The Creative Spark – Art as Relief

By Kaitlin Murphy-Knudsen


Most of us paying attention to the state of our psyches in the last year won’t be surprised on any one day to find that all is not well.

Even for those who weren’t living with a diagnosed mental health condition, the pandemic and recent events seem to be asking us all to become buff surfers riding the waves of anxiety that are flooding the world right now. Children have been thrown into the water before they know how to swim, and the American Academy of Pediatrics identifies “mental health as one of the most pressing child health concerns we face.” The AP also describes a rising global and massive level of stress and anxiety-related behaviors among children.

Recently I read Ronald de Leeuw’s The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. I confess that having put him firmly in the “painter” box, I had no idea what a good writer he was.

In his letters he connected reflections on literature, music, painting and life – his own life having been changed by the mental illness that intensified as he got older. Though he sometimes chafed against the limitations of his craft and the Paris art business, he described painting as a “relief,” his reprieve from suffering.

Shakespeare’s historical plays riled up the painter. “He had always to ‘contemplate a blade of grass, a branch of pine, an ear of corn […] to calm myself down again […].” And of course, to paint those blades of grass, sunflowers, orchards, almond branches and vast skies full of stars and sunrise from his hospital window.
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Van Gogh Museum – Almond Blossom 1890″ by MicheleLovesArt is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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In all, he left more than 900 paintings, only one of them sold before his death (perhaps helpful for striving artists to remember when your work is declined).
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What might this mean for you?

Skip ahead 120 years, to wherever you find yourself right now. Might the same thing be true for us? Even if you think you haven’t the slightest flame of creativity glowing inside you, even if you insist that your smoldering flame fuels only weariness and anxiety, keep your eyeballs here while I make a suggestion.

In the New York Times, artist Kyohei Sakaguchi spoke of art as self-care – life saving and necessary after he’d become depressed and suicidal following the Fukushima Disaster. “I think art is a technique for life,” he said. “I do what I do in order to keep living.”

The Creative Pinellas “You Good” campaign reflects this idea, focusing on mental health and well-being in Pinellas County through life-giving art.
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My thesis:
You are a Creative Human who can psychologically benefit from your creativity
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Don’t believe me? The whole field of art therapy and the research backing it suggests that the benefits are real and quantifiable. According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, “Studies have shown that expressing themselves through art can help people with depression, anxiety, or cancer,” and importantly, the “benefits aren’t dependent on a person’s talents.

And “doing creative activities may be more effective than merely appreciating creative works.” (italics mine)
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If you already know and revel in this knowledge, great. I hope you’ll have some fun in that space.

But if you come to the arts as an observer alone, this is my invitation to you. Think of some things you’d really like to just fall away from your wrangled mind for a while (You can go back to them later, I promise!). If you think I’m full of #$%@, consider suspending your disbelief to dip the tip of your toe into the notion that you are a Creative Human, and there can be relief in this.

It doesn’t matter if you think you suck at it. I used to teach writing to high school students and adult learners (which we all are). And if there is one thing common to every single class it was the trepidation that can come with being asked to challenge a firmed up belief about oneself – in this case, that we aren’t “good enough” at something to try it — which if you think about it for half a second, makes no sense.

It goes something like this –“BAH, humbug! I’m an accounting major, what do you want from me?” “I didn’t get the creative gene.” “I’m bad at that.” “Please don’t laugh when you read this. I know it’s bad.” Or even from those in other creative fields, “I draw/sing/paint/dance. I can’t write.” Granted, there are real obstacles to writing for some, rooted in the brain and causing significant anxiety for people who have to write for school or work.

Rest assured, this is not a writing assignment. Ok maybe a tiny bit, but only in a scribble-ly way and you won’t have to show anyone. I mostly promise.

Even within the arts, does your spark end with your particular discipline? Or might there be something in exploring other forms of creativity that we aren’t supposed to be “good at?”

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“Piano Keys at 24mm” by Rich Renomeron is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Especially if you’ve had trouble concentrating and producing work in the pandemic, stepping cleanly outside your discipline creatively can be a good way to keep things moving – because there is no associated pressure to live up to the label on your web page.

For example, this year I started playing the piano again, more than twenty years after my high school piano teacher gave up on me after a few years because I had stopped practicing. Today I am more grateful that my parents were able to provide lessons and my mother insisted that I try. Because while “pianist” will never show up on my resume, there is relief here. When I become frustrated or brain-boggled by writing or life, I can learn to play a new song.

This is hard because I am a painfully slow sight-reader, especially when notes wander too far from the staff where letters are neatly corralled for easy reading (EGBDF! FACE!…), or if too many chords try to squish on there at once. It takes so much focus for me to play the correct notes that it becomes a meditation – my concentration becoming the bouncer who doesn’t let a single stressful thought into the dance party of drunken colliding bodies that is my mind on some days.

So, Creative Human, what might creativity as relief look like for you? I invite you to spend some time contemplating that creative spark with me. I hope you will find something here to light your creative spark and ease you into the weekend, where you may find reprieve.
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This week. . .

If you live in a space that respects your contemplative time, maybe just let a few new thoughts about your creativity bonk around inside your head for the next week, jotting it down if you want and staying open to seeing where it takes you. If you live in a crowded space with to-do lists coming out your ears and little time to think, maybe you rip off a corner of that list and scribble a few ideas that sound appealingly creative. Or, maybe you are stress free and just want to do something fun.

Whatever your situation, find a notebook, journal, sketchbook, or a Notes folder on your tablet or phone. Name it “Creativity” or “Brain Fun” or “Imagination,” or something else that marks it as separate from your “official” work or duties.

Next, and this is very simple, just tap into the collective unconscious ether that is creative energy and —

Just kidding! Or rather, not yet. I want to include those of you who balk at the idea of yourself as a Creative Human, and those who know you are but put creativity in an “extra” or “luxury” box instead of a necessary one.
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“Notebook collection” by Dvortygirl is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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Last step. . .

Mentally or verbally send the thought out there (just, out — into the air around you, or wherever you want) that you’re listening. Then listen. And don’t ask me what I mean by that because it’s different for everyone and I don’t know your answer.

But I can say, definitively and absolutely, that if you stay with me here for a bit, you’ll have some kind of mostly but not always satisfying answer by the time we’re done (How’s that for knowing the litigious society in which I write?). Or at least you’ll know what I think, so there.

That’s it. Easy peasy. Thank you for reading, and for contemplating your creativity. Whether you are a professional artist, creative tinkerer, or an “I’m not creative” humbug-ger who denies you have a creative spark at all, I’m glad you’re here.
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You can explore the work of Kaitlin Murphy-Knudsen here



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