Are you focused on self-improvement? Trying to grow, heal, and change? Or maybe you’re a mental health professional who supports individuals on their path towards healing and change? Either way, art can aid in strengthening mental wellness.
This article is not about art therapy, an aspect of psychotherapy where specially trained and certified art therapists incorporate art-making and expressive art activities into therapy sessions as one way for clients to address mental health issues. Rather, this is about admiring and contemplating art — fine and decorative art such as paintings, sculpture, silver, glass, textiles, and more, to provide individuals with new visuals to aid in their personal path towards change and growth. This article uses images from the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all in the public domain. Other major museums around the world also display art on their websites that is in the public domain. Examples include the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Art can provide new ways to look at challenges, healing, emotions, relationships, and more. Making lists can be helpful. Writing answers to questions can be helpful. Talking about problems can be helpful. At the same time, art can provide a visual representation that might be the nudge or the catalyst that someone needs to promote emotional change, personal development, and a sense of mental wellbeing.
In my first career, I received an MA in museum studies and worked in several museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art — where I did my internship, and Biltmore Estate, in Asheville, North Carolina — where I was curator. More recently, to become a therapist, I received an MS in mental health counseling and I’m currently a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC) in private practice in Asheville, North Carolina.
Art can be used to build and improve our mental wellness. I incorporate it into many therapy sessions with my clients. Occasionally, the art is to be admired and looked at slowly and mindfully, but most often, I use art as analogies, or as a teaching tool. The following examples can be used by individuals who are looking to nudge themselves in new directions and to become a better version of themselves, or by mental health professionals who want to grow and expand their clients’ perspective.
Peaceful landscape paintings can be distracting, calming, meditative. As a way to begin or end a therapy session, I often ask clients to walk into a painting. ”Start by looking slowly and carefully. What would you think about as you look at this scene? What catches your eye? If you stepped into this painting, would you walk or would you sit? What do you imagine the temperature to be? What would you be hearing? What would you be smelling? What would the ground feel like under your feet? Now, pay attention to your body sensations… what would you notice about your shoulders, your jaw, your breathing, your heart rate? What feelings would you be experiencing? Take a breath… now another… now slowly come back into this space.” Art as a mindfulness activity provides a distraction away from stress and anxiety.
[“On the Ausable,” 1869, by artist-James David Smillie, American. Watercolor and gouache on green-gray wove paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain.]
Frames as Boundaries
Boundaries, or limits within relationships, are a topic that many of us need help with. Boundaries can be professional or personal, and they can set limits as to physical contact, time spent with someone, topics that are discussed, and more. When you read about boundaries, fences are often referenced. However, I’ve realized that frames can be used as a way to teach about boundaries. With a rude neighbor down the street who wants to invite himself into your family gatherings, the boundary might look like a simple yet strong black frame — no variations required. However, boundaries with a loving, yet overbearing mother might be looser, some firmness along with some curves and openings that allow for flexibility within the framework. Learning to set boundaries is a form of self-compassion and improves our mental wellbeing.
[Frame, late 17th–early 18th century, Spanish or Southern Italian. Parcel-gilded and enameled silver, pastes (artificial diamonds) backed by pink metal foil. Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain.]
Grounding: Using a Painting
There’s a standard grounding technique that many therapists teach their clients. What are five things you can see? Four things you can touch? Three things you can hear? Two things you can smell? And, one thing you can taste? When we ground ourselves, we shift from worry, anxiety, and perseveration, back into the present. It moves our brain from the feelings part — the amygdala, to the pre-frontal cortex where we can think more clearly, more logically. While grounding works very well in any space — an office, a living room, a kitchen — sometimes, to mix it up, I have clients practice the grounding technique using a painting. I often use a still life that includes fruit or other food, along with a few elements from nature, and ask the same 5–4–3–2–1 questions. Learning and practicing grounding techniques when we don’t need them, builds our emotional resilience and makes it easier to implement this technique in a moment of high anxiety or stress.
[“Landscape — Fruit and Flowers,” 1862, Artist: Frances Flora Bond Palmer, Publisher: Lithographed and published by Currier & Ives. Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain.]
Art and Feelings
Many individuals struggle to identify their feelings. They might have two basic feelings words that they use to describe just about everything, maybe happy and mad, or good and bad (which aren’t feelings words). Educating clients about thoughts, body sensations, and feelings takes many forms. Sometimes I use paintings or sculpture to illustrate and prompt clients about feelings. I might identify the feeling i.e. sad, and then have them notice the facial expression and body language illustrated in the piece of art. Or, I might have them make their best guess as to the feelings they notice in the art. The better we are at identifying feelings in ourselves and others, the better we are at making decisions, avoiding danger, and interacting positively with others.
[‘Insurance girl’ (hoken musume), illustration from Bugei Kurabu (Literary Club), c. 1890, by artist Tomioka Eisen, Japanese. Woodblock print; ink and color on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain.]
A Container as the Best of You
As people work to change negative habits and replace them with more helpful or more positive choices and behaviors, they are improving their mental wellness. Perhaps their goal is to speak more positively to themselves or to remember to implement self-care activities that improve their mental health. As a reinforcement for that, I often use a container activity. I might show them four or five containers — pitchers, bowls, sauceboats, coffeepots — and ask them, “If one of these containers was the best of you, which container would you be?” After they select one and comment about what they like about it, I then ask, “What do you need to do to keep that container filled to the brim? What new strategies that you’ve been working on would keep that container full? What else would you need to do to improve your positivity and add to your emotional resilience so that you have enough left over to share with others, to support others, to be helpful to others?” Building self-awareness, self-care, and positive self-talk provides us with tools to improve ourselves and our interactions with others.
[Vase, 1900, manufacturer — Tiffany & Co., New York, New York, American. Silver, silver-gilt, freshwater baroque pearls, amazonite, and opals. Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain.]
Analogies for Change and Growth
Analogies are often an effective way to communicate and illustrate change and progress that individuals are making. A visual representation can be powerful. Pathways, bridges, and streams are some of my most frequent analogies. “You’re still trudging on your old path.” “Look at that! You’ve created a new path!” “How are you going to create a bridge from where you are, to where you want to be?” “What do you need to do to reinforce that bridge as you move across it?” “Yes, you’re crossing through the creek and your feet might even get wet, but keep focusing on crossing to the other side of the stream.” When a visual art reminder is helpful, it can be reinforced by making a sketch of it, printing off the art work, or snapping a picture of it. In moments of stress, looking at that image can be a way to provide support and inspiration.
[The Forth Bridge, c. 1890, by artist A. Duprez, British. Etching. Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain.]
Change, growth, and healing are hard. Sometimes it takes prayer or meditation. Sometimes it needs time spent in nature. Sometimes it takes the knowledge of a neutral, supportive person like a therapist to help sort out the complications of our lives. And, art can be an added format to help each of us to change and become the best we can be as we build our mental wellness.