By Linda Stade
When you were a small child, you were an artist. We all were. We created art, not for the sake of making something aesthetically pleasing, but because art tumbled out of us. It was a natural form of self-expression.
While we were painting, drawing, colouring, or making, we paid no attention to audience. We were caught up in our own experience of the moment and the joy it conjured.
It was only as we grew older that we realised our art could please a parent or a teacher, and it could equally displease. It was then, that most of us stopped being artists.
We retreated to the safety of our limited verbal language, and we lost a natural and instinctive form of self-expression. The same process of disengagement from art is repeating today with many of our own children.
The way back to all the emotional benefits of art is great art education.
Art education, judgement-free classrooms, and adults who nudge kids toward art are clear ways to promote happiness, hope, and healing.
1. Art education conjures joy
If you are human, you enjoy creating. It is biological. Studies show the reward centres in the brain become flooded when we participate in visual arts, whether we are ‘artists’ or not.
The joy of art is not about the product, it is about the process. Even the simple acts of colouring in, doodling or free drawing are enough for humans to experience a hit of feel-good dopamine.
Schools such as Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane have employed this research in their wellbeing programs. They set aside time in the curriculum for students to explore simple forms of creativity as a way of injecting calm and joy into a school day.
2. Art education builds connection
A big part of the joy that comes with art education is relational. Tish Linehan is an artist and an art educator at Lourdes Hill College. She says, “The art rooms are not purely a place of study, they are a safe space, where individual traits are valued. That space encourages connection with others and an empathy not afforded in other subject areas and contexts.”
Art students see a side to one another that is not often revealed in the normal course of a school day. They come to value the individual differences and quirks that are often discouraged in the social world of adolescents where conforming and fitting in are treasured.
3. Art education allows students to be truly seen
Art education helps satisfy each student’s essential need to be seen and understood. Ms Linehan illustrates this point with a story from her own classroom.
“A student of mine, who had dyslexia, once created an artist’s book which could be read only backwards, and with the letters scrambled.
“The associated images that she drew illustrated the frustration she felt in reading, and simultaneously mirrored the experiences of the audience of this artwork, who was attempting to make sense of the book. In her artist’s book, she allowed a private audience into her perspective and evoked a feeling akin to her own reading of the world.”
4. Art education can promote healing
In allowing our inner world to be expressed and seen there is healing. Past traumas and our very human experience of feeling broken or not enough can be soothed in art. When we work with our vulnerabilities, we create something beautiful that speaks to, and connects us, to the rest of humankind.
Recent studies have shown that participating in art activities reduces the production of cortisol, one of the markers of stress. There is also an extensive body of art therapy research proving that the experience of anxiety and depression can be soothed with art.
Imagine if we equipped all students with art as a tool for enhancing their wellbeing, simply by getting rid of the myth that art education is only for those with ‘talent’.
5. Art education teaches ‘flow’
The happiness humans find in creating art can be partially explained with the concept of ‘flow’. In layman’s terms, flow is that amazing feeling we have when we are in the zone. It's the sense of losing yourself and being so in the moment that you lose all sense of time and space.
When we are in flow there is no place for upset thoughts about the things that are hurting us or worry about what may come next. We are purely in the moment. It is a peaceful state, and it allows our minds to rest.
6. Art education equips students with emotional literacy skills
Our world is saturated with media and marketing images that drive and manipulate our behaviour. These images are powerful, persuasive, and pervasive. According to Hugh Van Cuylenburg of The Resilience Project, “Our children are exposed to as much visual messaging in a week as we were in a year.”
It is imperative that young people are equipped with an understanding of visual language so that they can measure and evaluate the influences presented to them. For example, ideas about body image, ethnicity, versions of happiness, or what is worthwhile in life.
Art education offers this literacy, and the conversations that spring from this analysis can have a profound impact on a student’s understanding and sense of self.
7. Art education helps children express their emotions
Often our kids do not have the words or self-awareness to discuss their emotions with others. Visual arts transcend words and so can help fill the gaps. Children and young adults can express their emotions by using different colours, textures, and tones. This allows us to see the intensity of their feelings and opens the door to exploring those feelings with them in conversation.
Art therapists and psychologists have used art in this way for a long time. As parents and educators, we don’t want to analyse and diagnose our young people’s art, but it is a powerful way to connect with them.
Despite the emotional benefits of art and art education, too many adolescents are scared to give it a go because someone might laugh or roll their eyes. So, how do we ensure kids participate and don’t lose their inner artist?
These five points are a great place for both teachers and parents to begin.
Talk to kids about their art instead of assessing it as good, bad, pretty, or otherwise.
Ensure art is valued by school administrators and this value is reflected in school timetabling. Equally, it needs to be valued at home by parents.
Include art for art’s sake in curriculum and co-curricular activities.
Ensure homes and schools are safe spaces for artistic expression.
Be an adult who nudges young people towards valuing artistic expression.