Art and Wellbeing: How to Harness the Healing Benefits of the Arts

Day, Hannah Parkes – RBSA Prize Exhibition 2020

Exploring the positive correlation between the arts and wellbeing, writer and teacher Courtney Geering, shares tips on how you can stay engaged during lockdown.

Throughout history, all forms of art have been well respected as a powerful tool for both inner and outer wellbeing. In ancient times, hunter gatherer cultures used music and dance – evolving with time to include pictures, stories and costumes – as sacred forms of medicine. They believed that by fully immersing oneself into artistic expression, each individual has the ability to access their inner healing spirit.

A 2010 review entitled “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature” assessed how the healing benefits of creative expression have been harnessed in both clinical and informal practice to promote wellness – specifically the health effects of music, visual arts therapy, movement-based creative expression, and expressive writing. The review concludes that despite being a relatively new area of formal research, it is undeniable that engagement with the arts can have a significant effect on physical and mental wellbeing. 

Mindfulness and the Arts 

Creating art in all forms is a naturally mindful practice, allowing the subject to focus solely on the task in hand, therefore creating a natural environment for calmness of mind, focus and flow. This replicates the same principles as meditation, regardless of any prior meditative knowledge or experience. A somewhat recent concept of art based therapy is to combine this innate mindfulness of creating with mindful meditation practice – awareness of the breath, the body, thoughts and emotions – allowing the therapeutic benefits of creative activities to be reaped even further. This is known as Mindfulness Based Art Therapy (MBAT) and was first formally introduced in 2009 by psychologist and writer Laury Rappaport in her book “Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies.”  

Whilst we currently find ourselves in a limbo state of isolation and freedom due to the global crisis of Covid-19, it can feel daunting to suddenly have somewhat perfect conditions – more free time and solitude – for delving into creative activities. Daunting because there appears to be a universal, almost performative pressure to be productive during lockdown, when we should equally, if not more so, be taking a backseat on productivity and taking advantage of this opportunity for rest and self reflection. But engaging with creative tasks does not have to be focussed on the end result, and using techniques such as MBAT allows us to connect fully with the process rather than feeling pressure for a successful end result. Creativity and productivity do not go hand in hand, and by prioritising process over product we relieve ourselves of responsibility and fully tap into the healing benefits of expressiveness. 

Focussing more on the process of creating is known as Process Art, and this is widely used in schools to promote creativity and expressiveness amongst children. Inspiration can be taken from this for anyone who is intimidated by art and unsure of where to start; interact with your inner child and shake off the pressure of creating a masterpiece, replacing it with a curiosity for the movement and expression of the activity itself. Process art can still end up with an impressive outcome, but that is not the point. Some examples of mindful art activities could be collaging with old magazines, copying a famous painting on a smaller scale, blind drawing and drawing the same object with different mediums. There is an abundance of ideas online and a lack of experience or mediums does not hinder this process in any way. All you need is an openness and willingness to trust the process and disconnect from the end result.

Engaging with Artists 

RBSA Gallery

Not only personal creative efforts can have an impact on relaxation and peace of mind, but observing the creativity of others can also open pathways to emotional healing. This can be done by visiting galleries and having close encounters with visual art in a calming and relaxed environment, reducing stress and anxiety and inspiring a sense of purpose and identity. Galleries offer us space to reflect and connect with the world around us, disconnecting from the pressures of daily life and reminding us of the curiosity of the human spirit. 

Due to the unsteady times, galleries are now exploring new alternatives for their visitors by replicating the gallery experience from a distance. Online exhibitions are becoming more standardised and accessible to the public, allowing people to experience and interact with visual art from their homes. Other ways to engage from home can be through social media platforms – exploring artists’ work and communicating with others with shared interests, as well as seeking out further information and exploring art movements and history.      

Understanding the relationship between creative expression and wellbeing should encourage us to engage in the arts in any of its facets, where we can both physically and emotionally reap the benefits by starting a dialogue with our inner selves and finding our reservoir of healing.

By Courtney Geering, Barcelona-based writer and teacher

About Us

The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) is an artist-led charity which supports artists and promotes engagement with the visual arts through a range of exhibitions, events and workshops.

The RBSA runs an exhibition venue, the RBSA Gallery, in Birmingham’s historic Jewellery Quarter, a short walk from the city centre.

The gallery is open from 10.30am – 5pm on Tuesday – Saturday. Admission is free.

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