The Healing Power of Art

Research shows that flexing your creative muscle can reduce stress and anxiety and help you get through troubled times
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Colourful artists oil paint palette and brushes close up on plain background

Kathy Hagler remembers with clarity seeing a piece of art that would alter her path. “I found this Japanese vase that was really intriguing,” she says. “It touched me deeply. It was broken, but beautiful. It looked like somebody filled [the cracks] with gold.”
Like the vase, Hagler felt broken. Within a short time, she had lost her husband and her son and had been diagnosed with breast cancer. “I was completely overwhelmed by grief,” says Hagler, a partner at consulting firm K20H Solutions LLC, who lives near Asheville, North Carolina.

Then she saw the beautiful vase, created through kintsugi, the Japanese art of breaking pottery and repairing it with liquid golden “scars.” “The light was shining through the gold,” she remembers. “I wanted to be like that vase—authentic. I didn’t want to say, ‘I’ve never been through difficulties.’ I wanted to allow both my scars and my healing to be seen.”

Hagler found a local kintsugi artist and counselor to teach her the art form. She was told to drop a vase onto the pavement. “It made me so sad, as my brokenness made me feel,” she says. “But in putting it together, there was an art process. You can’t put the little piece on before you put the big piece on. The vase goes from broken to golden healed.”

A growing body of research shows that creating art boosts well-being, and for those grieving, it can reduce sadness and anger, and improve humor and hopefulness. Through kintsugi, Hagler found perfection in the imperfect, an idea explored in her upcoming book, The Art of Scars. “The whole idea of wabisabi, which is the philosophy that contains kintsugi, is impermanence,” she says. “With the scars, you can heal.”

Painting away stress

When another woman, Lauren Karpinski, was going through a challenging time, she stumbled upon an old acrylic paint kit left over from her father’s art supply store. “I whipped it out and started putting colors on paper,” she says. “I remember thinking, wow, this feels so good. I was just making a mess with the brushes, and I even put my fingers in the paint.”

Karpinsky, who lives in New Providence, New Jersey, says painting has become a tool in her wellness arsenal to cope with stress and feeling overwhelmed. “You have exercise or meditation, or sometimes Netflix binging is what you need,” she says. “But when I get to my painting and I can be in that creative space, it just helps overall.”

Creators like Karpinski often get into flow, a state of hyperfocus in which the rest of the world falls away. Research shows that, while in flow, a person’s brainwaves change from the quick-moving beta waves of our normal waking lives to the slower alpha or theta waves experienced while daydreaming or at the edge of sleep. We become less self-doubting, and more courageous and imaginative. “Getting in the flow is just magical,” she says. “My bottom-line philosophy is don’t let that thinking mind take over. Go with the feeling. It’s the place where I’ve learned a lot of lessons. One thing I’ve learned in painting—which I try to bring into the rest of my life—is don’t be scared to take the next step.”

Quelling pandemic woes

Maria Karla Saenz, who works in PR in New York City, had also been struggling with stress. Then the pandemic hit, and her anxieties magnified. “One of the big changes was working from home,” she says. “The things that I would use for my own well-being—going to the gym, dancing salsa, or just hanging out with friends— weren’t available anymore.” Saenz is hardly alone. Half-a- dozen studies including more than 10,000 people sheltering at home revealed that up to 35 percent were experiencing serious anxiety, and half showed signs of depression. While researching therapies covered by her health plan, Saenz noticed art therapy. The stress-busting benefits of art are backed by research, with one small study showing that 45 minutes of art making reduced participants’ levels of cortisol, a stress marker.

Saenz’s art therapy sessions—virtual due to shelter in place—comprised about 70 percent talking and 30 percent creating. One art project involved creating a mask to represent the face that Saenz presents to the outside world versus the way she believes she’s perceived. “In one case, I drew about something that gave me insecurity and then, on the page next to it, the transformation into something positive,” she says. “It helped me think about it much differently.” Saenz now incorporates art into her daily life. “The outside world may be hectic, my mind going through a thousand thoughts at a time,” she says. “But when I’m creating, I’m able to slow down and be focused. It’s something that brings me joy.”

Cultivating joy during cancer

Art can also offer hope in the midst of physical illness. About 10 years ago, Biviana “Bivi” Franco, an artist in the Atlanta area, had an aunt and two close friends get diagnosed with cancer. “I was seeing the emotional impact as they were going through treatments,” she says. “The only thing that I knew how to do was maybe help them through art projects.” That idea blossomed into Feel Beautiful Today, a nonprofit that harnesses the power of art to support cancer patients and survivors in Georgia.

While art therapy, such as the pro- gram Saenz used, has a clinical focus, Franco’s organization offers an Arts in Health program, an arts-focused method used in hospitals and other clinical settings across the country. “Studies show significant evidence-based results indicating that Arts in Health programs delivered to health-care set- tings help patients with stress, anxiety, isolation, depression, and the side effects of treatment,” Franco says.

Feel Beautiful Today has brought such programs to more than 11,400 cancer patients and survivors in metro Atlanta. When patients are suffering with anxiety, nurses will sometimes urge Franco to set up quickly. “The patients will be crying, telling me that they feel very sick,” she says. “And little by little, it’s like a transformation of hope, of love. It’s beautiful to see what art can do to break that isolation that a patient is feeling in the middle of that diagnosis.”

For patients receiving chemotherapy infusion, creating art helps the time pass more quickly, shifting their attention away from their worries and toward creating some- thing beautiful. “We’re not there to talk about cancer,” Franco says. “That is pretty much the only thought that these patients have over and over in their minds, so we’re trying to provide them with a different conversation.”

Franco and her volunteers provide services for free. Many volunteers are former cancer patients who benefitted from the program themselves. During the pandemic, Feel Beautiful To- day is offering resources online, although they’re eager to return to in-person art sessions. Someone recently asked Franco if she gets tired or de- pressed doing this work “I’m not going to say that it’s easy,” she says. “But I go with hope. Art can be a significant part of a cancer patient’s recovery and healing process. Today, I may bring a smile to someone who needs it.”

Gaining calm and clarity Creating art can also help people deal with life’s demands. In 2014, while working full-time and going to business school full-time, Natalia McHayle was burning out. “I needed an outlet, something to help me relieve the stress,” she says. Remembering a blanket that her mother had crocheted, McHayle bought some supplies and, with some initial help from her mother, began stitching away. Crocheting provided a fun, stress-busting leisure activity and also helped in other areas of her life. “In school and work, you come upon roadblocks,” she says. “I used that time to focus on how to solve those issues, because you’re at a calmer point in the day.”

After working in the construction industry, McHayle relocated from New York City to Hampton, Virginia, and became an independent cro- chet designer, publishing her designs on Ravelry. She says it can be a relief to set down her phone and take a break from technology. Like Karpinski, she has experienced the benefits of flow. “It’s quite Zen, getting in the zone with the repetitiveness of the stitching,” she says. “You focus on one thing, and everything else from the day melts away.”

If you’re feeling stressed and anxious—or simply want to infuse more joy into your life, try creating something. “Before I started crocheting, I never knew that I could do some- thing like this—I couldn’t sew a button,” McHayle says. “So walk down the craft aisle, and if something pulls your attention, try it.” DW

SIDEBAR:

Let Your Creativity Loose
Not sure where to start? Check out these resources.

ONLINE CLASSES
Craftsy (craftsy.com) for knitting, crocheting,
quilting, cake decorating, jewelry making, and woodworking.
Skillshare (skillshare.com) for graphic design, photography,
and filmmaking.
New Masters Academy (nma.art) for painting, drawing, and digital art.

ART FOR WELLNESS
Art Therapy Credentials Board (atcb.org)
National Organization for Arts in Health (thenoah.net)

By KIMBERLY OLSON

 



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