In a July podcast episode of The Arts in Conversation, Manhattan’s National Arts Club explored the topic of Reigniting Creativity in our Lives. I was chuffed to see it, as I was already working on this story – based on a thesis I’ve been noodling on since even pre-pandemic – about why “un-judged” creative time is essential in being optimally functional, if not generally happier.
The idea came as I mused on why I felt so great while attending ceramics classes held by Toronto-based artist Julie Moon. I’ve never thought myself “good at art,” but while in Moon’s clay-flecked studio, I was immersed in my own imaginative flow – free from the thought: What if what I do isn’t good?
It’s a mental space I would never allow myself to go occupationally, and an investigation of my perfectionism through psychotherapy sessions revealed that vulnerability was a quality missing from many important aspects of my life. I’ve grown to be proud of my pottery creations because I made them with my own two hands; my self-limiting beliefs have increasingly diminished as I try to apply a more flexible, gentler attitude in all my endeavours, novice and otherwise.
The NAC episode begins with an interview featuring Megan Tuttle. As with another art therapist you’ll meet later on in this story, Tuttle came to the profession after appreciating the myriad benefits of creativity after a devastating health-related event. In addition to being a distraction from pain and present hardship, unselfconscious creativity actually has a diverse cache of positive attributes.
Tuttle, who has worked with veterans and children in the foster-care system, believes being creative for the sake of it – not in a way that can be studied, critically evaluated and perhaps most importantly, intentionally commodified in this world of flagrant side hustling – is vital because it’s “not necessarily about the outcome as much as it is making it.” And this can apply to people dealing with life’s everyday stressors as much as folks working through anguishing times.
“Art therapy combines the creative process and psychotherapy within the context of a therapeutic relationship to support positive shifts in one’s mental health and well-being,” Toronto-based therapist Tiffany Merritt said in an e-mail. Her career trajectory took on a new dimension during a painful period in which her mother battled a rare form of cancer.
“While sitting alongside my mom while she received treatments, we talked about how therapeutic it would be to create art with other patients who were going through something similar,” Merritt divulged. “It was at this moment that I decided to go back to school to become an art therapist, in order to weave creativity and psychotherapy together to support people to cope with life’s constant ups and downs.”
Art therapists, Merritt said, are “trained mental-health professionals.” She added that in Canada and the United States, they must have at minimum a master’s degree or a master’s-level diploma in the practice; in Canada, this includes completing 1,000 supervised clinical practicum hours. The discipline, she said, can support everything from strengthening self-awareness and reducing anxiety to trauma resolution, increasing resiliency and “making meaning of a present life challenge.”
Merritt added that humans were long thought of as being either left-brained or right-brained, yet advances in neuroscience have shown that “when we are being creative, multiple mental processes – or parts of the brain – are involved which works to strengthen integration.”
She nodded to clinical professor of psychiatry and author Dr. Dan Siegel’s theory here that such neural integration “allows for flexibility and adaptability, and expresses itself outwardly as harmony, kindness and compassion.” What’s more, Merritt said, is that creativity can stimulate hope and insight by shifting perspective, increase flow and focus, expand capacity for self-regulation and increase neuroplasticity.
Here’s a new thought: Consider creative play as a source of everyday self-care
Creativity can also let mindfulness flourish. That all-familiar word is heavily relied on in wellness marketing, but it is a crucial concept that has been championed by Buddhist and Hindu meditation practices for thousands of years.
An hour of painting or playing piano shouldn’t only be seen as a salve for those impacted by traumatic experiences. Instead, we should be looking at ways to “purposefully disrupt our everyday routines,” as it’s described by host Mitch Case in the NAC episode.
Giles Harrison, co-founder of the Britain-based air-dry ceramics kit company Sculpd, has witnessed the wonders that creative play can afford since the brand’s launch in 2020. Since its customers don’t need a kiln to indulge in the satisfying craft of pottery, Sculpd offers what he describes as a “low barrier to entry.”
In addition to acquiring a legion of fans who use it at home, Sculpd has also run workshops, allowing Harrison and his partners to get a glimpse into how people interact with the product. There’s one observation he’s made that will resonate with many adults who need to untether themselves from such limiting beliefs as perfectionism, as well as to cultivate a sense of vulnerability that’s essential to growth and more importantly, being a happier citizen of the world.
“If you give one of our kits to a child, they’re instantly into it and making all sorts of interesting pieces,” Harrison said in a Zoom call. “They can communicate how they’re thinking about what they’re making in a really open and unguarded way.” In contrast, Harrison notes that adults typically seek out assistance in determining what exactly they will make and want clear instructions for how to achieve that goal.
While some Sculpd users have gone on to start selling their finished work, Harrison echoes the art-therapist opinion of releasing ambitions while in the act.
“As adults, everything in our lives is operating at 1,000 miles an hour,” he said. “Everyone needs to be perfect, and to be perfect the first time. I think it’s quite nice to have an opposite approach to some things in life, which is a little bit slower and maybe slightly ‘imperfect,’ but it’s enjoyable.”
Whatever field you’re in, take a creative break to fuel your career and productivity
For photographer Pratha Samyrajah, Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, has been a core element in keeping a professional cool.
“I have arrangements going all the time,” Samyrajah said from her home in Prince Edward County, Ont. “If I’m stuck on how to phrase something in a pitch, for example, I’ll get up and walk away and tinker for 10 to 15 minutes; it makes me zone out versus just sitting and thinking the same useless thought. It’s a really good reset during the day – a kind of palate cleanser for your mind.”
Though Samyrajah studied Ikebana for several years, she added that “there’s definitely a freedom in being a novice. It’s so nice, because you’re just like, ‘I’m going do my best.’
“But ultimately, it’s about the time that you’re spending for yourself.”
Kiki Uyede, a floral designer and artistic director of Hanaki Floral Design in Vancouver, forges time for purely autonomous arranging in her schedule for sanity’s sake.
“People don’t actually realize that working with flowers is quite intense,” she said of her deadline and budget-laden worries.
By assigning opportunities to create while liberated from such demands, Uyede lauds the “joy and peace” she feels during these prescribed mental expeditions.
“The whole meditation of playing with florals and gardening makes me feel more positive, and makes me appreciate what I have. I’m thankful that I have time to do something that I enjoy doing.”
But how do you begin such doing when it’s outside of your routine?
Heed Merritt’s advice: “Start by bringing creativity into your life in bite-sized chunks,” she said. “And if you get overwhelmed, as we all do from time to time in hard moments, try to be kind to yourself in that moment and know tomorrow is another day.”
Really, something as simple as momentarily digging into your home’s Lego supply or spending an hour painting a portrait of your pooch could be the outset of an uplifting psychological adventure – one that requires attention to the journey without a focus on the destination.