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Imagination and creativity in childhood

The Role of Creating Art in Health

Authors: Cynthia D. Perlis, B.A. Ernest H. Rosenbaum, M.D. Isadora R. Rosenbaum, M.A.

A hundred years ago, it was commonly believed that people could not be creative past middle age. Now, reports Lydia Bronte in The Longevity Factor, most Americans can expect a “second middle age”—a stage of adulthood between fifty and seventy-five created by our increased longevity and good health. Today, people in middle age and beyond sometimes feel that life is just beginning. A new sense of identity is discovered and defined along with an enhanced sense of self. During these years, art can be a healing force.

Artistic expression is an important psychosocial activity. We can create art by ourselves or we can attend classes ranging from beginning drawing to advanced printmaking. Sometimes we can express ourselves visually when we are unable to express ourselves verbally. Art can help us express what we are feeling in the present, yet it also can help us to express a memory, a moment that has happened that we do not want to forget. Music, drawing, painting, and creating sculpture provide a means of communication and self-expression— and a way to alleviate stress. Art also helps us to change our moods, come out of depression, or simply relax.

Art can be richly therapeutic for people, including the elderly, with a serious illness such as cancer. Suzanne, a woman approaching eighty who is living a full and energetic life in spite of her advanced cancer, has continued to teach art classes, take printmaking classes, and work in her home studio. Her recent works have included drawings and watercolors that express what it feels like to cope with life-threatening illness. She has created drawings that tell the story of her disease. One watercolor, The Cell of Positive Thinking, was created when she began a course of chemotherapy.

Creating art, says Suzanne, improves her self-worth and leaves a permanent gift to be enjoyed by all. She has received constant encouragement and support from her friends and family. They drive her to art classes and create along with her. Together they are participating in a shared experience, a shared community of meaning; the essence of what it means to be human. You do not have to have artistic ability to be creative. Sometimes, just doodling or experimenting with art materials can open up a wide range of ideas. People often become too critical of their work—or are afraid others will judge their ability. It is important to express yourself for yourself and not for other people’s approval. There really is no right or wrong in expressing who you are. For instance, if you feel you cannot draw, try making collages from pictures cut from magazines.

Creating art at any age gives people an opportunity to express what they are feeling. Creating art provides the ability to make decisions for oneself. With the opportunity to make decisions and to exercise control over choice, people enhance their quality of life, improve self-esteem, and create ways to relate to others in a meaningful way.

A whole life or one experience can be shared in a work of art. One artist writes, “No, I will never say my work is finished. I must live forever—on and on. The reason we artists enjoy such longevity is that we are always looking ahead to the ‘masterpiece’ to come.”

Here are some recommended creative art activities:

  • Draw a self-portrait. Include words to describe who you are.
  • Create a family tree—ask family members to draw their own portraits on the tree.
  • Take painting, drawing, or sculpture classes at your local community college. If you feel you’re not good enough, take a beginners’ class—everyone will be in the same boat.
  • Draw your dreams.
  • Make a collage with pictures cut out of magazines. Decide on a theme before you start or let the theme evolve.
  • Do a drawing with a friend, child, grandchild, or spouse.
  • Take photographs.
  • Learn needlepoint, quilting, crocheting, tatting (lace making), or knitting.
  • Buy fabric paint and paint on T-shirts.