The art of good health

(image © David Shrigley)

Art helps us access and express parts of ourselves that are often unavailable to other forms of human interaction. It flies below the radar, delivering nourishment for our soul and returning with stories from the unconscious […] Making and consuming art lifts our spirits and keeps us sane.
Grayson Perry

While a large proportion of my physical and mental health is sustained through time spent running, swimming, practicing yoga and going to the gym, there is another element of my general wellbeing that is nourished through the arts. Whether it is in the hours spent wandering around an art gallery or lost in a book, at a life drawing class or choir practice, the moments when I engage with the art world bring me a sense of total peace, joy, presence and fulfilment.

Over the past year I have found myself thinking more and more about the positive role that the arts can play in our mental and physical health. To this end, last summer I set up a life drawing course at work. With funding support from our staff Wellbeing Committee, the group was established with the primary goal of taking colleagues away from their desks and into a creative space where they could engage in the moment through a practice distinct in pace and style from their everyday job. In these classes the process of drawing – being creative and present, looking, seeing and recreating shapes and forms – served as a meditative and mindful process, with the success of the class being measured as much by the feelings and reflections of the participants, as by the results of charcoal on paper.

This class is, of course, only a tiny fraction of a much wider and ever-growing movement from within the the arts and cultural heritage sector to consider the role that the sector can play within the field of health and wellbeing.

the arts can reconstruct you
© David Shrigley

In 2014 an All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing was launched to discuss developments and policy in the field of arts and health. Two years later, the group published an almost 200 page report entitled Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing in which they assert that:

More and more people now appreciate that arts and culture can play a valuable part in helping tackle some of the most challenging social and health conditions. Active participation in the visual and performing arts, music and dance can help people facing a lonely old age, depression, or mental illness; it can maintain levels of independence and curiosity and […] it can bring great joy and so improve the quality of life for those engaged.

This paper offers a formal acknowledgement of a shift within the sector surrounding the question of who arts and heritage spaces are for and how they can serve audiences beyond the traditional academic and curatorial visitors. Within the gallery world there are signs that institutions are increasingly keen to schedule health and wellbeing initiatives into their programming. Manchester Art Gallery, for example, have a whole of section of their programme dedicated to wellness, with events to encourage visitors to engage with arts mindfully and wellbeing tours of their galleries.

These, and other initiatives hosted within both arts, care and clinical settings, are designed to be expressive, restorative, educational and therapeutic, working preventively, to enhance recovery, or to improve the quality of life for people with long-term or terminal conditions. Here the arts can play an important role in giving patients a greater sense of self; as Eva Okwonga notes in Creative Health:

Artistic self expression gives participants an identity beyond illness.

Programming around dementia is also increasing, as Nicci Gerrard highlighted in her Guardian article last year, pointing to projects including the Wellcome Foundation’s Dementia Research projectManchester Camerata’s Music in Mind, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Music for a While and the Alzheimer’s Society’s Singing for the Brain. As Gerrard observes:

Dementia is an area where the arts can radically enhance quality of life by finding a common language and by focusing on everyday, in-the-moment creativity.

This is a sentiment shared by Lord Howarth of Newport, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group, who stated that:

The arts have a vital role to play for people with dementia. Research demonstrates that visual arts, music, dance, digital creativity and other cultural activities can help to delay the onset of dementia and diminish its severity.

the arts can help you see
© David Shrigley

Meanwhile, organisations such as the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing, the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing and London Arts in Health Forum, have been brought to the fore in recent years, at their hearts the belief that:

By supplementing medicine and care, the arts can improve the health of people who experience mental or physical health problems. Engaging in the arts can promote prevention of disease and build wellbeing.

Working in the arts and cultural heritage sector myself, with a passion for art and an interest in health and wellness, this movement fills me with so much hope and excitement. The growing possibility that through the arts – be they visual, practical, musical, theatrical or literary – we can work together to promote health, happiness and wellbeing and that we can help people through times of distress, illness and trauma, has to be a positive thing.

I want to finish with this quote from Nicci Gerrard:

Art can be medicine, for body and soul.

 

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The pursuit of happiness

IMG_1319I wanted to write one last post before I leave the US so I’m writing this while sitting in my favourite spot, looking out onto the Hudson, sun on my back, iced coffee in hand.

I thought I’d write a top ten of things to do in New York based on my last three, perfect weeks here, but I couldn’t narrow it down to ten so here’s my top eighteen instead!

In no particular order:

1. Pack your running shoes and go running
Everyone in New York seems to run. Young, old, fast or slow there is hardly a pathway or park that you won’t see a runner, and with some of the most beautiful urban running routes I’ve encountered it’s really no surprise.

Central Park is full of great little routes of varying lengths and I recommend just getting lost zigzagging the paths. Riverside Park also provides beautiful views of New Jersey accompanied by the gentle lapping sound of the Hudson and some beautiful boats silhouetted against the sky.

IMG_1174If you were just going to do one run, I’d recommend the route around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park. The views are spectacular although the loop itself is only 2.5 km you can easily add on extensions into the park or make a second loop if you desire.

2. Walk
Walk everywhere, or as much as you can. One of my absolute favourite things about New York is the grid system. It means that even those, like me, with the absolute worst sense of direction, can always find their way.

Walking everywhere has meant that between points a and b I have encountered many cute little coffee shops, quirky cocktail bars, sunny little parks and stunning vista, emerging from quite unexpected vantage points, all chance encounters that I would have missed on the metro. Walking is such a great way of piecing the city together, on top of which, it’s such great exercise. Give yourself lots of time just to walk in Central Park. I’ve walked through it most days going to and from work and each time I still seem to find a spot I haven’t seen before.

IMG_07483. Visit Chelsea Market
Chelsea in New York is like the Liverpool Street of London, with Chelsea Market an American Spittalfields. With vintage stalls and amazing delis and cafes it’s easy to lose yourself for a good few hours. It’s all inside too, so perfect for rainy days or as an air conditioned retreat when the sun is out.

4. Walk the High Line
While in Chelsea and the Meat Packing District it’s really worth walking the High Line. This little garden retreat above the busy streets, while congested in parts, is also home to many benches and corners away from the crowds perfect to enjoy the views of the city.

5. Hit balls off Chelsea Pier
Not far from the High Line is the pier sports complex. Even if you are the worst golfer (like me) there is a certain degree of pleasure in driving golf balls off this high tiered driving range into the nets while overlooking the river. The complex also has a climbing wall if you are feeling particularly athletic.

IMG_13146. See iconic works of art
It’s a must. Even the least arty type can’t help but be awed by the Frick’s Vermeer’s and Rembrandt’s, MoMA’s Picasso’s and Monet’s or the Met’s Degas’ and van Gogh’s. All within a short stroll (with the exception of MoMA which is in Midtown) of each other along Museum Mile on the Upper East Side. Here you can also visit the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and the Cooper Hewitt.

The Met’s rooftop garden (and bar), as well as a perch on the steps for some people watching are worth a visit in themselves. Similarly MoMA’s sculpture garden offers a nice retreat in the centre of a bustling Midtown.

7. Sacrifice tea, drink iced coffee
I love tea but unfortunately I’m yet to find a good cup of tea in New York. What New York does do exceptionally well however, is coffee. I’d not tried iced coffee until this trip and I have to say it’s one of the best discoveries. I love my coffees at home, but when it’s 30 degrees hot coffee appeals that little less, but iced coffee with a spot of soya milk, amazing!

8. Watch some baseball
Nothing beats live sport and let’s be honest the American do live sports with style. Whether it’s the Mets or the Yankees, get yourself a beer and some junk food and cheer on the home side!

IMG_05179. Look at the city from the top
In any city this is my favourite thing to do and the Empire State Building offers spectacular views of Manhattan. I’ve also had Top of the Rock recommended to me. Either way, this is certainly a city you need to see from on high.

10. and from the water
The Staten Island ferry is free and offers incredible views of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty.

IMG_0353You can also take the Circle Line sightseeing boat, however at around thirty bucks for a two hour trip I’d recommend taking the ferry instead.

11. Go Downtown
On your way back from Staten Island you can walk through the financial district, along Wall Street and via the 9/11 memorial, which is definitely worth seeing.

I loved the aesthetic of the financial district with it’s cleanly cut, no nonsense  skyscrapers reflecting the blue of the sky.

12. and Midtown
From the sleek Financial District to glitzy Midtown, highlights include the Rockafella Plaza, Grand Central Station, the West End, the New York Public Library, MoMA, Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany’s and of course, Time Square.

Time Square should only be viewed after dark; in the day it has a more than slightly seedy feel, by night it’s spectacular.

IMG_090013. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
For the views and for a trip to Brooklyn Bridge Park on the other side and of course Prospect Park, further into the heart of Brooklyn.

14. and the Williamsburg Bridge
It’s certainly not as pretty as the Brooklyn Bridge but it brings you right onto the main road through the  hipster central of New York.

It’s cuter than Shoreditch but you get the general idea and with a wealth of vintage shops, cool bars and cafes, which spill out into Bedford Street it’s definitely worth a trip. If you want hipster slightly closer to the heart of Manhattan, Alphabet City offers a good alternative.

15. Drink cocktails
The wine can be hit and miss and pretty pricey either way, the cocktails are always a hit!

16. Eat bagels
They’re so tasty and I refer you back to my post on American cuisine.

IMG_061217. Go to Coney Island
It’s kitsch and cutesy and kind of weird, but it’s worth the metro ride. Walk along the pier, paddle in the sea and wander around the funfair. It’s a bit like Blackpool, but hotter!

18. Watch the world go by alongside the Hudson
I’ve spent mornings over breakfast here, lazy Sunday afternoons reading my book or just watching the world go by and evenings to see the sun set.

IMG_1204The Upper Westside is a haven away from tourists and the bustle of town. It’s sufficiently residential that it feels like home and sufficiently commercial that you have everything you need on hand. It has been the perfect home for three weeks and I’ll be too sad to say goodbye.