As a college student studying art, I sometimes wonder what it is, exactly, that I’m doing whenever I make the trek to Gonzaga’s art building. Unlike some of my close friends, I am not studying to become a doctor, a nurse, a lawyer, an accountant, or any other established professional. I just know that when I begin seriously working on a painting, drawing, print, or whatever it is, I fall into a sort of “zen” state that makes me feel at ease, allowing me to communicate ideas that would otherwise remain untouched.
I wish I could extract this feeling from my brain and give it to others (which, in a way, is the goal of art therapy), but even so, people often feel excluded from artistic spaces and lack the initial desire to engage with art. Historically, the artistic community has been frustratingly exclusive, but I truly believe and hope that we are moving toward a more expansive and inclusive understanding of “art.” In some ways, digital technologies aid this shift: more people have access to online platforms where they can create digital art, preserve personal writing on blogs, and share wild thoughts on Twitter that would otherwise fly away into the ether.
By adopting a more expansive view of art, I have come to understand both art-making and art-viewing as a spiritual experience: one that instills attentiveness, calm, and a sense of awe into my daily rituals, often without my immediate awareness. In thinking about ways to make the spiritual dimensions of art more accessible, it’s important to recognize that “art” does not simply refer to visual art. There is an art to treating a patient, to writing a report or essay that communicates clearly and impactfully, to forging relationships, and to simply moving our bodies.
Mindfully engaging in an artistic practice – whatever this might mean to you – can help us better perceive our spiritual growth in-action. After nearly four years as an art student, I have come to recognize the following as key outcomes of artistic practice.
Art teaches us to exercise patience in difficult situations
Reflecting on the media used to create art (paint, ink, charcoal, metal, human bodies in dance, finicky mousepads on Photoshop, one’s own brain, collage, and hundreds of others), these materials are often unruly, messy, disorganized, and, in all honesty, really annoying. In some ways, creating art is an exercise in responding to uncertainty, self-doubt, and the unpredictable nature of physical materials, technology, and ourselves. Painting, for me, can be like a non-traditional form of praying: praying, above all things, that my hand holds steady and that the paint successfully merges with the canvas, but also hoping that viewers will read the final piece in ways that are meaningful to them.
Art slows us down
You might recall times from earlier in your life when, in the presence of crayons, paper, clay, and/or glitter, time seemed to dissipate as your artistic creation took form. It may have felt almost meditative to “slow your eye down” – as one of my art professors phrases it – and simply take in small bits of the world, one pipe cleaner or googly-eye at a time.
Both artistic creation and viewing can alleviate the feeling of “time poverty” – the sense that time is especially compressed in our harried, digitally-oriented society. The 63 tabs open on my phone’s Chrome browser, the 20 tabs on my laptop, and the 15 playlists for various moods on my Spotify can make my brain feel both fast and frazzled. Both viewing and creating art can draw attention to how fast we are moving in other areas of life and reorient us toward the fundamentals: our relationships, our environment, and our personal and spiritual well-being.
Art is therapeutic
Related to its ability to slow us down, “expressive arts therapy” is a growing form of therapeutic practice. Several studies have demonstrated the value of coloring books and basic doodling as gateways to more involved, regular creative practice. And, as with many things in life, the most simple and mundane things are often the most profound: even the elementary art of doodling has been shown to improve focus, memory, and stress levels.
Art encourages us to play better with others
Recently, I’ve been wondering when and why we make the switch from playing hide-and-seek and tag at parties, to ambling around stiffly and making small talk while awkwardly nibbling on appetizers. Why do adults not play hide-and-seek? Nixing social expectations and reintroducing creativity into social settings has been a highlight of my college experience, particularly with my housemates and neighborhood friends. Dance parties and word games, Bob Ross painting nights and drawing contests: all simple, easy-access opportunities for creative expression and human connection.
Creative practices can be grounding, calming, and challenging, in ways that uniquely mirror the process of engaging with spirituality. By seeing ourselves as artists simply because we are human, it is my hope that more people (really, more adults) can come to see playfulness and slowness as necessary components of spiritual experience.
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- SEARCHing for Meaning: A Reflection on the Spiritual “Retreat” - March 1, 2020
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- The Spirituality of Making, and Viewing Art - December 16, 2019
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