July 15, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
July 15, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

It’s Never Too Late to Create

“Red is the color of my anger,” remarked a middle school art student of mine. As an art educator, this type of analogy is tantalizing for a teacher engaging the creative side of her students. But the announcement caught me by surprise as this particular student was never much interested in expressing himself in any creative way, verbal or otherwise. And so, in our new COVID-19 reality, I am seeing more and more students looking for an outlet to express themselves due to the lack of typical social interaction.

For many, art is a natural way to process and express emotion without speech. Adults, teens and children are all experiencing a wave of emotion right now with limited means of expression. This can be stressful. According to the World Health Organization, stress is currently “the world’s most pronounced health risk.” Research shows that the process of creating art helps reduce stress. The beneficial effects of creating aren’t dependent on a person’s skill or talents. “It’s the process, not the product,” says Megan Carleton, an art therapist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). As an art educator in multiple locations, I currently have a minimum of 14 studio classes a week of remote art lessons that I teach regularly. However, I have found that my students’ art supplies are limited. Thus, reminding them that it’s the process they should focus on, rather than the product, is very important as we Zoom together to create art. Like many teachers, gone are the lessons that I had intended on imparting, in my case due to the lack of a variety of art materials in students’ homes. But creativity can go a long way without fancy supplies. When one student remarked that she didn’t have colored construction paper in her house, I told her to go grab a paper bag. Now she had colored paper! In my high school studio art class we tried a technique introduced to me by my colleague Debbie Buechler. We mixed three different coffee strengths and painted a tonal still life of a coffee mug. Using their iPhones as a light source, my students were able to capture the shadows. No paintbrush? No problem! They grabbed a q-tip and were ready to paint with coffee. Another student used a piping bag from her kitchen baking supplies to squeeze out glue with a controlled hand for a different project. Food coloring has been used in lieu of watercolor paint, and salt dough makes a great clay substitution.

Creating art also provides a distraction from one’s daily surroundings, which can have a relaxing effect as well. In the early days of remote learning (just a few long weeks ago) many parents requested that class time be shortened. They felt that too much Zoom time was taking a toll on their children. I experienced the opposite. Second grade parents asked to lengthen their art classes, while my high school students requested an additional studio class during the week. In a recent New York Times article, “The Big Impact of a Small Hobby,” author John Donohue writes of the scientific evidence of the health benefits of drawing. In a particular study, participants’ cortisol (a hormone released in response to stress) levels were greatly reduced after 45 minutes of making art. A 2019 study by Jennifer Drake at Brooklyn College found that “a mere 10 minutes of drawing improved participants’ moods.” Clearly, art for the sake of creating and not with the intention of creating a perfect product can provide a respite from a stressful environment. In an effort to combat the harsh reality of COVID-19, my 10th-grade Art Studio II students, at Naaleh High School for Girls, are keeping a “visual arts quarantine sketchbook.” Guided by weekly prompts, their submissions can be found in an online Padlet Gallery. Prompts titled, “What Corona Means to Me,” “Design a Mask,” “Pre/Post Covid Diptych” and “The Coveted Toilet Paper Roll” have resulted in wonderful and thought-provoking illustrations and creations.

Today, art in Canada has been elevated to the status of serving as official medicine. Since 2019, doctors in Montreal can prescribe art museum visits to their patients. Known as museotherapy, this guarantees free entry to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Such therapy, pioneered by physicians, researchers and art therapists, consists of visiting art exhibits and creating art in workshops. It is a physician-guided program that encompasses art, wellness and health. Similar museums elsewhere in the world are slowly noticing the healing power of art as well. In times like this, where actual visits to museums are no longer permitted, there is a plethora of virtual art-museum galleries online for one to peruse.

Art has come in handy in ways I could not have predicted. A week ago I received a call from a colleague in a different county. Her son had started shidduch dating. She was concerned that other than Zoom dating and taking walks, the couple would not be seeing each other in typical scenarios, as they might if they were able to go on dates and do regular activities. She asked if I would run a paint activity for them (per social distancing rules) in a park or backyard, where they could relax, enjoy a lighter atmosphere and get messy. A paint night serves as a much-needed break as well as a means of relaxed expression. For the couple, it can also serve as a window into a different dimension of the other’s personality.

On a personal note, the economic climate has brought some of my own freelance artwork to a halt. After a year of design work and negotiations, a series of 10 paintings of mine that were commissioned to be made into stained-glass windows for a shul in New York was suspended until the production facility reopens. But I look at this time to tap into creating art for art’s sake. I now have time to explore, express and create without having to worry about my artwork appealing to anybody else. In this time of restriction, I am feeling less restricted creatively.

The beautiful thing about making art is that it can be done anywhere. One need not be stuck inside at a table to be productive. As I tell my students, grab some pencils, go outside and sketch. Draw what you see. Nature serves as a canvas of inspiration and the outdoors is great for your headspace. What better way to teach a lesson on texture than using the power of observation in our own backyard. Capturing the texture of rough tree bark, smooth blades of grass, grainy wood decking and rough brick facade is much easier when observing it in real life. Again, art need not be restricted by supplies or location.

As I think back to that middle school student who compared his anger to the color red, or to my current students creating art at home, I admit it is hard to know for sure that this creative outlet is collectively reducing anxieties and tension. But I can say that for many, working on their projects have put them in a “zone,” where they feel relaxed, accomplished and proud of what they’ve created. One student recently sent me an unsolicited drawing, illustrating her nerves prior to her recent AP exam. Clearly, that was therapeutic for her.

So, what is the takeaway in these challenging times?

As renowned British artist David Hockney, now 82, has said in regard to being in quarantine, “We can’t leave and the restaurants are closed. But nobody can cancel spring.” So I say, head outdoors, breathe the fresh air and create!


Renee Schneier has worked in the field of art and design for over 20 years. She currently teaches studio art at Naaleh High School for Girls, TCA and the Day Program at Yachad, and gives private lessons. Prior to that she served as the art dept. chair at Magen David Yeshivah. She can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles