This was not my lecture hall, this was not my professor. It was 20 years ago and I cannot recall much about the strange students that were sat around me or the location of that musty, crowded room. But I do vividly recall something – the picture that was projected onto the screen.
The painting was Frida Kahlo’s 'My Birth' painted in 1932. It depicted a woman, shrouded by a sheet, birthing a bloodied child with an adult head bearing the unmistakable monobrow of Kahlo herself.
Frida painted this following several miscarriages and the death of her mother. This painting, like many of Kahlo’s, is fraught with suffering. By the time she painted 'My Birth', the artist had already endured polio and lived with chronic pain following a street car accident which nearly took her life. It was through art that Frida strived to communicate and cope with her pain and emotional distress – even attributing her happiness to it:
“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy as long as I can paint” – Frida Kahlo
I am compelled by Frida’s story and inspired by her art. Unlike Frida, I am in good health for which I am sincerely grateful. Like Frida, I am certain that painting makes me a happier person.
Distracts from other worries – it is hard to dwell on troubles once in the flow of a painting. It has the power to engage you so fully, bringing you into the present moment.
Reduces stress – studies show that both creating and observing art can reduce cortisol, the 'stress hormone'*. Doing something you love also releases endorphins – feel-good chemicals that combat stress and reduce pain.
Builds self-esteem – I feel anything but confident as I start each project. Painting provides a challenge and with each hour I paint, I am building skills. It is an activity with a tangible result and the more I dedicate myself, slowly but surely, the more I can see improvement and feel a sense of achievement.
Creates a healthy state of mind - participants in a 2014 study* who produced art demonstrated: 'a significant improvement in psychological resilience' as well as increased levels of "functional connectivity" in the parts of the brain responsible for introspection, self-monitoring and memory. The study, involving participants aged between 62 and 70, also concluded that creating artwork can delay ageing.
"In the haunted house of life, art is the only stair that doesn't creak" Tom Robbins
*Normalisation of salivary cortisol levels and self-report stress by a brief lunchtime visit to an art gallery - Angela Clow with Cathrine Fredhoi, University of Westminster 2006. *How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity - Anne Bolwerk, Christian Maihofner, July 2014.