Yesterday I chaired 61% and Smiling, the culmination of five Arts and Wellbeing projects in Norfolk, funded through The Arts Council and driven through Creative Arts East. One of the findings was that 61% of all who participated, said that their wellbeing had improved through participating in Arts activity – this might have been singing, reminiscence and community reporting, making things, photography, making music. As I was chairing the conference it set me thinking about the impact that art – in all its forms – has had on my life, and how I instinctively draw on it when words just don’t do the business. This was my introduction to the conference:
I am interested in people – not just what they do, what job they have, where they work, how many children they have or don’t have. I like the whole of people. The sum of people. The warts and the holes, the light and the ‘thing’ of people.
In my work – as a business consultant and coach working with large and small organisation, public and private, individuals and teams – I like to find the things that light people up; get them going in the morning. I like to locate the spark, the friction, the optimism. When they tell me how grim it is and how no one seems to care, I ask them – what’s your favourite memory? Where is your favourite place? They look surprised.
I often ask – what do you do when you are on your own? Where is your secret place? What do you wish you could do right now? It’s not just that I am nosey – it is because we are more than what we show. We are more than what we know. Sometimes we have to go and find ourselves again, and art in all its forms helps us to do that.
When I ask those questions, all sorts of answers come back:
- I wish I was on top of a London bus at night watching the reflections in the shop fronts
- I wish I could sing out loud, in tune, so everyone can hear
- I wish I could go and see that Alexander McQueen exhibition just one more time
- I wish I could pick up a pencil and draw my child
- I wish I was on top of Helvelyn looking down the valley
- I wish I could sit down and play the piano right now
- I wish I was in Venice
Why ask those questions? Why not? These memories, accessed through the senses, are the things that make us human. These are the things that nourish our souls. These are the things that make us resilient, help us through the minute, the hour, the day – they are the stuff that our dreams are made of. They give us respite when things feel impossible. They remind us of the skills we have but do not use. They kindle a spark that is waiting to be lit.
I remember some dark times a few years ago. What was it that sustained me? Love. Yes – always love. But also picture books when I could not read, music when I could not speak, the view of the trees from my window looking up at Lion Wood. And the art of friendship because that too is an art – the art of listening, just being there. The art of being human.
So what is the link between art and wellbeing? It is that indefinable thing, a wisp, an essence, a temporary rest from pain, a temporary balm or a surging roaring chorus. It is the link between the outside and the in. It is the part that binds me to the world and the world to me, that reveals the world to me and the world that I finally reveal to myself – so that I can be the whole of me. It reaches the parts that medicine does not reach. It is the crack through which the light shines. ‘Anthem’ by Leonard Cohen sums it up for me.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
61% and Smiling was an uplifting day with so many examples of how art in all its forms can transform the lives of people, offer a new perspective, shine a light when we are in a dark place, make connections with people and create new possibilities that medicine alone cannot.