In this article I would like to share with you my experiences and my reflections on the theme of art as a tool for education and well-being, a central element of my work as a health and training professional. My passion for art, especially for drawing and painting, but also for theater and photography has permeated my professional trajectory and has shaped over the years what I consider an experiential approach, defined as “a free mind” (“A mente libera”, Mandolini, 2012), which considers artistic expression not only as an end, or as a process, but rather as a starting point. What my customers often report is precisely a difficulty in starting a creative activity, to trace a first sign on a blank sheet, metaphorically, to make a decision in an empty, new space, that opens, that is, a thousand possibilities.
Says Marcel Proust:
“Thanks to art, instead of seeing only one world, ours, we see it multiply, and the more original artists there are, the more worlds we have available, different from each other more than those that run endlessly, and that , many centuries after, called Rembrandt or Vermeer, they still send us their characteristic ray of light “.
Art, cinema, theater, dance, they are doors to other worlds, they are active in losing their identity, which is confused in those moments with those forms, those sounds, those characters, so far away yet so close. This is, in my opinion, the crucial point of every theory that has to do with what is defined as the psychology of art, whatever the means employed to explain such a complex and varied phenomenon, which sees the interweaving of inner worlds of many people (from the single artist to the broad public), of concrete realities (political, cultural and social) past, present and projected into the future and which opens up the relationship between Art and Exploration; the latter is the connection that I consider most significant for the purposes of artistic-psychological research, in terms of artistic production and use. Looking at art as a vehicle, tool, opportunity, exploration of new worlds, new possibilities, new techniques, new skills, such as exploration and constitution of new connections.
Psychology of art
Art, always rooted in human behavior, is a natural peculiar reflection of its cognitive, and therefore exploratory, and cognitive activity. Art, in its graphic-pictorial, sculptural and musical guise, finds its testimony in the most remote prehistoric sites, and is present in all cultures, archaic, recent, primitive and evolved. We can say that art is the product of a behavior that has a distant biological origin, that is, the need to bring order to the perceived world, a behavior that is transformed and transformed at a phylogenetic and ontogenetic level. The psychology of art arises at the moment in which the exploration and study of human behavior is applied to what is the artistic and aesthetic sphere. The research field of the psychology of art includes the study of the cognitive processes that intervene in artistic behavior, of creation and execution and in aesthetic behavior, of reception and fruition of the artistic work (Argenton, 1996). In fact, both these behaviors are characterized by the performance of activities based on psychological processes and factors: motivational, mnemonic, affective, intellectual, perceptive, representative, ideative, imaginative, that is all cognitive factors.
Art and education
The universality of the artistic phenomenon is often in contradiction with the evident labeling of art as an elitist discipline, understandable by people specifically trained and / or even by people with innate talent or particularly talented in artistic techniques. This bias is accompanied by a predilection for scientific / language subjects that many school systems have adopted in various countries since the early school years, without taking into account the importance of the continuous stimulation of the right side of our brain for an adequate adaptation to environmental changes, which is global, flexible, original, creative. In this regard I consider the ArtfulThinking Palette project by Harvard Project Zero to be very interesting at an educational level, a project that showed how the inclusion of art and music within the entire curriculum in a transversal manner produces an increase in memory capacity, an improvement of the ability to recognize emotions, an increase in interpersonal skills and facilitate creative and divergent thinking.
Art and well-being: art therapy and art as therapy
On a psycho-physiological level there are numerous positive effects that artistic practice can have on health, regardless of the level of experience. In a recent study by the University of Drexel, 2016, it was shown that practicing art for 45 minutes causes a significant lowering of the cortisol level even in people without any previous artistic experience. The study was carried out by professionals in a suitable and protected context and the materials used (collages, pastels, felt-tip pens, so simple to use and poorly structured) have certainly facilitated the pleasure of the experience, confirming the correlation between the positive effect of artistic experience and professionalism of the facilitator and adequacy of the setting. I preferred to use the word facilitator rather than the art therapist / therapist because the “positive power” that art exercises on our well-being is not necessarily bound to the therapeutic context. In this regard I refer to the distinction that the American Psychological Association Div.10 Psychology of the Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts makes between art therapy and art as therapy. The latter has to do with the universal value of art I mentioned earlier, so the act of performing an artistic and creative activity, or admiring a work of art (where art is not just meant for painting or sculpture but also music, dance, theater, photography etc.) produces at a psycho-physiological level changes that can be positive for our well-being. Think for example of the state of FLOW reworked by Csikszentmihalyi in 1996 that the aesthetic experience can induce while we contemplate a painting, or a feeling of relaxation and liberation that we experience when we listen to a piece of music. Art in general is associated at the physiological level with a reduction in the level of stress (Girija Kaimal, Kendra Ray, Juan Muniz, 2016), an improvement in blood pressure (American Public Health Association Study, 2010), the stimulation of dopamine considered the pleasure neurotransmitter (Zeki, 2016) and an improvement in mood, made possible by redirecting attention to a significant object. From a psychological point of view, artistic activities favor a renewed vision of oneself as creators of meaning, promoting self-knowledge, self-esteem, self-regulation, spontaneous expression and self-acceptance. The artistic practice also promotes the management of space and time, the recognition of one’s resources and promotes the recognition and respect of one’s own times. Although the artistic activity is often associated with the solitary figure of the artist, practicing art in groups offers the opportunity to experiment with new roles and identities, thanks to the comparison with people who have a different approach to life than ours. The creative process thus becomes a shared experience that can produce a true collective work of art, the result of the exchange of experiences and (inter) personal points of view. Artists, together with scientists and entrepreneurs, are role models for innovation in our societies. It is no coincidence that artistic education is commonly considered to be a means to develop the skills considered critical for innovation: critic and creative thinking, motivation, self-confidence, the ability to communicate and collaborate effectively with others.
Taking the APA Div.10 distinction again, art therapy is defined as the clinical discipline that considers the curative effects of art and the evaluation of works by qualified professionals experienced in psychology and art therapy. Artistic creation is in fact considered a largely unconscious process that provides a window into the mind of the creator. Through the analysis of visual elements such as the positioning of an image on the page, the colors chosen, the type of lines used, the use of space, the number and integration of the elements, and the apparent movement of the image, the professional is able to assess the person’s emotional state, provide adequate advice and monitor the progress of the path taken together over time. Furthermore, for the purposes of evaluation, various projective tests can be used, such as the House Test and the Tree test, the human figure test. Art therapy is particularly effective for reworking traumatic events and with children and patients who may find it difficult to express their experiences verbally. There are many materials that can be used in an art therapy session and can vary greatly depending on the patient, therapist and availability: water colors, colored pencils, markers, watercolors, magazines, ropes, photos, etc.
Creative / artistic techniques for education and well-being
I would like to emphasize the importance that the setting covers regardless of which technique a professional wants to include in his / her educational / therapeutic / wellness promotion within a group or during an individual meeting. Whether it is a school classroom, a therapeutic center, or a recreational / cultural one, the organization of the space must be designed in such a way as to leave as much space as possible for people’s movements and enough freedom for the creative gesture, which in some cases can produce stains and splashes of color on environments and clothes. In this case it is useful to prevent the provision of protective sheets and special clothing for the occasion, so as to favor the expression of self in the participants and minimize the worry of dirtying the classroom and their clothes. If this is not possible, it is advisable to structure the intervention in an alternative manner. It is also desirable that the space enjoy natural light in such a way as to favor full perception of colors and that it is properly ventilated. Being numerous the techniques that can be included in the various interventions, it is necessary that the facilitator has previously acquired a certain level of experience with the materials and that he has very clear the objectives of the intervention, to contain moments of uncertainty on the part of the participants and to direct adequately the energy that will arise during the creative process.
As for the drawing techniques, the materials that I consider most interesting, besides the classic pencil and pastel, are the charcoal, better if natural to favor a more authentic experience; I mean, that is, the real coal that we find in the country stoves, otherwise sold pressed in the fine art shops with the name of “fusaggine”, excellent to work then from white towards black and from black towards white on a normal sheet of paper with the help of a simple rubber bread. Before starting with drawing techniques, which can also include the scribble technique in all its various versions, I always consider it appropriate to perform a “visual warming” by focusing attention on the fundamental elements of the visual language around us. In painting, although water tempera are the materials most often used, I think it is important to offer a wide choice of materials, including watercolors, acrylics, ecoline, oil pastels. As these are now readily available in the ready-made version, I believe that a minimum level of knowledge on the part of the facilitators regarding the origin of these colors is important. Some easy color production techniques with pure pigments and food can also be very engaging and expressive interventions for participants. During my sessions I also make extensive use of photographs taken previously by the participants and / or for shots taken together through simple creative photography techniques with mobile phones or cameras. Indeed, photography quickly offers an immense visual vocabulary and often opens up a new way of seeing oneself and the world around oneself. The contemporary self-portrait, the well-known selfie, is for example a key element of my sessions: quick, simple, immediate, respectful of privacy, since the first meeting the perfect ally to break the ice and to start a dialogue, even with who shows a resistance to taking the picture. Working in 3D is another activity that recurs in my work: clay, paper, found materials, plasticine, objects of affection. The work of art that emerges from the combination or assembly of different elements is generally the result of a broader path, but I recommend the use of objects even from the first sessions. During a session the participants can work starting from their emotions, from an evocative external object or from experimenting with materials; working in 3D generally allows combining the three dimensions. The materials and techniques that can be used must always take into consideration the number of participants and their age, the amount of time available, the setting, the availability of materials and the knowledge of the same by the facilitator, but above all of the objective of the intervention, which varies greatly depending on whether it is an educational, therapeutic or well-being promotion.
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