Art Heals: It’s the Process Not the Outcome

Rachael McCampbell, The Wedding Dress, mixed media on wood panel, 60 x 36″

This article was published in the November 2015 issue of Nashville Arts Magazine

by Rachael McCampbell

Have you ever walked into an office or home environment where the walls were bare? How did this make you feel? Cold? Lifeless? Now contrast that with an art-rich environment, a place that’s a feast for the eyes, intellect, and emotions. I literally feel my blood pressure drop when I’m around quality art. Now add music to this scene. How about poetry? I’m in sensory heaven!  My problems are forgotten.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one to feel this way. The healthcare industry discovered art’s effect on patients’ and their families’ well being decades ago. Studies’ data point to the same conclusion—art heals. In one study they found that surgical or critical care patients left the hospital sooner and used fewer narcotic pain medications when they had a painting of a landscape in their room.

Patients respond most favorably to recognizable images like nature scenes and figurative works. And interestingly, the softer or blurrier the imagery, the more it taps into the viewer’s emotions. Patrik Vuilleumier, at the University of Geneva, discovered that the part of the brain most connected with our emotions, the amygdala, responded more to blurry pictures of faces than sharp, detailed ones. The subconscious interest in unclear imagery helps explain the huge visceral response and popularity of the impressionists’ paintings and other modern art that our eyes first take in on an emotional level.

Henry Isaacs, Chama River, Oil on Linen, 48 x 36"

Henry Isaacs, Chama River, Oil on Linen, 48 x 36″

Not only have scientists studied the effects of viewing art but the positive effects of making art as well. The American Association for the Advancement of Science published a fascinating article entitled “How Engaging with Art Affects the Human Brain.” Dr. Lora Likova took congenitally blind subjects with no activity in their visual cortexes and taught them to draw by touching raised-line tactile images. After they learned to draw through memory, they were tested again during an fMRI scan and found that there was now activity in their visual cortexes. So even a visualization of making art increases the neural plasticity of the brain!

Besides improving brain function, there is a long list of the benefits of the arts on our health. Donna Glassford, a Nashvillian and renowned leader in placing art in health care facilities, says, “We have always known that the arts can enrich our lives. Now we are learning that the arts can support us in healing. Specifically, the visual arts can heal passively as well as through creative action. In a hospital waiting area, patients can have their attention diverted from their own issues and anxiety by the art around them. In therapeutic art sessions, patients can release emotions that might otherwise go unexpressed.”

In the art classes I teach, I see the results firsthand. Once students get beyond feeling intimidated or fearful about the outcome, they begin to relax. As they enjoy the feel of charcoal being smeared into the fibers of paper or the serene feeling of moving color across a canvas, they calm down, leave their worlds behind, and simply feel happier.

Henry Isaacs, Cannon Rock #1, 30 x 40"

Henry Isaacs, Cannon Rock #1, 30 x 40″

How can art heal you? Surround yourself with art at home and work and really look at it—take it in. Find time to make art for yourself too. Write a poem, play an instrument, dance, paint, sing. Do these things for YOU, which in turn is for your health. Remember it’s the act of making art, any sort of art, that is key here: it’s the process, not the outcome.

This article was published in the October issue of Nashville Arts Magazine. Please go to stands or online to see the published version of this. 

Rachael McCampbell