Reflections and (re)reading the book Art as Therapy

Things have been a bit all over the place recently. Moving house, moving studio, finishing uni. One other thing I have been starting and stopping a lot is my studio practice. I have been thinking and sketching about it in background for a while now, but it’s not something I have had a routine with. For today, I want to reflect on what I have been thinking and sketching about recently, and pull my ideas into this post.

Re-reading Art as Therapy

I read this book years ago and the arguments in it really stayed in with me. Being home for COVID it stuck out on my bookshelf and I was lured into picking it up again. It turns out that one art degree later and this book has only become more important to me! Art as Therapy argues that art is a form of therapy (surprise surprise) that should be harnessed in public and private life. The co-authors did a brilliant job at writing about very complex issues in very simple ways, for instance writing about our faults as humans, and how art can be used as a tool to help us with them.

Having just graduated, it felt fitting to re-read this book, and consider how I can act on these philosophies in my career. This book affected me as a viewer of art, an artist, and as someone with an interest in art academia. I want to separate my learnings into these three categories:

As a viewer of art

I learnt about why objects are important in my life. I learnt about how a great artwork I see in a gallery can make a positive difference to my life even once I leave to go home. I learnt about how I can surround myself with artworks, crafted objects and images to guide me towards living, feeling, acting and thinking better.

As someone with an interest in art academia

This book made me be more critical towards how art is written about in museums and galleries. The book made this great point that the little bits of writing next to a painting in big institutions are written as if the reader already has an interest in art. But in fact most people who walk through the rooms in say the National Gallery in London really don’t. Art as Therapy suggests the writing next to art in institutions should provide a way in, a way for a strange looking 400 year religious painting to mean something to a modern day secular accountant.

This idea plus lots of other great ideas in the book are points I really want to put into practice in my own curation.

As an artist

I learnt about the value of my work, about the shortcomings of painting and drawings, but also the power of them. There was this one bit of the book that really stuck with me: the book argued that historically, paintings make the everyday glamorous, and make us notice and appreciate things like light hitting the wall in a beautiful way, or the colours in a dazzling sunset. Therefore painters focus on aspects of our human life experience and make us notice them, making us savour moments that are perhaps difficult to put into words.

If anyone was to ever ask me what the point is of my art practice, in spending so much time thinking, sketching, talking, writing, drawing, painting about the experience of looking up – in woodlands or at the open sky – I would respond by saying I am artist that is encouraging people to notice a part of the everyday human experience that is tricky to put into words, and I hope that in doing so, my artwork helps us to understand these innate parts of our human experience and savour them more.

The sky and the experience of looking up

The universal but generational experience of the sky

We look up at the sky so much, and there is something human in us doing so. There is something innate in us that makes us want to look up at the big blue, crane our heads out of the window at ominous storm clouds, or glance up at the night sky on the way back from the pub.

It might feel natural and ancient to look up at the sky, but I don’t think the way we relate to the sky once our faces are pointing up has much to do with our ancestors. Instead I think it has everything to do with the culture we are currently immersed in.

The sci-fi films me watch about asteroids crashing into earth, or the books we read about alien civilisations, the news stories about new planets being discovered and rockets launching to the ISS, the planes that float past and disturb a quiet park and the knowledge the ozone is getting thinner with climate change, are some of the cultural associations that affect how we experience the sky.

It was the text The Discarded Image by C.S Lewis which made me aware that hundreds of years ago, the sky was not the gateway to uncountable other worlds, stories and possibilities of progress, but instead a great ceiling which held heaven on the other side.

So what does this have to do with my art practice?

I don’t know why this theme has fascinated me so much, but that doesn’t matter! I want to paint it. I have been doing lots of drawing, in pencil or ink, and this always involves lines in the sky, rings, lines that attempt to show the vastness and size of the sky, a passage way that looks alien even. When I get back in the studio I want to push these ideas much further with actual paint – woah. With acrylic sketchbook pages en plein air, and also big paintings. The glazing style that I have been doing might work well? I don’t know until I try. I’m looking forward to seeing what I find.

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