Betye Saar. Palm of Love. 1966. Etching with relief printing, plate: 17 15/16 × 23 3/4" (45.6 × 60.3 cm); sheet: 19 1/16 × 26 1/16" (48.4 × 66.2 cm). Committee on Drawings and Prints Fund

Artful Practices for Well-Being

From mindful walks to drawing prompts, we’ve got your guide to activities and ideas for connectedness and healing through art.
Jackie Armstrong May 18, 2020

Alone in my apartment due to measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19, maintaining a routine while not knowing what each day will bring or how much longer this will go on, I’ve felt emotionally exhausted. It’s difficult to not give in to despair, and yet it’s important to hold onto hope. COVID-19 is intensifying the vulnerabilities that all of us face and is requiring each of us to sit with more uncertainty than perhaps we feel we can manage.

One thing sustaining me right now is a new initiative I’m working on with colleagues in MoMA’s Department of Education, called Artful Practices for Well-Being. In 2019, after a trip to India, our School and Teacher Programs team launched a series of professional development workshops for teachers focused on how art can be used as a tool for social and emotional learning. The Museum closure has prompted us to consider how we might expand on that, reach out to more people, and focus on nurturing our individual and collective wellbeing. As someone who is actively engaged in trauma therapy, I think of everything through the lens of trauma-informed practices. I’m a believer in the possibility of healing from even the most difficult of circumstances.

The skills used to engage with art have practical use in our daily lives. The curiosity to question an artwork and reflect on one’s response to it connects to an ability to self-reflect and consider what emotions one is experiencing. Spending time with an artwork that you don’t understand—or that you even dislike—relates to the ways all of us can build capacity within ourselves to see things from multiple perspectives and expand our window of tolerance. The ability to be in front of an artwork and notice the details allows one to be in the moment, and aligns with the same mindfulness skills that can help manage stress. The desire to express oneself creatively relates to a need to feel seen, heard, and understood. All of these things together can build up resilience, support, and emotional well-being, and help people feel more in control even during times of chaos and uncertainty.

Right now a lot of us—including people who were already struggling before this global crisis—are just trying to survive each day. Collectively we are all experiencing trauma, but how that trauma impacts us today and going forward depends on many factors, only some in our control. As Judith Herman noted in Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, “Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations in life.” Some people may look to art more to escape, connect, understand, feel, and inspire, while others may not have the energy or inclination. Some people may be driven to create while others feel too overwhelmed. Emotional flooding or a hijacked nervous system can occur by trying to process something before being ready, which can cause more challenges and complications.

Vija Celmins. Untitled (Ocean). 1970

Vija Celmins. Untitled (Ocean). 1970

Brainstorming for the Artful Practices for Well-Being initiative, we asked ourselves, “What do people need right now? What will people need going forward? How can we help? What are our parameters?” Several themes emerged that helped us establish our goals and propose activities and practices that explore connectedness; self-care; groundedness; non-judgment; empathy and compassion; resilience; radical acceptance; empowerment; and structure, routine, and intentionality.

To start, beginning this week, @MoMALearning will offer regular prompts, activities, and reflections—from mindful walks and meditative drawing to portrait empowerment and poems for getting grounded—that draw inspiration from works in the collection. We’ve shared three videos below; be sure to check back on Twitter for more.

Little Joys in Our Neighborhoods | Artful Practices for Well-Being

Join MoMA visitor researcher Jackie Armstrong and educator Lisa Mazzola in a mindful walk that invites you to notice the little joys in your neighborhood. Being present and looking out for little joys promotes a feeling of groundedness that we all need right now.

Mindful Drawing | Creativity Lab at Home

Join MoMA educator Larissa Raphael to experience a step-by-step mindful-drawing exercise using observational drawing as a way to stay present and engaged.

Meditative Drawing | Creativity Lab at Home

Join MoMA educator Pablo Helguera for a meditative drawing exercise, inspired by a technique used by artist Paul Klee.

We hope these will help create even the smallest shift to make things a bit more bearable. It’s okay to feel grief, anger, confusion, and to feel exhausted, unfocused, and unmotivated. Just like this pandemic, those emotional states are not permanent. Things shift continuously and it’s up to all of us to ride these changes as best we can, look out for each other, and be gentle with ourselves.