Written by: Sandra Hutton

The world feels messy right now. We are facing an unprecedented situation across the globe due to the pandemic outbreak of COVID-19. We are trying frantically to digest information while simultaneously attempting to find ways to maintain a sense of order and calm in our daily lives–a difficult task when we each day feels like it is playing out like an apocalyptic movie. Life feels disordered; the structures that we are used to having in place are suspended and, just like in a surrealist work of art, everything is rapidly shifting.

Artists, by nature, are used to mess. I am not necessarily talking about physical mess–although for some of us, that is a component too! Messy thinking can involve acknowledging uncertainty, exploring the complexities of imagination through testing materials, and persevering through challenges. Things often do not go according to plan, and flexibility is key. The creative plan often emerges, and there are unexpected twists and turns along the way.

The current situation has disrupted our way of living. I am sure that Tim Harford, the author of Messy, was not thinking of a pandemic when he wrote, “Messy disruptions will be most powerful when combined with creative skill. The disruption puts an artist, scientist, or engineer in uncompromising territory–a deep valley rather than a familiar hilltop” (Harford 14 ).[1]  To be clear, what is happening now is more than a messy disruption–it is a crisis. However, it is also the time when artists, makers, and creators are needed. If we can find our place in all the mess, we can, help as Harford suggests, to “move upward again” in order to finish “at a new peak, perhaps lower than the old one, but perhaps unexpectedly higher” (Harford 14).[2]

So how do artists, makers, and creators fit into the current landscape? The emotional landscape that we are in the midst of at the moment needs art, plain and simple. The connection between art and mindfulness is one that continues to be explored and researched. One needs only to peruse the vast array of mindful colouring books available online and in stores to see that many people want to be engaged in sensory experiences in order to explore design elements such as colour, line, and texture. The act of making something, even if it is “just” colouring, allows for moments of calm, and opportunities for the brain to enjoy quiet and to reset and re-energize. It provides an escape from daily stresses. During times of crisis and challenge, art also allows an outlet from what can seem like an endless barrage of unsettling news. It allows you to be in the moment and find refuge from ruminating about what might be. Make art a daily practice and take note of how you feel.

For some in creative fields, this may be the time that they thrive. This seems contradictory given that there is a crisis happening in our world, right at this moment. However, for many of us, who are currently in various stages of quarantine or engaged in social distancing to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19, engaging in art may provide us with an opportunity to strengthen or share our skills virtually.  It also may also provide some with unexpected “a-ha” moments of creativity, that may lead to new or promising innovations. Recently, I read an article by Gillian Brockwell discussing how Sir Isaac Newton used his time during the Great Plague of London. Required to engage in social distancing, he sat under a tree and was hit on the head by an apple, making connections to the theories of gravity and motion.[3] Although not an artist, one can certainly understand this example in the context of innovation and science. Similarly, Devin Liddell wrote about how Leonardo da Vinci survived bubonic plagues that occurred in Milan between 1484 and 1485. The outbreaks inspired da Vinci to design concepts for a future city that included canals that would “support sanitation and commerce.”[4]  Da Vinci’s ideas were not implemented but, there is a place for the dreamers and innovators in this world, even at this time. We never know how our design thinking will impact the future.

But does art have to elevate us to profound levels of greatness and innovation always? Most of us are not master innovators or artists, and that’s okay. Art creation is a continuum of skill and imagination and, most importantly, it is a process. I often remind my students that not everything they create will be a masterpiece. I encourage those involved in creative enterprises to recognize that each moment of art creation is an opportunity for an immersive experience that allows one to take a reflective step inward, and to make decisions about what materials they use, what they want to express, and how it contributes to their health and their growth. It is also an opportunity to consider how art connects us to each other.

Current frameworks in art education support the notion that art is a process. Over a decade ago, Harvard University developed the Studio Habits of Mind, dispositions that include: Developing Craft, Engaging and Persisting, Envisioning, Expressing, Observing, Reflecting, Stretching and Exploring, and Understanding Art Worlds.[5] When we use the lens of these frameworks in the context of what is happening in the world today, there are opportunities to use art as a vehicle for creative process. I encourage you to engage in art activity every day to maintain mindfulness but also to try new techniques and to develop your skills/craft. Be present in the moment and enjoy the creative process. When challenges arise (and they will) persist and be an active participant in creative problem-solving. Envision and dream and use art as a means of self-expression, but also consider how it can promote the greater good. Art benefits communities and communities form from art. Take time to observe and slow down. Slow looking and careful observation often leads to thoughtful art and it contributes

greatly to pace and establishes mindful habits that benefit self-care. Reflection, through art, allows you to think not only about what you create, but why you create. Enjoy your thoughts and the time you get to spend in the quiet of your mind. Take time to try something new and stretch and explore your skills. Remember that, as Matisse famously said, “Creativity takes courage.”[6] Be courageous and remember that making art starts with creating a single line, mark or design. And, through your art journey, take some artistic “trips” by exploring different art forms and art history. The learning will inspire you and help to ease the anxiety of our current circumstances.  

Although these are trying times, you have the power to curate your creative self, develop it, and nurture it. Art is a language that is universal– a powerful means of communication and expression. If you are in isolation right now or social distancing, consider how to find your creative element. And consider how you can become a part of an art community–perhaps virtually at this time. We are currently dealing with a mysterious contagion in the form of COVID-19 but let’s not forget that hope, innovation, optimism and resilience are also contagious. And they are also powerful and needed at this time. In the words of Albert

Einstein, “Creativity is contagious, pass it on.”[7]   Immerse yourself in art and curate your mind, body, and spirit. You will be better for it.

[1] Hartford, T. The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. New York. Riverhead Books. 2016

[2] Hartford, T. The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. New York. Riverhead Books. 2016

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/03/12/during-pandemic-isaac-newton-had-work-home-too-he-used-time-wisely/

[4] https://www.fastcompany.com/90163788/the-plague-inspired-da-vinci-to-design-a-city-we-should-steal-his-ideas).

[5] https://pz.harvard.edu/resources/eight-habits-of-mind

[6] http://www.henri-matisse.net/quotes.html

[7] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/579281-creativity-is-contagious-pass-it-on