Escape Artists: How Creativity Can Help In Times Of Turbulence

Words by Lucy Wildman

7 min read

They say that art creates feelings of joy, similar to the sensation of falling in love. They also say that it relieves mental exhaustion in the same way that retreating to the outdoors does. MOJEH explores why art and creativity could be an essential escape while navigating our new weird world

Spending weeks trapped indoors as Covid-19 debilitated our world, few could say the experience was one they were comfortable with. Whether self-isolating alone, with a partner or in lockdown as a family unit, as movement restrictions and curfews were enforced and uncertainty mounted in the pandemic’s wake, finding ways to stay active, occupied and optimistic in such tumultuous times was a challenge faced by billions. 

While more time at home ensured television and streaming platforms played a major part in boredom-busting — and, for many, essential (albeit electronic) companionship — creative activities also become a form of support previously overlooked by those who once juggled a relentlessly busy lifestyle. From painting and baking to making music, sewing, crafting or photography, aside from filling abnormally empty hours of the day, the solace found in artistic pursuits proved fundamental to looking after mental health. 

“During the pandemic, everyone has been challenged and struggled in a different and similar way,” says Dr. Ola Pykhtina, psychologist and art and play therapist at Dubai’s Thrive Wellbeing Centre. “We grieved for our usual lifestyle, our social gatherings and a sense of safety and certainty. So when we engage in art activities, whether it’s colouring in, doing crafts or viewing artistic works, we allow our mind and brain to relax. It’s like a pause button that brings us back to a present moment and sets us free from racing thoughts and complex tasks to solve.” 

Majd Kurdieh, Putting the Sun to Dry, 2018

With so many exceptional sets of circumstances to consider as a result of the coronavirus crisis, its unsurprising that heightened levels of fear, anxiety and stress have affected society. Faced with uncertainty of an unprecedented magnitude, and with the inability to predict or make plans for the future, using art therapy as a tool for escaping reality is a practice well-documented by mental healthcare professionals. 

From boosting self-esteem and providing a safe outlet to relieve emotions, to giving a sense of control over your life, studies show that creating art stimulates the release of dopamine, the chemical released when we do something pleasurable, with increased levels of this feel-good neurotransmitter proving extremely benefecial in the battle against depression. 

“Creative practices can offer a buffer against stress and anxiety,” says Girija Kaimal, an associate professor in Drexel University’s creative arts therapies PhD program and president-elect of the American Art Therapy Association. “Creating things, especially in the face of uncertainty, fear, or other distressing and unsettling emotions, is an innate drive. It speaks to our own individual identity and our need to have a sense of agency and control over our lives and over our time.”

Along with offering the chance to take control over at least one part of your day, getting creative, in whichever way you choose to manifest it, can help to address new or existing issues that may previously have laid dormant. “Art is important during this time more than ever as it allows expression of deep, sometimes conflicted and intense feelings. It also gives us an opportunity to process these feelings and let go of them,” adds Dr. Pykhtina.

Dr. Najat Shukri’s submission to the Community Art Collaboration project

“But to get therapeutic benefits from art, one should allow themselves to go with the flow and let go of any kind of judgement. The process is more important than the outcome. It’s not necessary to display your artwork. What matters is being engaged and letting yourself fully feel and embrace the process.” 

Inspiring and encouraging UAE residents as lockdown was enforced across the Emirates, Dubai-based art consultancy Art Painting Lab launched the Community Art Collaboration, an initiative asking artists and amateurs alike to create and share a piece of visual art, with the intention of creating public murals from the submitted works. 

Commemorating an exceptional moment in history, the murals will tell the story of how the UAE’s residents came together to create something inspiring in such deeply unsettling and uncertain times. Offering the opportunity for more artists to be recognised, as well as communicate the importance of art and culture as a pillar that binds societies, the six-week submission period saw Art Painting Lab inundated with entries from all ages from across the Emirates. 

Minakhee Mishra’s submission to the Community Art Collaboration project

“We saw people all over the region sharing a lot of creative endeavour, whether that was cooking, painting, singing or crafting – all of them artistic coping strategies. And it was from this that the United Art Emirates initiative took organic shape,” explains Art Painting Lab’s founder, Sam Saliba. “Historically, an art renaissance occurs during tremendous events, and incredible art often comes out of them. As contributions for our initiative started to come in, its direction became very clear to us. This art vehicle had to serve the community during the pandemic and be a place where feelings could be shared, merged and heard. Utterly inclusive and narrative-free, it allowed people to shamelessly express their sadness, their fears, their hopes and their joy. Whatever we received, good or bad, all works submitted were welcomed. We just wanted people to paint like no-one was watching, and send their pieces to us.”

To the delight of the APL, submissions arrived in their hundreds. “People need a creative outlet during times of uncertainty. Even if they themselves are not participating, simply by viewing art that other people have created, one experiences the sense of belonging,” says Sam. “When a community can come together openly, using positive means to express their feelings, it fosters strength, recovery and growth. And when the murals do finally go up, the whole UAE community will see themselves and the spectrum of feelings that we all collectively shared alone with one another and with the world at large – perhaps helping them achieve a personal sense of heroism and even connect to a very optimistic sense for the future.” 

Art Painting Lab

Sana Maarrawi’s submission to the Community Art Collaboration project

The process of viewing and engaging with art itself is a recognised method of dealing with stress and anxiety. Neurobiologist Semir Zeki found that just viewing art creates feelings of joy, similar to the sensation of falling in love. Additionally, it relieves mental exhaustion in the same way that spending time outdoors does – indeed walking in nature, losing oneself in music and admiring art directly influences health and life expectancy. But even without a daily dose of mother nature, art can help. 

Dubai-based gallerist Ghada Kunash agrees that both viewing and creating art has a hugely beneficial effect on mental health, making a profound impact on those struggling with anxiety, stress or other health issues. “The work of one of our artists in particular seems to have a significantly positive effect upon mental health,” says Ghada, managing director of The Workshop’s Fann A Porter in Jumeirah. “Whether it’s here in Dubai, Amman or Cairo, I’ve talked to many visitors who come to see the exhibitions of Syrian artist Majd Kurdieh, who all say his work helps to make their souls feel lighter, and makes them smile inspite of whatever personal suffering they may be facing.” 

Creating a group known as ‘The Very Scary Butterfly Gang,’ Kurdieh’s characters speak his thoughts through his paintings, revealing his philosophy on life. On a mission to steal the sadness of their neighbours, the gang’s weapon of choice is a flower, a symbol for love, hope and optimism. “We’ve received so many messages from visitors telling us how much Majd’s work has affected them,” reveals Ghada. 

Art Painting Lab

Majd Kurdieh, Untitled, Surrender To Love Series, 2018

“A cancer patient receiving chemotherapy told us how looking at his paintings online everyday positively a ffcted the process of her healing. Another man infected with Covid-19 told us how much he looked forward to seeing which artworks Majd would post on Facebook every day, which helped him manage his long period of isolation in quarantine so much more positively.” 

Holding online art classes hosted by The Workshop during lockdown (ongoing due to high demand), Kurdieh taught the basics of drawing combined with art appreciation sessions, helping participants to de-stress during quarantine whilst giving them new tools to express themselves. “Receiving artistic work sends many feelings to the soul – it can be joy or sadness, contentment, discontent, hope or despair. But no matter how different these feelings are, they are gentle rains that irrigate the gardens of the mind and heart so that a person can bloom from within,” he explains. 

Kurdieh is a firm believer in the inherent power of art, but notes it has a particular relevance during the current challenging period. “In these times, the importance of art lies in its ability to create many parallel worlds that a person can turn to. You can sail inside a painting hanging on a wall; fly inside the pages of a novel; stroll inside a piece of music as you sit relaxed in the sitting room,” he explains. “Art at all times is a lifeline in the seas of this choppy world. He is a friend of man, accompanying him in all his feelings, taking his hand as he walks towards the most beautiful and human of places.” 

Main Image: Photographed by Philip Riches, MOJEH 19

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