Podcast: The Intersection of Mental Health & the Arts
Jenn talks to Leslie Chihuly and McLean Hospital’s Eriana Kirwin about the relationship between mental health and the arts. Leslie and Eriana highlight ways that creativity can benefit our mental state, share how to express ourselves in an emotionally helpful way, provide first-hand experience as to how art has been beneficial both for themselves and their loved ones, and answer questions on how we can all do our part to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.
Leslie Jackson Chihuly is an American arts executive and philanthropist with a focus on democratizing access to the arts and ensuring ongoing viability for artists and arts organizations. She is the president and chief executive officer of Chihuly Studio and Chihuly Workshop, both of which support the artistic vision of her husband and partner, Dale Chihuly. In 2018, Leslie was inducted into the College of Fine Arts Hall of Fame at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in recognition of her extraordinary achievements in the arts.
Eriana Kirwin, OTD, is an occupational therapist at McLean’s Pathways Academy. Pathways Academy is a year-round, therapeutic day school developed to meet the social, sensory, psychological, and educational needs of children and adolescents ages 6 through 22 with autism spectrum disorders.
Jenn: Welcome to Mindful Things.
The Mindful Things podcast is brought to you by the Deconstructing Stigma team at McLean Hospital. You can help us change attitudes about mental health by visiting deconstructingstigma.org. Now on to the show.
Hi folks. Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening to you and thank you for joining us today. Wherever you’re situated in the world and whatever time you’re joining us for our conversation about “The Intersection of Mental Health & the Arts.”
I’m Jenn Kearney, and I’m a digital communications manager for McLean Hospital. And I’m joined today by two phenomenal people. Leslie Jackson Chihuly and Eriana Kirwin.
And mental health and creative expression go together in many ways. Both can be your own personal preference, both speak to your personality, your interests, your values, both can be pretty often misunderstood by other people.
And unfortunately both still carry a pretty significant amount of stigma. Members of the art communities often vacillate between creating something that speaks to their soul and is art for themselves.
But a lot of folks use art because they want to be understood and heard by others. And they’re trying to use their creative work as a communication outlet. But a lot of people who are unfamiliar with the creative environment don’t understand it and even more so don’t necessarily understand how they themselves can benefit from it.
So these and so many more reasons are why I am really excited to be kicking off today’s session. And normally I do a small introduction of each person, but quite frankly, me rattling off a biography of either one of these women will not do either any justice.
So without further ado, I would love for each of you to introduce yourself and share a little bit of why the intersection of mental health and the creative arts is so important to you. And Leslie if you’d like to kick it off by all means, go for it.
Leslie: Thanks so much and first of all Jenn, I want to thank you for putting this together. And I want to thank McLean Hospital for the invitations and opportunities you’ve given me to share my story, deepen my own healing and my sense of purpose around this topic, because it’s so emotional for me.
I grew up in a home with substance abuse and mental illness and art and music literally saved my life. Being able to go into a room and play a piano for hours on end, being able to play a flute, being able to be part of a choir, being able to sing, being able to be with other people while doing those things literally saved my life.
So I feel so strongly that this idea of creative expression, the work that Dale and I both do in our lives, but also through organizations that we like to support is all about giving voice and giving a healing opportunity to people. Thank you.
Eriana: Yes and hi everyone. And thank you, Jenn. My name is Eriana Kirwin and I am so honored and excited to be here today. The subject of today’s webinar plays an important role in both my personal and professional life.
So I am an occupational therapist from McLean Hospital and I specifically work at a therapeutic day program under the McLean umbrella for children and adolescents. I also help teach mental health and pediatric courses at the MGH Institute. And I have a small private practice.
But prior to pursuing occupational therapy, I went to college for psychology and fine arts, specifically painting and life drawing. So earlier in life, I was on track to be a painter as a career until I fell in love with OT.
I do still paint and I find the habit a necessary ingredient in my own self-care and my own wellbeing. It also is a major influence and role how I treat the children and adolescents I work with every day.
Jenn: I know that both of you have creative backgrounds, but I’d love to hear a little bit about how each of you has seen a creative outlet, be a mentally therapeutic tool and an avenue for healing. And Leslie, I know that you talked a little bit about your upbringing, but I’d love to have you go first and then Eriana you can chime in.
Leslie: Well, I have just seen both in my own experience, how having an outlet for our pain, for our mental pain, for our anxiety is so key. And I’ve watched this work just transform other individuals when they are given the opportunity to come together around something like a glassblowing work.
We help support a program called the Hot Shop Heroes. And this is a program which involves glass blowing at the Museum of Glass for veterans who are recovering from trauma. And the teamwork, the kind of focus, the mental focus that’s required.
That element of danger that’s involved in hot glass, and being around the furnace has been just transformational for the people involved.
Eriana: And as so as an occupational therapist, I truly believe that creating something with your hands, a product that you’ve made, that you’ve built, that you’ve constructed, that process in itself is therapy and can be an important element to recovery or rehabilitation or general self-care and maintenance of our wellbeing.
Artistic engagement is a nonverbal form of expression, and it can help you tap into these areas of our emotional subconscious, that words or talk therapy can’t as easily get to.
But from a more personal experience, as art, as a venue for healing, I was raised by a single mom who experiences bipolar disorder, several addictions, some pretty severe phobias and some past traumas in her life.
And so as a child, I spent a lot of time with her in the local community theater. So I was often behind stage when she would perform and she would just shine out there. And the arts really provided her with a community where she was fully accepted as herself, and it provided her with a safe outlet.
And so to this day, movies and film and theater are passions of hers, and it brings so much positive energy into her life and our relationship together. We bond over going to the movies or talking about which ones we’ll see soon, or which ones we’ll watch that night.
It’s a huge part of her identity and how she manages daily life. And it’s a huge part of how we stay connected together.
Jenn: I can’t describe how impactful that is. And I know that as somebody who focuses in communication, I did a lot of journaling when I was younger and have tried to continue the practice now, but that was how I realized that I had pretty bad anxiety because I noticed a pattern in how I was writing.
And it didn’t seem, it didn’t seem right. Like it seemed like something was kind of off about it. And I realized after a while that was anxiety and that I actually needed to seek help for it. And it’s become something that has become so regulated over time that I didn’t realize just how impactful my own creativity would be in being able to work toward healing myself.
And then the next question Eriana is definitely more pointed toward you because there is a clinical aspect of it, but Leslie, please feel free to chime in as well. How exactly do creative practices regulate the nervous system?
Eriana: Yeah, that’s a great question because I don’t think we often think of the arts from a neurophysiological level, but our sensory systems are the foundational blocks of how our nervous system develops.
We start developing these core sensory systems in the womb as early as seven weeks gestation. And we immediately start collecting data on the world around us and even before we’re born.
So our bodies collect this data on our environment constantly, instantly, and without us ever really thinking about it. So, simply put our senses, send messages to our brain, to create a plan for how our body’s nervous system is going to react and interact with the world around us.
So when a person experiences, anxiety, depression, stress, worry, sadness, we feel these somatically through our senses. And when we experience the symptoms of trauma, we feel them in our nervous system through our bodily senses.
So sometimes our nervous system isn’t reacting in a functional way for us, it’s really causing some turmoil or disruption in our daily life. And past experiences can really mold and shape our neurology.
So maybe your fight or flight mechanisms or stress hormones aren’t turning off easily, or your motivation to participate in daily pleasurable sensory activities has significantly decreased.
I think about eating your favorite foods or taking a hot shower and listening to good music and enjoying classic films, engaging in the arts is a sensory rich experience that really engages that foundational need for our nervous system and our data collection system.
So it can begin to help our bodies regulate itself, both physiologically and emotionally. There’s a connection there. So the arts provide our nervous system with this safe, predictable, pleasurable data and research shows that multi-sensory activities, activities that engage several senses at once.
Like the arts can regulate our respiratory system, our stress hormone release, which is linked to anxiety and depression, our emotional regulation abilities, how we handle and process emotions, even cardiovascular reactivity and our immune system response.
So our sensory system, which is the base of our nervous system contributes to so much of who we are and how we behave and how we react to this world around us.
It ultimately shapes our identity of ourselves and what occupational choices we make and what we feel comfortable or uncomfortable doing and what we enjoy.
So on top of the many positive social and psychological responses, engaging in the sensory rich and sensory and positive arts physiologically regulates us and can organize our nervous system responses.
Jenn: And Leslie, I’m not sure if you wanted to chime in a little bit about your own personal experiences of seeing the creative practices regulating your own nervous system or the nervous systems of those you’ve cared about.
Leslie: Certainly, well I play the flute and I mentioned playing the piano. There’s something about the air, moving air through an instrument, touching the keys of an instrument.
And it could be as simple as, doing a rhythm on a table, you don’t have to play the flute or play the piano. You could just do something simply with your hands and repeat a mantra or a prayer or a favorite word and do some rhythm with your hands with it.
And I think when Eriana was speaking, I was thinking about this idea of re-patterning, by doing these things, we can kind of re-pattern the brain, get ourselves out of fight or flight, get our bodies and our nervous system, as you said, used to something different.
And I could really relate to the movies because my husband Dale’s answer to just about everything is either go to work and make art, or let’s watch a movie. And anything that’s going on with me where I’m feeling stressed. He said, well, let’s watch a movie.
So I think we watched two Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy movies together the other night, and he’s right. It really calms you down. And he’s not a big talker anyway, but there’s a way of communicating through, as you say, through film and through art, that’s really different.
And I mentioned in my own trauma that my husband also experienced pretty intense trauma as a teen he lost his brother in an Air Force training incident, and year later lost his father. And he started sort of going down a path of, misbehavior and kind of getting himself in trouble.
And he discovered architecture, glassblowing, drawing. And I think for him, he could feel terrible some days. I mean, he’s bipolar, he can be really down some days, but he can be really up at the end of the day.
There’s something to show for the pain and for the cycling, because he can make something out of it. And I think it’s incredibly reinforcing for us when we can make something out of our pain.
Jenn: My next question was going to be do either of you consider art therapy to be a viable option for folks struggling with their mental health. But to be totally honest, you’ve both completely answered that in your previous question. And it seems like a resounding yes.
So I’m actually just going to move right into my next question. Leslie so based on your experience, I would love to hear how you think that we can work toward de-stigmatizing the mental health status of artists.
I know not only are many people in the art communities grappling with conditions in silence, but I know that there’s been a lot of folks still hesitant to be really creatively, expressive out of concern for being air quote labeled. And Eriana you will also have the opportunity to answer this question.
Leslie: Well I think, I look at our own stories and how long it took for Dale and myself, to be able to say the words, let alone, say them publicly and share them with other people.
There was always this sort of dancing around it and people can tell the difference in your mood if you’re bipolar, whether you’re up or down, but they just use different language kind of indistinct language to describe what was going on.
And it’s a really powerful moment when Dale was willing to talk about his bipolar publicly. And when I began to talk about my own and my own family’s story publicly, that’s a different level of coming to terms and healing.
And I’m just so buoyed, right now, by how many people are coming out and speaking about their mental illness. And when I heard Simone Biles talk, or you hear Naomi Osaka, or you hear an actor or a painter or a doctor, one of my favorite people, Kay Jamison wrote a book about her own bipolar. And she’s a leading psychiatrist herself.
So there’s something really comforting to others when you can speak truthfully about your mood state and your struggles. And I think we are getting better at doing it. I think that is where the de-stigmatizing happens is just in the, doing it, talking about it, doing what we’re doing today.
Eriana: Yes. I totally agree Leslie. And I think additionally, to add, to trying to de-stigmatize this idea is also, it’s important to widen our lens of what art is and it’s not penniless painters and buskers on the street, and there’s a whole world of technology and graphic design and anime, and animation and film and theater.
And even my mind goes to music composition and deejaying. And I think of my grandmother and her flower arrangements and do it yourself projects at home and sewing, fashion textiles just to widen our lens of what constitutes the arts and realize that it lives all around us. And it’s what gives our life color and meaning. And it’s important to everyone.
Jenn: I think that’s a really poignant way of phrasing it. One of my colleagues at McLean, he has obsessive compulsive disorder and is very open about his diagnosis, but also runs a not for profit in which he works with people to draw out their anxieties and concerns.
And if you are interested, it’s called Draw Your Monster. And he personifies what people are the most worried and fearful about, and he helps turn them into like silly monsters. So when they’re personified, they’re not as scary.
And I feel like that avenue of him openly talking about his condition, as well as engaging other people and being more open about it and using art as an expressive outlet has just been really transformative in terms of working towards de-stigmatizing mental health, but also using art as a therapeutic form of talking about what’s ailing you.
So my next question Eriana, I would love to start with you is what advice do you have for individuals looking to explore the arts as a therapy form, but they’re unsure where to start?
And Leslie, you will have the opportunity to answer as well considering you have such a wide array of your own experience in the creative arts.
Eriana: Jenn, that’s such a great question. I think because it can be really daunting to start any new habit. So my mind goes to, exploring the limitless amount of modern day tools to get started.
There’s so many free YouTube tutorials or Bob Ross reruns or, something my art professor always said that if you’re stuck on an idea, copy art that already exists that you really like it doesn’t have to be original.
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel for the last few thousand years of art. And there’s a lot of ideas already out there.
If you find something that really you’re drawn to try and copy it, there’s also really beautiful Paint by Number kits now, especially ones that you can choose like a picture of your own pet and our pet can be a really huge source of inspiration.
And I guess on top of those ideas, something I personally do is I often will go to Savers or Goodwill and get framed art that already exists or canvases that have already been painted on and paint right over them. Find cheap furniture at Goodwill that could be refurbished.
There’s a lot of free things out there on the side of the road, or do it yourself projects around the house.
I mentioned even floral arrangements, cooking, homemade cards, the options are limitless, and it can be a personal outlet kind of reserved just for you and your private time, but it can also be a social experience that includes the support and love for others or from others too.
So, explore your community programs that are usually free or pretty cheap. Or classes around you if you have a hard time initiating on your own, the hardest part is just getting started.
So if you can get your supplies or actually schedule and set aside the time to dive in, I feel like that’s more than half the battle. It takes energy to burn energy and then energy in motion remains in motion.
So that, and try not to take yourself too seriously. Like we were saying, find the humor and the silliness in it, it doesn’t have to be a serious piece of art and humor can be a powerful tool in itself. So just try and keep it simple and just get started somewhere.
Leslie: I love that Eriana, I think ditto to everything you said and all of the incredible resources that are so easily accessible now, whether it’s online or in the community, but also I’m thinking about movement, dance, ways to loosen yourself up and get yourself into a state of mind where maybe you could do a piece of writing or paint.
Now put on a great piece of music and just dance. Do some movement, do some yoga, do some good breathing to get yourself kind of over the hump. And I agree, we take the capital A out of artists, put a little a in there. We’re all, we can all be artistic, we can all be creative.
We’re all drawn to different things, but the key is that getting your hands, getting your body into it and doing that. That regulating that happens through your breathing and through that mindfulness that happens when you’re focused on something new.
Jenn: Leslie you’ve teed me up beautifully for my next question. I did want to hear from both of you, I will start with Eriana. In what ways clinically or personally, have you seen art be a practice of mindfulness?
I know a lot of times mindfulness, especially in this day and age has become meditation apps and coloring books. And that tends to be what a lot of folks that get marketed toward them. But how have you seen art be a practice of mindfulness in your own life?
Eriana: Again, that’s a great question. I think the word mindfulness like you’ve said is a word that’s been dragged through the mud a little bit the past few years and has a lot of preconceived ideas about it.
I even, you know, I work with children and adolescents and the second you say that word, their eyes glaze over. It’s been said a lot without a lot of real deep understanding of what the different ways that you can practice it and what it might look like.
So the process of engaging in the arts by default can be a practice in mindfulness because it pulls the creator into the moment and forces you to be present with what you’re doing.
Mindfulness does not have to be meditating on the floor every morning. It can be ingrained in your daily activities.
So being present and being clear minded allows your body and mind to experience the sensory pleasures that the world is offering you, whether that’s being mindful while you eat a good meal or being mindful while you take a warm shower or being fully immersed in a craft or an art project or a movement, this engagement allows us to be fully present and intentional and feel fully in control of our sensory experience.
And it can be very powerful to feel present and in control of a moment, which in itself is a practice in mindfulness.
Leslie: I love your new definitions of mindfulness because I agree, when I hear the word, I think while I sort of, I think I know what it is, but it has been bandied around so much.
But coming back to the idea of being present, being something that is so immersive that you can’t be doing other things or thinking about other things while you’re doing it, I feel that when I’m skiing, for example, there’s danger involved.
So I can’t be distracted when I’m skiing down a slippery, icy slope, I’ve got to be completely present and completely focused. And so that to me is kind of an extreme version of what that is for me.
But kind of on the daily basis it’s like you say, making time, setting time aside in your calendar to journal, as you were saying, Jenn.
And I started doing that at the beginning of the pandemic and I just set up a time each day to do some journaling and I hadn’t done it in a long time and I need to get back to it, but it helped me just be present with what I’m feeling.
And because I had to sort of take a spiritual inventory when I sat down to do that.
Jenn: I think that’s great. I joke with my partner when I’m writing or if I’m like repainting a bedroom or something that I’m like, I’m putting the art in cathartic. Let me do my thing.
I’d love to hear from both of you in which, in what ways being creative has been a source of self-care for you. And I know we’ve touched upon this a little bit, but just working toward redefining what self-care is.
Because again, in this day and age, it’s a lot of bubble baths and face masks, and we all know that that is really not what self-care is. And Leslie, if you’d like to start by answering, I’d love to hear from you first.
Leslie: You know, for me, I’m such a doer and I’m a producer and I run our business and I sit on a lot of boards. So for me, it is a symbol of self-care.
When I take time out to do something, that’s really just about me and my art, whether it’s taking a flute lesson or practicing or trying to pick up a new instrument or something like that, because those are the things I will often push to the side because I’m so busy, kind of taking care of others.
So when you’re a caregiver to organizations or to a family, for me, it’s been really important to kind of switch the table and start thinking about, well what would that look like for me to really express myself creatively? What are some of my dreams?
And I get scared thinking about it because I would love to be a DJ for example, there are certain things that I would love to do and try. But that self-care kind of happens when you focus time for yourself, just to do your creative work.
Eriana: Yeah, additionally I see my time to paint as a place to be mindful and intentional, but also to work through a hard day or a difficult emotion. I see it as one of my more healthy addictions. It’s as addictive as running or exercising. It’s a coping skill and it’s a healthy one.
So it’s consistently available to me. It’s self-reliant. It’s on my time and no one else’s and it’s non-verbal which I know, I’ve heard a few say today, I’m not much of a talker in terms of my own self as well.
So it has really become, I can feel it in my body when I haven’t painted in a while and it becomes obvious. And my body recognizes that as a pattern now, so that I can feel a release even the second I start painting. It’s become ingrained in a part of my self-care.
Jenn: I think that’s amazing. I’m curious Eriana and Leslie, please also feel free to weigh in, but do you have any advice for folks that are looking to explore the arts, but have a hard time with not being good at things?
A lot of times, kids are a little bit more fearless when it comes to this stuff, but many adults who either have clinical anxiety or just are a little bit more anxious people have a hard time trying things out of fear of embarrassment, failure, or even being mocked by their peers.
Eriana: Yeah. It’s a really good point. I think we have, you know, art can be so subjective, but at the same time, make us feel so vulnerable. I think an important note is that you don’t need to be making refrigerator art.
The expectation shouldn’t be to create something that you’re going to be super proud of and you want to hang in your house. I mean, if that does happen that’s wonderful, but the process is the therapy, not the product.
So my suggestion to get started, if you’re worried about the outcome of the art experience, then create something and throw it away, give it away, donate it to goodwill, rip it up, safely burn it, paint over it, paint over it again and again and again, but do create it and keep creating it.
It makes me think of artists like Picasso or Van Gogh where they’ve new x-ray technology has found paintings under paintings, under paintings. And it’s more important to create than to preserve the focus is really on the process, not the product.
Leslie: Just thinking that it starts with the self-talk, you do the self-talk, I’m not good enough. I don’t want to show people this they’re much more talented than I am.
If you can just put that to the side and really commit to the fact that this is for you, this is your time, this is your energy, this is your outcome. It’s not performative really for others.
It doesn’t need to be, like you say, if it’s great at the end of it, and you love it and you want to put it on her refrigerator or send it to a friend, you can, but think about it as just being for you.
Jenn: So I’m curious, we’ve had folks write in who have art backgrounds and have a really hard time with being what they’ve called, air quote, ugly artists.
So do either one of you have any thoughts or advice about letting go of their inner critic and the process of making art, or instead of trying to block out the sound, how do we talk back to our inner critic to make it a little bit less critical?
And Eriana, I’m not sure if you’d want to start answering, you may have a little bit more clinical experience with this, but I’d love to hear from both of you.
Eriana: And my mind goes to you walk through a museum and there’s all types of ugly art that you see where people just adore it. It’s, art is so subjective. And so while we have this inner critic, think, there also lives inside of you an inner coach that lives somewhere in you too.
So, the devil and the angel on your shoulders type of deal. So I guess while, politely pay attention to whatever feelings you’re having, try and find a way to funnel that and use that emotion to create something.
And you might be surprised with the outcome, even essentially how you feel as the outcome too.
Leslie: I just agree with you, Eriana, that it’s about that self-talk. I love the idea of the coach, versus the critic and just getting yourself over the hump, realizing that it is for you. It’s not for anybody else.
And you get to take the pleasure in it and you get to decide when to do it. You get to decide how and if to share it. And it’s very empowering that way.
Jenn: Do either one of you have advice for when others minimize the effect of what we’re creating? Someone wrote in saying that they quilt and embroider and that one of their close friends, just whenever they show their work to them really doesn’t see what air quote, the big deal is.
And Eriana, you might have a little bit more experience in this based on what your patients are saying. But again, would love to hear from both of you. Any advice for this person?
Eriana: Well, my immediate reaction is that’s not very nice. You don’t have to show your art to someone who’s not giving you that support and love.
Again, it’s the creation process that matters. And if it means something to you and that really all is all that matters, maybe they’re just a little jealous of your skills. But I mean, in all seriousness, my suggestion would be, again, that inner coach versus inner critic.
Try not to let it get under your skin ,and which wolf are you going to feed that day? The inner critic or the inner coach. So just try and feed that inner coach a little more.
Leslie: I would say, that’s their problem. I would really reconsider the relationship if that were somebody that I was friends with because that’s unkind and you’re putting something out there, you’re vulnerable.
You’re making your quilts, you enjoy the process. It’s really their problem if they don’t appreciate it.
Jenn: And it’s also, it’s an investment in yourself. So just because you’re investing something in yourself, doesn’t mean that you need to invest that time or communication in anybody else who may not necessarily understand it.
Out of curiosity, could each of you talk a little bit about arts usefulness in building perseverance?
So based on both of your backgrounds and previous conversations that the three of us have had, I know that you both have experience in this, but Leslie, if you’d like to answer first, that would be amazing.
Leslie: I think of it as, art making or creative expression or being a musician or being a writer is all about developing a practice. So practice in itself means you’re going to come back to it.
You’re going to keep coming back to it every day or every week or every year. It’s going to be that little voice that says, hey, you’re really a writer, you’re really a quilt maker. You’ve got to get back to that.
Or we talked to Eriana earlier, you’ve got to get back to your painting. So it creates this perseverance and resilience just by nature of the fact that you’ve got to come back to it.
Eriana: Yes. I love that Leslie. We’ve talked about patterns a few times today and recognizing patterns and our brain seeks patterns and it recognizes comforts and it recognizes stressors based on our memory, based on experience.
So if you could start to help your body associate that artistic expression as a positive, safe, valuable experience, then it will become a recognizable comfort.
And we’re very adaptable creatures and in my mind, adaptation skills are essentially coping skills for our modern world. And our senses are tools for the toolbox for learning new coping skills.
So the arts gives your senses, this nutrients that it needs, art food for your toolbox of perseverance.
Jenn: I love that. I love art food. I just love food, but I love art food. I’m curious if either of you have suggestions for artistic outlets for young adults with cognitive disabilities.
And Eriana, if you’d like to answer first from the clinical or personal perspective, that would be awesome.
Eriana: Absolutely, a lot of my students that I work with experience cognitive delays or deficits, and especially in the world of maybe executive functioning and knowing where, but I think that’s the beauty of art in itself, is there is no start and end.
There is no right or wrong way to do something. And if you’re focusing on the sensory experience itself, getting your hands messy, moving your body, getting some expression out, then that really is the goal versus focusing again on the product that comes out of it.
I even, the other day started working with some movement, I’m doing boxing with music and just to see, something that might not even be labeled as art traditionally, to see the outcome of a kid, just get that expression out.
So really just, it’s kind of reframing the goal of not creating something necessarily, but engaging in the expression of it and making it look different. So it doesn’t have to be that traditional lens of what art is.
It can be something that’s really tailored to their likes that they might not even realize that they’re engaging in something so profound or expressive.
You might just, you know, when you work with kids, especially one of the child’s occupations is play and play is a really important element and I think adults too, but especially in a kid’s life. So if we can also make it more playful and be a play experience, I think that could go a long way as well.
Leslie: I love the idea of play. I think that is key. And I think, we’re all different kinds of learners. We all have different kinds of brains. Some are going to benefit much more from music and movement, or like you said, rhythm, just simple rhythm to sort of reset the brain can be very powerful.
Listening to a beautiful piece of music and really listening can really help sort of reset the brain. Other people might do things repetitively, you see, Kusama’s art and you see all those dots. This is an artist who lives in a mental institution in Japan, but she has used art and repetition as a way of expressing, herself.
Jenn: And I feel like art in addition to allowing folks to be meditative and playful and present and work through things, it can also help you get a little bit lost in yourself and help you rediscover yourself.
Do either one of you have any thoughts or experience on this rediscovery path? And Leslie, if you would like to start first by all means.
Leslie: Okay. What was the first part of the question again?
Jenn: In art, in addition to allowing you to be playful and mindful and present and working through your challenges can help you get lost in yourself and/or rediscover yourself. Do you have any experiences or opinions on this journey of rediscovery?
Leslie: Well, I love, that moment of feeling lost in myself or lost in the moment or completely, focused on something.
And I think for me, it sort of comes back to music and you could be a trained musician and be used to reading off the page, but what’s really fun for me sometimes it’s just to let myself play without a piece of music in front of me and just see where my fingers go. I think that can be inspiring.
Eriana: Absolutely, and some of the kids I work with, I think they label themselves as I’m not creative or I’m not artistic. And giving them again, the venues of how it might look different or feel different, and it doesn’t always have to be this traditional view of what art is, can really go a long way.
Just the other day, I was working with a student who really likes scary movies, and he’s never touched a piano, but just trying to figure out how to play scary music on a piano. He got so immersed in it. And again, you can see he got lost in the process.
And I think when we come out of that experience, it can feel very relieving and kind of like a weight off of us. We might not even realize how many different activities are available to us that could provide us with that type of feeling.
Jenn: Out of curiosity, and this can be answered by both of you. Leslie, as you are a parent, and Eriana is soon to be a parent. How do you encourage, rather than demand a child to engage in art?
And from a personal standpoint, I would love to hear this as someone who begrudgingly did things, ‘cause my mother told me to, sorry, mom, but Eriana, if you would like to go first, I think this is information we could all really benefit from.
Eriana: A big part is the flexibility in your plan. I think it’s important to let kids get messy. And if that means the space that they’re in gets messy too, we have to be flexible with that idea. If we’re having a cooking activity or an art activity with materials, just allowing the space to get as messy as it’s going to get.
I think that’s one thing that parents can feel a little rigid about is, letting either their child get their clothes ruined or letting the space become a disaster. But I think that is an important sensory part of the experience.
So it’s a small little piece of advice, but if we could be flexible about letting kids be messy, I think that’s an important part of the art experience.
Leslie: Sometimes you have a kid like ours. He’s a young man now who, from a very early age was just very perfectionistic about what he was doing.
So he would start a drawing and if it didn’t match what he had in his head, he would just rip it up. I remember seeing this trash basket full of, hundreds of pieces of paper because it just wasn’t living up to what he had in his head. I encouraged him to play music.
I just wanted him to have an instrument and have music in his life. So really worked at that for a long time with both piano and guitar, but he would feel so badly about himself if he hadn’t practiced that when the teacher would come, he would want to run to the other end of the house and not take the lesson.
So, I mean, these are tough things because, some kids are just born with these kinds of, difficult perfectionistic qualities. So I love the idea of getting messy, but he’s a neatnik, he never really let his face get messy.
And I don’t know if that really was my fault or something I did, or if it’s just something in him. My husband on the other hand has no problem being messy, spraying paint all over the place, trying new things.
I love that about him because he doesn’t care if the paint’s all over his clothes or his shoes. In fact, he prefers it that way.
So I think just, we’re all a little different in the way that we, find the path into art. My son now is more into photography that sort of seems to suit his type of brain, maybe a little better.
Jenn: Out of curiosity, do either of you have any knowledge about how art can help folks who are incarcerated and certainly either one of you can feel free to answer this? I’m not familiar with how much either one of you may know about it.
Leslie: I just imagine that, whether you’re incarcerated or you’re suffering from any other kind of trauma or mental illness, that you’ve got time.
If you are incarcerated, you probably have time to read, to write, to listen, I don’t know what the access would be to music, but certainly I don’t know what tools or whether you can have pens or pencils.
So I really I’m not too familiar, but I would imagine that they’d be super helpful.
Eriana: Similarly, I’m not too familiar, I do believe that we don’t do enough to help the incarcerated populations prepare for when they leave and feel ready to and stable to be on their own and be ingrained back into their communities.
Again, the art world can be such a strong coping skill. And I think as much as we can help people who are incarcerated, prepare for the transition, the better. And again, I don’t think we do enough. So any level of coping and expression that we can provide a person, the better.
Jenn: We had somebody write in, who asked about having any tips for folks with OCD, that experience anxiety, stress, and perfectionism when engaging in creative activities.
And Leslie, if you would like to answer first, I know you had just alluded to the fact that your son has a perfectionist streak in him. And then Eriana, if you’d like to follow up with some clinical advice, that would be terrific.
Leslie: Well, I just think you’ve got to find the media and the medium that sort of suits your kind of brain. And I think, we can be really flexible to try a lot of different sorts of things, but the important thing is just to keep trying, keep exploring that.
Eriana: Yeah, I agree. And I think the medium choice is such a huge role, especially for someone who might be a perfectionist or be focusing more on the product or the outcome.
It makes my mind goes to expressive arts that are more physical or don’t necessarily have a product at the end of it. It’s more about focusing on the moment and what you’re doing that, and it doesn’t have this end product necessarily, except for the feeling.
Jenn: So someone wrote in saying, while I appreciate the value of celebrities sharing their mental health challenges, I don’t feel like there’s much societal process and accepting and addressing of the challenges that non-famous people are encountering.
Do either of you have advice or thoughts on how the arts can address this? And Leslie, since I know that you are so heavily immersed in the arts, I’d love for you to start answering.
Leslie: Yeah I just, you know, every organization that I’m involved with, whether it’s the Pilchuck Glass School or Path with Art or Museum of Glass, it’s so much of the focus now is on, providing access to art experiences to people who are suffering from trauma, from mental illness, homelessness, et cetera.
So while I agree that the celebrity broadcasting of mental illness is not the most helpful thing, it does serve as a sort of a lift off point for conversation. I think the more we can get into conversation, the more our organizations begin to get focused on that as a need.
And I think there’s been a shift in organizations thinking about how to work with people around the creative and in the arts. So Path with Art for example, is one of the organizations that I’m really involved with.
And I first came to know of them because of a project, a partnering project they did with the Symphony.
And there was a group of about 15 people, recovering from trauma and homelessness and addiction who worked with a local artist to make their own instruments and ultimately to write a piece and to perform it, in the living room of the Symphony.
So it’s sort of elevating the stories of the people that live in the streets of our cities and really bringing that forward and talking to people and being willing to give a voice, give a place for those stories to be told.
Eriana: Beautifully worded Leslie, I don’t have much extra to add just that the more platforms that we can have in our world for open dialogue about mental health, the better so while not everyone’s life is parallel to a celebrity’s, it still is providing even mini platforms for people to start talking and reaching out to their communities.
Jenn: Exactly, could not have said that better myself between the two of you. Eriana the next question is directed basically toward you.
Are there particular instances where you might use art as an intervention in the clinical setting? And if so, how do you recognize somebody as being open to art therapy as an intervention?
Eriana: Yeah, absolutely. So I see it more as an occupational therapist in my setting.
I see it more of a sensory experience or that sensory integration and processing activities and how I set that up and how I implement that is really based on everyone has a very individual sensory profile.
So we do have standardized assessments that kind of give the foundation for where to start, but I see it more as setting up a sensory experience.
And so whether that be something to get your hands messy, something to move your body, thinking about tapping into that multisensory experience of all those senses. I look at it in the lens of creating a positive and safe sensory experience, more so than creating an art therapy experience.
Jenn: Out of curiosity, is there any form of art expression that should be cause for concern? Eriana I feel like this is a question directed more toward you as well, but if our child or loved one is creating things that are erring on the side of sad or morbid, should we have a conversation about their mental wellbeing?
Eriana: I think that it’s a really great outlet for sad and deep, emotional hard feelings. And so like I personally, I love sad music. It’s something I go to because it feels like an expression for me too.
I wouldn’t be alarmed unless there’s something that implies self-harm or something dangerous for them or someone around them, in which case, you know that you could bring that to their providers or have a conversation with them about it.
But in terms of creating art or creating something, that’s just generally sad. I think that’s a really great outlet for them.
Jenn: I know for my own experience, when I am feeling particularly anxious and it’s a way for me to work through that and ultimately feel better in the end.
My writing is sad. It is a little despondent at times, but I know that it’s something that I’m just working through and that’s my form of expression to get through to the other side and have a smile on my face and actually mean it.
The next question I’d love to start with you, Leslie, is how can we turn art into a social activity rather than a solo or isolating activity?
Leslie: I love that because the myth of the artist toiling away, you know, in the studio alone, there are people who like to work alone and can sustain long periods of working alone and that suits and fulfills them.
But for a lot of us, we need the stimulation of being either part of a team or part of a group. And Dale for example is that person, he gets energy from being with the team and trying things in the glass shop, same thing when he’s painting, there’s a symbiotic, energetic kind of exchange going on that that is more creative for him.
And for me, I think playing music together with people playing duets with my flute teacher feels so great. It’s so different. This is sort of like the ice cream for all the work you do when you’re practicing on your own, which you do need to do.
But I love the idea of coming together around movement, coming together around making music, even coming together.
You’ve probably seen some of these events where, you put the headphones on and everybody’s sort of in their own world, but there everybody’s in the room dancing together.
It’s just so incredible. Just transcendent. So I think you get to a transcendent place when you can do things in a group sometimes.
Jenn: And then Eriana, any thoughts about ways to turn art into a social activity over a solo one?
Eriana: Yeah Leslie, really nailed it on the head that art can be such a personal experience for you, but don’t forget that you have options to be supported in your community around other people who have similar interests and similar motivations.
And so like earlier I gave the example of community theater or classes in your community, or even just getting a group of friends together for a paint night. It can be really satisfying and valuable to have other people involved in your process too.
Jenn: And I know that we are creeping up at the end of our time together. I’d love for each of you to have the opportunity to share any last words of wisdom with folks tuning in? Eriana, if you’d like to go first and then Leslie, after you.
Eriana: Yes thank you for having me today. Go create. Get started somewhere and keep trial and erroring and ripping up and throwing away and creating again and just get started somewhere.
Leslie: Thank you guys so much for doing this. I’ve learned so much getting to know Eriana a little bit through this, and Jenn your questions are profoundly good and challenging and I really appreciate that.
And likewise, we all have a certain amount of time on this earth and we get to use it to connect, to heal, to tell our stories. And you know, there’s no time like the present to get going with it.
I think, if we could all come back to the same group in another couple of weeks or a month, it would be fun to hear from everybody. What did you try? What did you put on the line since we had this discussion?
And likewise for myself, I’m going to recommit to my journaling. I’m going to recommit to playing my music. I’m going to recommit to continuing to share my story, even though it’s scary sometimes.
Jenn: Absolutely, I cannot tell you how anxious I got talking about my own anxiety on here, but it’s something that’s important. We have an infinite amount of opportunities, but we only have a finite amount of time.
And I think that that’s a really valuable way to say, go out there and make the most of it and create in a way that speaks to your soul. And you’re going to find people who gravitate toward you if you’re speaking to their soul as well. I know we’ve crept just over the hour.
So this actually concludes the session. I joke that I can’t believe that this is my job because I get pinch me moments. This was a pinch me hour.
So Eriana and Leslie, I cannot thank the two of you enough for all of the insight that you’ve provided with everyone today, and to everybody tuning in this actually concludes the session.
So until next time, be nice to one another, but most importantly, be nice to yourself. Eriana and Leslie, thank you so much again and take care.
Leslie: Thank you.
Jenn: Thanks for tuning in to Mindful Things! Please subscribe to us and rate us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673.
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The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.
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