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Art as an Antidote to Uncertainty and Isolation

Writing by Emma Lake. Illustration from Rattlecap Painting Session.

2020 was a year characterised by uncertainty and isolation, feelings which many hoped would be left behind or magically erased at the stroke of midnight at the beginning of a new year. However, the hope of new beginnings; imagining visiting family and friends, going to galleries, dancing the night away at Sneaky Pete’s, or simply going for a drink with friends, has been put on pause. Spring seems far off and though the snow has brought a light relief through socially distanced snowball fights, many a winter wonderland walk in Holyrood Park and the simple joy of a hot chocolate in the meadows – winter remains to be a difficult time of year for many who struggle with their mental health. The shorter days, colder temperatures, looming deadlines and crippling sense of isolation is a trigger for many people’s anxiety which may lead to periods of depression. Therefore, it is important during this period to surround ourselves with positively impactful activities and many have turned to the arts to find comfort.

The arts can offer a moment of respite from the claustrophobic, stressful and unpredictable nature of lockdown living. As quoted by David Burke, Chief Executive Designate of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, ‘The arts by their nature are designed to make you think and feel. They create a moment for us to pause and engage in an emotional journey.’[1] Navigating the lockdown has been an ‘emotional journey’ for many, to say the least. The arts provide a space for us to momentarily pause and contemplate this journey, recognising how far we have come and questioning what it is exactly that we need in this moment to support ourselves through this difficult period.

A UK study reported that out of 70,000 respondents (all adults living in the UK), 1/5 of them engaged in the arts more during the lockdown than they had done previously.[2] Moreover, The Office of National Statistics reported in July that during the March lockdown depression amongst adults had doubled and 42% of young people reported a deterioration in their mental health.[3] These statistics only stand to emphasise the importance of finding creative outlets in order to cultivate an environment of safety, comfort and connection during this period of isolation. As the outside world is riddled with uncertainty, it has become a matter of precedence to cultivate a grounded sense of self-assurance in your own mind and internal-being through self-directed wellbeing practices. Creative practices can be used to build a capacity to manage one’s mental and emotional wellbeing, as the arts provide a catalyst for a cognitive focus to relieve from daily stress. Through the arts one can learn to shift from two spaces in a mindful effort to reap the physiological benefits in making the conscious cognitive shift between work and creative play/practice in our daily routines. Take a moment to sit mindfully and focus on the creative task before you. It is once you sit down and pick up a pencil, a paintbrush, your knitting needles, or a musical instrument, that one is able to set the world momentarily aside and clear their mind of the day’s worries.

Preceding the lockdown in March, the arts provided a space of escapism. A visit to the theatre could transport you to any place or time, and galleries provided windows into which one could peer past the frame and optically step into the calming rural scenes of Cezanne or Rothko’s fields of colour – far from the stress of the everyday. Moreover, the arts paradoxically provided a forum for sociability. The theatre was not only a portal to escape into a landscape of storytelling, it was also a place to gather with friends and family. The theatre was an event to plan and look forward to, possibly to be followed by a shared-recount of the production over a large glass of wine at a close-by bar. Galleries created a space to find inspiration in the creations of others, quietly taking a moment to appreciate the tranquillity of Monet - leaving the rush and chaos of deadlines and worries at the door. Finally, an event that once characterised the student scene but has since not been seen since last March is the opportunity to dance all together as one large crowd. The swell of bodies around you and the throb of bass expelling any feelings of worry lingering from the day is a feeling that will not be soon taken for granted. However, these sociable and therapeutic spaces provided by the arts; theatres, galleries, museums, clubs, music venues – have rallied and continue to benefit many through online platforms! For example, Summerhall in Edinburgh has been providing art lessons via Zoom, such as life drawing. Moreover, institutions like The National Theatre have been broadcasting online productions and Tate has been conducting exhibition tours around their closed gallery spaces. ‘Tate Late’ has also become a popular platform for lectures and live streamed performances – a phenomenon started in early lockdown as celebrities live streamed concerts from their homes. Furthermore, many have independently embraced creative activities! Knitting has now become the new ‘in vogue’ lockdown pastime and mindfulness is at the forefront of socially distanced conversations between friends.

The arts can help many people who are grappling with their mental health as they provide a site of connection and sociability. An example of this is the phenomenon of windows suddenly becoming impromptu gallery spaces, as rainbows and words of support decorate them. The simple act of picking up a colouring pencil, putting it to paper and placing a rainbow up in the window has become a national symbol of optimism. We are all connected through art, and not by the work of a great artist but the artwork centred in the community drawn by local children and families. Artists and institutions have since embraced the potential of cultivating hope through the arts. An example of this is David Hockney’s artwork entitled ‘Do remember they can’t cancel the spring’, a picture of daffodils drawn on his iPad to signal hope for the end of this covid season. Moreover, Dr Sally Marlow, an academic at King’s College London, states how ‘Experiencing the art of others can speak to us and connect us to the wider world, and to our fellow human beings. They can also help us access difficult feelings and find a way to recognise and process those.’[4] The exhibition ‘Let’s Talk’ by Charlie Clift, resonates with this notion of sociability and connectivity through the arts, exploring how the simple act of looking and engaging with someone else’s or your own artwork can provide a catalyst for constructive conversations around wellbeing. The exhibition ‘Let’s Talk’ was organised by the City of London in a project emphasising the arts contribution to wellbeing during lockdown. The photography exhibition was designed to initiate conversations about mental health and the artist, Clift, explains how ‘Art can help start conversations that would otherwise be tough to start [...] People use the images to help them discuss their troubles with relatives and friends. I think it’s much easier to say ‘look at these images, this is how I feel’ than it is to just talk about something out of the blue. Anything that helps people talk more about mental health is a good thing.’[5]The arts are an adaptable space, where one may choose to escape their daily routines and troubles or choose to face them head on. Creative processes can allow us to express our feelings in order to explain to others how we are struggling with our own mental wellbeing. Successively, by informing our loved ones and speaking openly about mental health, those who we hold dear can provide us with any love, support, or space we may need during this difficult period.

It has been scientifically proven that engagement with the arts is beneficial to our mental wellbeing. In a UCL Covid-19 Social Study, analysts tracked the mental health of 72,000 UK adults, observing a correlation between improvement in one’s wellbeing and a weekly engagement in the arts..[6] It was concluded that those spending 30 minutes or more on a creative daily activity had lower rates of depression and anxiety and reported greater life satisfaction. Exercise and outdoor activities were also reported to be central to their wellbeing. However, as the cold winter conditions make outdoor activities increasingly more difficult it is even more important to embrace creative activities as outlets for stress, anxiety and depression. Moreover, it is recognised by researchers that creating art reduces cortisol levels – chemicals released by the thyroid which indicate high levels of stress and anxiety. Therefore, the arts can help us manage our mental wellbeing as they concurrently help us to relax not only on a conscious but biological level.

The positive impact that the arts can have on our mental health is undeniable. However the creative industry has been hit hard by the lockdown – an understatement to say the least. Many independent creative spaces and venues find themselves hanging in the balance, and galleries and theatres are not expected to open until later this year. The irony is that the arts, who provide space for the nation’s wellbeing, may be faced with real anxieties about their own future. A survey published by the Arts & Health Hub, reported that 42% of respondents working in the creatives had lost between 50% and 100% of their income.[7] Moreover, 44% reported the pandemic to have had an impact on their mental health, 12% reporting this impact to have been severe.[8] It is incredibly important to support the arts in any way that you can during the pandemic – that being buying from local shops instead of amazon, or attending a zoom life drawing class or webinar. There are so many ways in which the arts can support us through the lockdown and it is important that we do the same. Furthermore, there is an opportunity here for the arts to fully embrace and recognise their benefits on people’s wellbeing. Therefore, as galleries, museums, theatres and other creative venues open, we can begin to contemplate what we would like to continue to see and ask of them. During the lockdown the arts have provided us and continue to support us as a tool to manage our mental wellbeing. However, this emphasis on creative engagement is not one to be forgotten once this difficult period ends but one we can take forward and implement into society through the renewal and reinvention of the creative space as one to heal, develop and nurture one’s mind and wellbeing.

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