In times of crisis, such as the global outbreak of an infectious disease, some might argue that society cannot be bothered with such a luxury as art. Practicality and austerity, they say, are called for now, not luxury.
But local artists would disagree. In fact, some of them say that art is precisely what we need right now.
“I think more than ever now you need it for your mental health. It’s important to have a break from all the news and see some art that cheers you up,” says Frieda Gould of Visual Gallery in North Park.
Bobby Ruiz, a street artist and the CEO of Tribal Streetwear, agrees: “I think it’s the best time to see it. You can drive through Chicano Park, you can drive around some of the alleys in North Park. I think it’s a good time for people to really consider it, to really look at their surroundings a little more.”
Spending time engaging art and artists can serve many different purposes in times such as these. For one thing, losing ourselves for a short time in a work of art is a healthy escape from the stresses and pressures of life under lockdown.
Bryan Snyder, a muralist in Carlsbad, suggests that observing artists in the act of creation is a rich way to give our minds and hearts a break from distressing news.
“I’m going to be a fly on the wall, and I don’t have to worry about if I’m going to lose my job tomorrow or if my bills are being paid right now. For a brief moment I’m going to just chill on this wall and look down and observe someone else’s life — in this situation, the act of creating art.”
According to Erwin Hines, creative director at the Carlsbad branding firm Basic Agency, COVID-19 is causing us to isolate into our silos more than usual, and art can play a critical role in helping us to get out of ourselves and back in touch with one another.
“In times of strife and struggle I think we become even more insular, even more self-absorbed,” Hines says. “Art as the thing that sparks conversation has never been more important.”
Viewing or creating art can be a form of mindfulness, experiencing life in the moment while noticing your feelings without judging them as good or bad.
“There are different levels of aesthetic engagement,” says Jim Daichendt, dean of the colleges and professor of art history at Point Loma Nazarene University. “The lowest level of aesthetic engagement is putting yourself in the story of the art, reacting in some sort of emotional way.”
It’s that immersive experience, right here, right now, and the awareness of how a piece makes us feel that embodies the practice of mindfulness and offers us many psychological benefits. For example, mindfulness has been demonstrated to sharpen focus, decrease anxiety and depression, and improve overall well-being.
“In times of strife and struggle I think we become even more insular, even more self-absorbed. Art as the thing that sparks conversation has never been more important.”
Erwin Hines, creative director at the Carlsbad branding firm Basic Agency
Tuning into the senses and recognizing your own emotions in the moment are important aspects of mindfulness. What colors do you see? Textures? Can you see stroke lines or are all the marks even and smooth? How does the overall piece make you feel? What about specific regions of the work?
But how exactly does art afford us with such coveted mental and emotional advantages? It stems largely from the way that viewing art engages our sense of sight like no other activity. Colors and textures draw us into the moment, focusing our faculties on visual stimulants of emotion and memory. As we meditate on the piece as a whole or on just one small facet of a larger work, feelings come and go from our consciousness. Like focusing on the flame of a candle or a verse of wisdom literature, our attentiveness to the features of the artwork before us slows our breathing, lowers blood pressure, and brings a sense of calm to the mind.
How can you engage with artwork in a mindful way? It starts with being present in the moment. Do what you can to mentally set aside the worries and cares you’ve brought with you for the time being. Take note of any distracting thoughts, but let them pass without diving into them. Pay special attention to your sensory inputs right then and there: sight, sound, touch, smell, and even taste. Notice your own reaction to the overall artwork. How does the piece make you feel? (You may need to expand your emotional vocabulary in order to find just the right words to describe the feelings that arise.) Follow your curiosity into some of the details and continue to note your emotional responses. Don’t rush any of these steps. Engaging art mindfully requires time and patience.
Remember that there are no “shoulds” regarding how artwork makes you feel; just note and accept the feelings that arise without judging yourself for them.
Here are a few specific suggestions from local artists for engaging with art while the world slowly reopens here in San Diego:
1. Visit the murals in Chicano Park, North Park, Pacific Beach, La Jolla, and other neighborhoods around San Diego County.
2. Look for park statues.
3. Tour downtown San Diego and Balboa Park to see the unique architecture.
Several of the local artists I talked to also recommended watching creators in action on Instagram Live, certainly providing a different experience from observing only the final product.
“Instagram Live seems to be the go-to right now,” says Jason Gould of Visual Gallery.
Hines agrees: “I think IG Live is a really powerful tool, especially if you’re open to seeking out those who aren’t like you.”
Making your own creations is another option for engaging with art in a mindful way. And you don’t have to be an accomplished artist to experience the wellness benefits. You can start simply with doodling on paper or an iPad, crocheting or sewing, or even painting.
“We had new customers who literally said, ‘Hey, can I give you 50 bucks and you put together a kit? I’ve never painted before, I want to try it out, can you give me something?’” Frieda Gould says.
At the end of the day, there are so many ways to mindfully engage with art that it is available to literally anyone who is interested.
“You can look at art online, you can look at art in books, you can start to develop a deeper analysis, deeper ways of looking at art. Practice that type of analysis,” Daichendt says.
Cummings is a professor of biology at Point Loma Nazarene University and author of “Everybody’s Got Bears,” available on Amazon.