The Mental Magic of Art

New year, New You and all that…but instead of a detox, a diet or the gym, our writer, Rachael Lindsay, has vowed to relax more in 2017. Can art help?

I’m going to go out there and say it right now: I’m not usually the sort of person who would use art to chill out. I like art because it tells a story, because it’s inspiring, because it’s challenging, because it poses questions and not because it helps me de-stress.

For example, I find artist Lucy Sparrow’s felt sculptures of erotic emporiums and items commonly nicked from supermarkets so brilliant precisely because they aren’t relaxing. Underlying the felt lobsters and stitched baked bean tins is a subtle commentary on our society, our obsessions, what brings us together and what breaks us down, and Lucy gets all this across in a playful, absurdly beautiful way.  The whole thing is strange and slightly uncomfortable and that’s one of my favourite things about art, the way it can unsettle us and make us think.


Lucy Sparrow’s fascinating felt art at the Lawrence Akin Gallery

For me, de-stressing mentally is all about watching Planet Earth II in bed surrounded by candles or going for a long run to release some endorphins then having a steaming bath before bed – I’m not the type to peace out in front of a still life and I’m certainly not the type to create art myself.

And yet, we humans have been using art to heal and relax ever since we gathered into communities – and surely these qualities of art are more important than ever right now with mental health problems on the up and our lives busier and more stressful than ever.

So, I decide to use myself as a guinea-pig to see if appreciating or creating art can help us to relax, and whether the relaxing qualities of art are any better than vegging out in front of Netflix. After a particularly stressful few weeks, I head out into the world and try three ways of using art to relax:

1. Sitting in a busy coffee shop on a Monday afternoon after a long day at work, I put away my laptop and phone, and spend five minutes filling the blank space on  a white A4 sheet of paper. I try not to worry too much about what I am drawing or the quality of my creation or the amused glances of those around me. I just draw.

2. Feeling awkward and nervous, I attend a life painting class. I am initially embarrassed both by how bad my painting will inevitably be and by how naked the man sitting across from me is. In fact, I would describe the start of the class as the very opposite of relaxing. But then I start focussing on how to achieve that slight arch in the lower back, on how to convey that slightly mournful look on his face, on how to mix the paints to get the varying skin tone as right as I can.

3. I head off to an art exhibition on my own on a rainy Saturday afternoon. I try not to worry about the artists’ life, their body of work, how this art fits into such and such genre, instead focussing on how the art makes me feel. I stand in front of each piece of art longer than I usually would, appreciating its detail, reflecting on it.


A little life drawing

So how do I feel after my foray into relaxing art? Well, although there’s no epiphany or grand realization that art is the solution to all my problems,  I cannot deny its de-stressing effect. Whether creating or appreciating art, I leave with a clearer mind.

Apparently we have 95% of the same thoughts everyday, many of which will be inevitably negative, and art provides a clear break from these usual thoughts, allowing us to zone in on the environment around us, to reflect and focus on detail. Even challenging, uncomfortable art like Lucy Sparrow’s has its place in allowing our mind to escape its usual circle of thoughts for a while, simply by making us think of something else.

And there is also evidence to suggest that creating art increases the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter, dopamine, and thus decreases our chances of depression, because we are creating and achieving something purely for ourselves. I enjoyed doodling and painting so much more when I stopped worrying about what others would think. We millennials are too often judging ourselves on the quality of what we do, we think that if we aren’t good at something then it isn’t worth bothering. But if creating art eases that tension in our stomach, focuses our mind on something other than the head-spinning length of our to-do list or helps us express our anger in a positive way after a horrible break up then the quality of our creation really doesn’t matter at all.

In our modern world of stress, anxiety and pressure to be productive, art might just have an important place in easing mental stress.

Although I will continue to listen to David Attenborough’s soothing nature documentaries to relax and switch off of an evening, I am now convinced by the therapeutic and long-term benefits of both creating and appreciating art. And yes, I have been back to the life drawing class, purely to relax of course…