The Therapeutic Power of Making Art
Like most Americans, I’ve been feeling empty, numb, shell-shocked and dumbfounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve been socially isolating as directed, except for daily walks. I am used to working from home as a freelance writer, but I’ve often had trouble concentrating on work and worry about spending even more time alone than I normally do.
A few days after the first directive to stay at home, I pulled out some of my sewing and quilting supplies, sorting through the many half-started projects, class and technique samples I’ve compiled for use “someday.” And suddenly, I was inspired and instantly so much happier.
I embarked on a “15 days of isolation” series of small art works. Part of my day is now spent designing little works, and then sewing or painting them. And while I’m creating, I forget about COVID-19 and the attendant health and financial crises it is wreaking on people around the world. My art is my little respite, distracting me from worries and giving me a sense of self-satisfaction.
‘I Feel Peaceful and Removed from the Swirl’
This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the therapeutic benefits of pursing a creative activity. When I was going through a divorce, quilting helped me to release the chaos within. When I can’t sleep, I make little drawings. And when I feel anxious and lonely, collaging helps ground me in happy memories.
“When I think about what is soothing to me about using my creativity to get through this time, it’s nature and art,” says Barbara Popolow of Arlington, Mass., who has been making little drawings of things she can view from her desk: plants, a candle, a neighbor’s window. “Putting these drawings together is like making a healing balm that soothes, repairs and strengthens. While I’m immersed in drawing, I feel peaceful and removed from the swirl.”
Likewise, Cheri Rose Bergeron of Bridgewater Corners, Vt., says “I am finding it very hard to focus on most things right now, but sewing grounds me.” Bergeron has made upwards of 80 fabric masks to donate to hospitals, family and friends.
“Making masks has made me feel like I am doing something on a small scale to help others and not just idly standing by. And in general, when I’m creating, my mind goes to a soothing place. Sewing drowns out the excessive noise surrounding me and cancels out a lot of my anxiety,” says Bergeron.
How to Get Started Making Art
Many people don’t think they are creative, while others simply feel too keyed up and anxious to know how to begin using art as therapy. They may put too much stock in making something noteworthy rather than simply drawing, painting, journaling, sewing, knitting, baking or whatever for its own sake.
But it’s the act that counts, not the end result.
In fact, a recent study from Drexel University found that making art for 45 minutes a day reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol — and you don’t even have to be good at it for art to be calming.
Ready to try? Here’s how:
Find a space to make art. No need to have a studio or a separate room, or even a table or desk. “When I travel, I just take a little four-by-six pouch with a watercolor journal and some paints, pens and brushes,” reports Flora Bowley, an artist and yoga teacher in Portland, Ore., and author of Brave Intuitive Painting: Techniques for Uncovering Your Own Unique Style and Creative Revolution. “Don’t use a lack of space as an excuse for not starting to make art.”
Begin with a ritual. Bowley recommends doing some yoga poses, meditating or lighting a candle to signal to yourself that you are moving into a state of receptivity and out of your everyday life. In difficult times like these, many of us are prone to overthinking, worrying and living in our heads rather than in our bodies.
“On a basic level, when you are disconnected from your physical body, it’s harder to access your creativity from that place,” Bowley says.
A ritual can help you move your awareness from the mind to the rest of the body so you can create more freely.
Play fast and loose. Do some finger painting or let some watercolors swirl on a page. “Put music on, close your eyes and draw or paint with your eyes closed for thirty seconds,” advises Bowley. “This will give you a starting point, and often the shapes that come out of that exercise are more interesting and unpredictable than those you create with your eyes open. Focus on putting yourself in a feeling rather than a thinking state.”
Alternatively, try Bowley’s “Visual Riffing Exercise:”
- Using a marker, pen or pencil, divide a piece of paper into equal-size boxes.
- Choose a universal shape —like a circle, square, rectangle, triangle or diamond — and draw it in each box.
- Go from one box to the next, embellishing the shape you’ve chosen in different ways. For example, if you’ve chosen a circle as your shape, color it in completely in the first box, put tiny dots in it in the second box, put lines inside the circle in the third box, put a square in the circle in the fourth box and so on.
Note: Instead of a shape, you can riff on a theme like “home” or “isolation.”
“Each box gives you an opportunity to do something different and spontaneous, and loosens you up,” Bowley says.
Buy a kit or subscription. Companies like Creative Art Box, Let’s Make Art, Sketchbox and SmartArt are offering monthly subscription art kits that can inspire and motivate you so you don’t have to start from scratch.
Watch a video. Sites like Blueprint, Skillshare and Udemy run online art and creativity classes. And in addition to her regular online painting courses, Bowley is offering free “Together Apart” gatherings at 4 p.m. PT on Wednesdays and 10 a.m. PT on Saturdays where you join her virtually in her Portland studio to paint.
Part of the VITALITY ARTS SPECIAL REPORT
PHOTOS: Artwork by Nancy Monson
Nancy Monson is a writer, artist and coach who frequently writes about the connection between creativity and health. She is the author of Craft to Heal: Soothing Your Soul with Sewing, Painting, and Other Pastimes.