On my lunch break today – this foggy and obscure day where visibility in Malvern was less than 8m at times – I went to Malvern Library to hear a talk by a local artist called Marian Edwards. In 2007, overnight, Marian lost a lot of her sight. She couldn’t see colour, or peoples’ faces, or gestures. She just saw blurs. It’s still this way for her. Marian studied art, taught art and is a visual artist herself.
I’ve been thinking about how to align environmentalism, art, outdoor learning and health and wellbeing (that’s very loosely put and I also do NOT like the word well-being, but it works).
Marian’s talk helped me pull some things together in my mind, and also made me really enjoy my eyes! One thing she said which galvanised something in my mind was “anything is therapeutic if it’s working the mechanisms by which you like to function”.
For four years, from 2014, I volunteered at various organisations and charities that focused on mental health or disability. I was aiming to gain experience of others’ barriers and vulnerabilities – some of which are similar to my own – and to rack up the 1000 required hours in such an environment that I needed to apply to a Masters in Art Psychotherapy. I decide on this route because art makes me feel good, and it’s my skill and study area, but also because i’ve dealt with some of my own difficulties – and art helped. The combination seemed to make sense.
But in recent months i’ve come to reconsider whether Art Therapy as a discipline is something I believe in totally. I’ve not been convinced. Hard work at hypnotherapy and dedication to exercise are what finally helped me manage my brain (and in the interim or in the crisis points, drugs too – which I don’t favour in my own personal circumstances, although I know some mental health activists won’t like me saying that, but it’s my brain so I choose).
Then, today Marian stated that she didn’t really ‘believe in art as therapy’, as a follow on from her aforementioned quote. This contradiction remained a little unclear to me, but it has now helped me to realise this: That I feel that art has a wider-ranging, frontline health and wellbeing value when experience as an emotional and cultural instance, than as a discipline of psychotherapeutic practice.
Access to, and ability to actively engage with and experience art, is very important. We respond to art with our personal histories and associations, our mood, our imagination, our wants and needs. Art gives back to us, emotionally – and probably therefore physically over time – when we allow ourselves to experience it. It has an emotional durability as a form of culture.
“Supermarkets and shopping malls on the other hand do not give back” – to quote Marian. They don’t have emotional durability. Well, they may do if you’re a post-modernist, pretentious art student looking at Mattel products through a rose-tinted Ed Ruscha-style lens, but…. that’s the supermarkets and shops giving back through the lens with which an artistic experience of the world frames things. The point is, if we expose ourselves to creative visions of our world, whether others’ or our own, we learn to ‘see’ with emotion and meaning. We can experience our world beyond its basic functions as a sustenance and shelter-providing habitat. This surely makes the case for art?! And more importantly – for art and creative experience as a way to learn more about what makes up our surroundings, and about what really offers us contentedness and health. Because if we start to experience an emotional durability in our interaction with our natural and social surroundings, we will care more deeply for it. For our communities and for the planet. The buzz of imagination and sense of intention we gain from lightbulb moments in front of a painting, or at a gig, or while hiking a mountain is almost sublime. And so these activities offer us a chance to improve our mental health whilst also communing with our actual habitats and communities. I reckon that means art/creative opportunities and outdoor activity could be built into environmental design -of places, systems, programs – with lasting results for community action and personal engagement.
Marian’s talk was of course focused on visual arts, due to her sight loss, but I don’t think sports or music or any other extremity of bodily or cognitive activity is any different. It’s about intellectual or imaginative stimulation. Or physical stimulation and the cerebral rush that results.
So whilst many people feel it’s admirable and important to hone our bodies into strong, toned creatures, so that we can experience the world at our fullest potential, I feel it’s equally important to exercise and immerse our minds in creativity and artistry, to help us learn and respond to our lives.
So whichever mechanism with which you like to function; be it physical and sporty or emotional and creative – this will be therapeutic insofar as you will experience your existence in your surroundings, be they environmental, social or mental surroundings, more fully and with greater and longer-lasting reward. And additionally, if your enjoyment comes from physical experiences, that may well also be a creative experience and not necessarily sporty, or vice versa. For example, I really love tough and long hikes, and when I do it over 7 or more consecutive day I develop a trance-like obsession with hiking and feel very sublime. This is a physical and sporty pursuit but my rewards are, as well as of course physical, emotional rewards, and creative too – this ongoing physical exertion inspires a lot of creative cognition in my brain as well. Physical exertion and physical concentration really help my brain to function efficiently and imaginatively.
This is why I think outdoor pursuits and creative activity are so important for educational and awareness purposes, as well as for health and wellbeing purposes. Gaining a closeness with our imaginations reveals to us, and connects us with our own context and surroundings on our planet, in our communities and in our habitats. This is a brilliant opportunity for raising environmental awareness and inspiring environmentally caring behaviour. So environmental design -social or physical – could well include creative and outdoor pursuits.
Spending time slowing our activity down a little bit and responding genuinely to environments, and to art, or other deeper emotive or physical experiences is important not only on a personal level. It also offers a chance to recognise individual experiences of other beings. Maybe then we can learn to value and respect the position of all members of communities and habitat systems, whether it’s a village, a school, a care home or an actual natural environment such as a wetland or mountainside.
This is much like the ecological notion of ‘trophic diversity’ which is often explored in conservation projects and sustainable habitat/land management or creation. It refers to the ‘opportunities for animals, plants and other creatures to feed on each other and rebuild the broken strands in the web’*. Every ‘thing’ has a part to play and has needs and wants as well as ideas and suggestions. Marian mentioned this in relation to cultural projects and institutions and how they work with disabled audiences. During the talk we discussed this and all felt that museums, galleries and other cultural projects often only offer attention to disabled people in a tokenistic way. They don’t work with them properly, or ask for their opinions and experiences of life and culture.
It’s safe to say that this disregard and tokenistic ‘engagement’ happened to some degree at the local district council I used to work for. Whilst working there I tried very hard to research, write and implement a responsive and appropriate Access Strategy and statement for the town’s art festival. It was largely ignored by my colleagues and not thought of as important. (I also overheard some very derogatory conversations about working with colleagues with mental health difficulties, which was very upsetting, especially in a council office! And especially as I had, a few months before, experienced a psychotic episode and was not doing well with my mental health myself). If i’d had enough of a presence at the council, and was perhaps a bit older, I may have been able to persuade people to work with me on an Access Strategy, and actually spend time and effort working with disabled community groups to learn what they truly need and want from their local cultural scene. The best day in that job was when I sat on a bench in town, site-managing an interactive public sculpture, and a lady sat next to me and we spoke for an hour or so about what the town wanted. She disclosed some fairly horrific personal stories to me about her and her daughter, and their difficulties and needs. She spoke about what she thought the town needed to engage the kids and the adults alike. She knew better than anyone at the council – she lives in town and has all her life, and is disabled herself. The council never even wanted my feedback from this experience, nor responded to my persistent offer to contribute to the evaluation of the public’s perception of the festival with, even though I was the one that was out and about in town chatting to locals in a very low-key and informal way, learning a huge amount.
So I think commissioners, funders and cultural service providers should realise that true time spent with and amongst actual local communities, with marginalised groups, and in the context of their own habitat – be it a town centre or a village park – should happen more, and ‘trophic diversity’ would hopefully result.
I don’t see why such activities and instances of communication and exploration cannot take place outdoors and in areas where nature is doing quite well, or at least isn’t paved over! It would set the scene for real-time views of human and natural activity and growth. It wouldn’t be clouded by artificial and non-physical (essentially make-believe!) organisational systems such as the market and the state. These are constructs which could be left behind, or done without, just for a little while while we explore and commune upon our shared human experience. These man-made organisational constructs could actually be left behind all together, to be totally disregarded, and the planet would thrive, even if the humans started warring. The planet however, if disregarded, will implode on all of our fake constructs of Capitalism and consumer value. So we oughta get in line and vibe with the natural world and each other before we get in an even worse pickle. And deep-set emotive and physical responses to our lives and surroundings, through arts, culture and outdoor activity set us in good stead for that; for those emotionally-durable experiences.
*Definition found in George Monbiot’s book ‘Feral’ in his description of what ‘re-wilding’ should look like.