The Meditative Quality of Art

From early childhood up until my early twenties, I was an artist. Not in any particularly prolific or professional sense; just someone who liked to sketch, doodle, and draw fairly regularly. I cannot recall when or why I stopped exactly, but I have been meaning to get back into it, and on occasion I do manage to pull of a crude sketch or two.

A recent article in the Washington Post is giving me yet another reason to get back into the habit. As so many artists throughout history have attested, there is evidence that creative activity is good for the mind, as well as the body, being utilized to great effect in therapy. Everything from depression to post traumatic stress disorder and even cancer (namely symptoms like fatigue and pain) is mitigated through the creative process.

Whatever the exact mechanics of it, there is just something about making art that helps us feel better, both emotionally and physically. Here are four evidence-backed reasons, courtesy of WaPo  and Fulfillment Daily,  why letting loose with one’s inner creativity, regardless of skill level, is well worth trying. Continue reading

The Art of Bus Stops

The Soviet regime might have been repressive and stultifying in a lot of areas, but one place where it exercised a considerable amount of boldness and innovation is public infrastructure — including the humble bus stop.

Source: Foreign Policy / Christopher Herwig

Source: Foreign Policy / Christopher Herwig

The photos were taken by Canadian photographer Christopher Herwig, who has spent over a decade travelling through most of the former Soviet Union to document these neglected architectural marvels. You can see a larger version of each photo by clicking here.

With their unusual colors, shapes, and themes, these otherwise functional structures look more like art installments than bus stops. As Foreign Policy explains:

The Soviet Union ascribed an outsized importance to public transportation. Buses, trains, and metro lines were a sign of progress; they were also a powerful symbol of connection and unity, as the Politburo worked to build a communist society throughout 15 ethnically diverse republics that covered a landmass stretching from the Baltic Sea to the shores of the Pacific. Perhaps the most famous legacy of this Soviet fixation on transport is the Moscow Metro system, with its glittering chandeliers and its elaborate murals depicting scenes of proletariat glory. But Moscow was dressed up in order to be shown off — to serve as a demonstration of socialist power and might for visiting foreign dignitaries. Most citizens lived outside the capital, and for them, buses were the predominant means of transportation, accounting for nearly 44 percent of traffic throughout the country by the mid-1980s. What makes the extravagant, eye-catching nature of the common Soviet roadside bus stop all the more surprising is that these were often tucked away in hidden corners of the empire, far from the eyes of foreigners.

Soviet architecture is best known for its overpowering conformity and functionality: The term conjures up images of rows of low-slung buildings and mass-produced apartment blocks. These bus stops, however, were an unlikely outlet for creative expression. Local artists were given unprecedented freedom to experiment with design, color, and material. Many of the designs were commissioned at the local level, which allowed for artists and architects to reflect the character and history of their individual republics. What came about was thousands of unique creations, covering a range of shapes and sizes.

Artists still worked within the confines of Soviet art, employing communist imagery of peasants in wheat fields and relying on austere, minimalist structures. But the more flamboyant bus stops reimagined this aesthetic, twisting standard outlines and incorporating local elements into their design. For instance, a bus stop modeled after the Silk Road-era Arystan Bab mausoleum in Aralsk, Kazakhstan sports a minaret and crescent moon, while one in the Black Sea coastal town of Gagra takes the shape of a breaking wave, decorated with purple mosaic tiles.

These are just some of the amazing examples from Herwig’s collection. You can find more in his newly published “Soviet Bus Stops“.

An Amazing Time Lapse of Video of Austria

After two years and about five terabytes of footage, Thomas Pöcksteiner and Peter Jablonowski have created an unforgettable time lapse of their country. In less than three minutes, you can really appreciate the sheer natural and cultural beauty of this alpine nation of 8 million.

Courtesy of Gizmodo.

How Awe Can Heal

Among the feelings and experiences that transcend all cultures, languages, and civilizations is the sense of awe and wonder one has upon reflecting on the beauty of nature, a masterful work of art, or some other emotionally captivating sensory experience. While we all enjoy such feelings, most of us would probably never imagine that they could be good for our health.

But according to recent study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, embracing the beauty of the world — be it artwork, music, wilderness, etc. — has a measurable positive impact on both mental and physical wellness. As The Telegraph reports:

In two separate experiments on more than 200 young adults reported on a given day the extent to which they had experienced such positive emotions as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride.

Samples of gum and cheek tissue – known as oral mucosal transudate – taken that same day showed those who experienced more of these – in particular wonder and amazement – had the lowest levels of the cytokine Interleukin 6 which is a marker of inflammation.

Psychologist Dr Dacher Keltner, of California University in Berkeley, said: “That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy.”

Cytokines are chemicals necessary for herding cells to the body’s battlegrounds to fight infection, disease and trauma but too many are linked with disorders like type-2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s.

Dr Jennifer Stellar, of Toronto University who was at California University in Berkeley when she carried out the study, said: “Our findings demonstrate positive emotions are associated with the markers of good health.”

This is also one of the first studies to explore the role of cytokine in depression as well as autoimmune diseases; people with clinical depression also tended to have higher levels of inflammation, showing yet another correlation between physical and mental health. By feeling awed, curious, and captivated by something, individuals who would otherwise be withdrawn from the world’s beauty and left to wallow in self-perpetuating sadness and poor health can enjoy a palpable respite.

To be sure, these are the results of one relatively small study, involving a little over 200 young adults, and the researchers are by no means advocating nature or art as a substitute for medication, therapy, and the like. But this does confirm a long-standing observation of how a sense of awe of the world around us — be it natural or human-made — is good for mind, body, and soul (whether you define the latter in secular or spiritual terms).

Speaking for myself, I can definitely attest to feeling at my calmest and least depressed when I am listening to a brilliant composition or immersing myself in nature (even at a park or my own backyard). It has not always worked, nor should be expected to, but even the mere thought of all the beauty there is to embrace and experience is enough to comfort me during some of my darkest moments. Our species needs more than just the basic needs of survival to truly live and flourish. Together with diet, exercise, social support, and a sense of purpose, the fulfilment and stimulation that comes from all the natural and humanmade beauty of the world cannot be understated in importance. It all comes together.

Next time you are feeling sad or otherwise off in some way, consider giving this a try. Again, it is by no means a cure-all nor viable for everyone, but it is a shot. We all need to escape from our heads once in a while, especially if there is a lot despair and sadness stewing around. Never underestimate the sense of inspiration and comfort that well placed wonder can have.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

On This Day in 1793…

The Louvre officially opened in Paris with an exhibition of 537 paintings. Built in the 12th century as a military fortress, the building now housing the Louvre was a royal palace and then a private museum before the National Assembly, in the midst of the French Revolution, decreed it should be open to the public to display the nation’s great works.

Through centuries of government support and private donations, the Louvre’s world-famous collection has grown to nearly 35,000 objects, spanning almost every civilization, art style, and historical period from prehistory to the 21st century. The museum spans 652,300 square feet (60,600 square metres) and is the world’s most visited museum, receiving over 9 million visitors annually (about 15,000 a day).

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

The Man With the $10 Million African Art Collection

Brooklyn native Eric Edwards has amassed a collection of over 1,600 pieces of art from all 54 countries of Africa. Needless to say, as an aficionado of history and African culture, I am quite jealous — and not just because it is worth an estimated $10 million.

Check out the four-minute video by Mark Zemel, courtesy of The Atlantic. (Click to see full-screen version; sorry, WordPress cannot imbed certain videos.)

//www.theatlantic.com/video/iframe/398342/

The Town Where Guns Are Mandatory

Since 1982, the town of Kennesaw, Georgia, U.S. has required the head of every household to own a working firearm with ammunition. In this 12 minute short film, Canadian photographer and filmmaker Nicolas Lévesque profiled the small town of about 30,000 and captured their perspectives about the intersection of guns, culture, and American identity.

Click below to see the fullscreen version, or click here. (Sorry, videos sometimes do not embed properly.)

http://www.theatlantic.com/video/iframe/398495/

Courtesy of The Atlantic.

How Doodling Helps The Brain

From The Atlantic:

For most people, the big question isn’t “when did you start drawing?” but “when did you stop drawing?” Virtually everyone drew and doodled at one point in their lives. For artists and non-artists alike, drawing is about more than art—it’s about the very art of thinking…

…”Drawing with pencil, pen, or brush on paper isn’t just for artists. For anyone who actively exercises the brain, doodling and drawing are ideal for making ideas tangible. What’s more, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, doodlers find it easier to recall dull information (even 29 percent more) than non-doodlers, because the latter are more likely to daydream.

While drawing is definitely the artist’s stock and trade, everyone can make doodles, bypassing the kind of refinement demanded of the artist. Drawing, even in a primitive way, often triggers insights and discoveries that aren’t possible through words alone. Just think of all those napkins (or Post-Its) on which million-dollar ideas were sketched out.”

As a frequent doodler myself, I never really considered any palpable mental and emotional benefits. But in retrospect, there was something relaxing and self-affirming about it — hence why so many people, myself included, tend to doodle during times of boredom.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

The Right to Draw

Cartoonist Gavin Aung Than of Zen Pencils has produced another excellent short comic highlighting the plight and bravery of 28-year-old Iranian artist Atena Farghadani, who was recently sentenced to almost thirteen years in prison for drawing a cartoon that “[spread] propaganda against the system” and “[insulted] members of parliament through paintings”. As with all his works, it is both emotionally impactful and inspirational in its simplicity.

The quote used in the comic is taken from the speech Atena gave at her trial, the entirety of which you can read here.

Unfortunately, the harrowing events portrayed in the comic are not symbolic: as Zen Pencils notes, twelve members of the elite Revolutionary Guard came to Atena’s house, blindfolded her, and took her to the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran, where many other young activist are detained and often torture. According to an Amnesty International report:

While in prison last year, Atena flattened paper cups to use them as a surface to paint on. When the prison guards realised what she had been doing, they confiscated her paintings and stopped giving her paper cups. When Atena found some cups in the bathroom, she smuggled them into her cell. Soon after, she was beaten by prison guards, when she refused to strip naked for a full body search. Atena says that they knew about her taking the cups because they had installed cameras in the toilet and bathroom facilities – cameras detainees had been told were not operating.

After being released last November, the Atena gave media interviews and even posted a YouTube video detailing her horrific experience. For speaking out she was shortly after rearrested and remains in prison. Following a hunger strike to protest the horrible prison conditions, she suffered a dramatic decline in health culminating in a heart attack; she was thereafter forced to eat again.

As of today she has only has two weeks to lodge an appeal. With enough international pressure, it is possible that the Iranian government will relent in its brutal treatment (that is certainly not unprecedented). More from Zen Pencils:

Michael Cavna, comic journalist for The Washington Post, has launched a campaign appealing to artists to help bring awareness to Atena’s case by creating their own artwork in support of Atena and using the hashtag #Draw4Atena. Can a bunch of artists and a hashtag really make a difference and put pressure on the Iranian Government to release Atena? Probably not. But just remember that Atena is currently in prison enduring terrible conditions, and if her appeal isn’t successful, she will be there for another twelve years. FOR DRAWING A CARTOON AND POSTING IT ON FACEBOOK. Don’t we owe it to her to at least try?

At the very least, we can demonstrate some measure of solidarity with someone daring to be expressive and open-minded in a regime brutally opposed to both.