When we encounter a work of art that moves us, it’s an inspiration and balm to our spirits. But it turns out that appreciating art isn’t the only thing that’s good for our brains. Making art may be even more important.
Kim Schneiderman, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Southwest Washington, said the organization recognizes the mental health benefits of creativity and is in the process of getting its Creative Writing for Wellness workshops online using Zoom during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Check www.namiswwa.org for updates.)
Fortunately, writing is something anyone can do, anytime, to alleviate feelings of anxiety or loneliness.
At the workshops, participants often begin with an object as a prompt, Schneiderman said. But that’s just the starting point for a writing adventure that can end in all kinds of unexpected places.
“It’s very esoteric. Sometimes it’s poems, sometimes it’s about what’s going on. They just get creative,” Schneiderman said.
This kind of writing is the joyful flip side of traditional journaling, which is a useful therapeutic outlet but “can be very dark, if you are in a dark place,” Schneiderman said. A prompt can get the ball rolling in a more lighthearted direction.
“It’s a good place to start, rather than dumping out your darkest thoughts,” Schneiderman said. “It resets your mind, having an object to focus on and write about.”
It’s not necessarily what people write that’s important; it’s the process that matters. Even if the result is something small in scope, writers are uplifted by a sense of accomplishment. “It gives them a feeling of success. … They have created something!” Schneiderman said.
The creative process is intimately connected to the healing process, said board-certified art therapist Jocelyn Fitzgerald. She uses art journaling to help people see their own resilience.
“An art journal, for me, is a mix of imagery and words. The art part is more healing and therapeutic. Then I add a few words or a phrase that represents what the art is about to remind me where I was, what was going on at certain parts of my life. I can look back and see that I was having a hard time but that things got better.”
This process reveals that we have “internal resources, strength within us to work through hard things,” Fitzgerald said. It’s a form of therapy that she’s using to process her own fears and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even with myself, I can’t say this is going to be better next week. I am being that compassionate voice for myself in my journals,” Fitzgerald said.
She also noted that once someone has discovered the benefits of art journaling, it can be carried forward through life and employed under any circumstances.
“Art journaling is a beautiful skill that people can use any time, a powerful tool that anyone can use to help them feel better,” said Fitzgerald. She is currently offering art therapy sessions via Zoom; go to www.jocelynfitzgerald.com to make an appointment.
If guided art therapy isn’t an appealing or affordable option, no matter. Creativity is completely portable.
“If you’re at home, you can find stuff in your kitchen or around the house that you can use for art. You can repurpose anything,” said Barbara Sheehan, art journaling instructor and owner of Vancouver Art Space. “If you’ve got an old book that you were thinking about sending to Goodwill, tear some pages out and then use that to create your journal.”
Or make a journal from old file folders, as Sheehan sometimes does.
“Just start tearing up paper or magazines, finding interesting images and putting them together,” Sheehan said. “For each page, I like to have one focal point. That could be a little design, like a bird. A lot of people have cartoon-y, doodle-y things that they sketch, or you can use a photograph.”
Next, grab whatever is at hand and go to town. “Use paint and crayons, colored pencils, graphite, markers — anything that will make a mark,” she said.
Embellishments can include things like “buttons and three-dimensional objects. If you’re a person who likes to go to concerts, you might use your collection of tickets stubs,” she said.
The important thing is to let your imagination run wild.
“It gets that thinking part of your brain to tone down and gets the creative part of your brain opened up, which is more intuitive — if you want to get mushy, more loving,” Sheehan said. “It gets you out of yourself and into something more positive.”
The process is less about the constraints of artmaking than it is about finding solace in self-expression.
“You don’t have to know anything at all about composition or the formal dictates of art,” Sheehan said. “All you have to do is like the color, like the arrangement and feel good about it.”
To learn more about art journaling classes at Vancouver Art Space — as well as classes in watercolor, oil and acrylic painting, stamp-carving, using alcohol inks and colored pencils, and painting your pet, all of which Sheehan will offer again when it’s safe to do so — visit www.vancouverartspace.com.