language quite as expressive or as emotionally affective as art. Few other forms of communication carry their own salve and are capable of defusing highly complex and charged negative thoughts and emotions and render them as pictures or sounds; both expressive of the thing, but ultimately dissipative and ephemeral. Art is a great way to evaporate the hurt.
Making art teaches the artist about commitment, constancy, patience, steadiness, focus, unrelenting application, centredness and the ability to endure. Being in constant connection with our true selves can be an anchor in the stormy seas of a troubled life. Our troubles can be placed in perspective.
This is why I recommend art as a way of dealing with the things that life throws at you. It becalms troubled waters. It also provides a way of protecting yourself, psychologically, from the damage that others often thoughtlessly inflict. Making art also teaches you more about what matters and what doesn’t. With that emotional fortitude you gain protection of your living body – the earthly organism that is you. You can live longer, simply by insulating yourself from the wear, tear and damage of living in a world populated by crazy people, hell-bent on competitively succeeding, conquering and dominating, in the mass hallucination we call economies, states and nations. Art can give you that freedom and that escape.
Use it wisely.