ART AND MENTAL HEALTH

Stephen Legari, Art Therapist

In January of 2020 I purchased a single ticket to see Nelken, a remounting by Tanztheatre Wuppertal of Pina Bausch’s now famous contemporary dance piece. I have been obsessed with this work as a whole for some time, and also with the “Nelken Line”, a choreographic excerpt that has enjoyed a viral popularity and is used regularly in therapeutic groups. Seeing Nelken live would be a gift to myself after another year of hard and rewarding work in art therapy, so I spent the extra money on a choice ticket. Of all the performing arts, I have long loved dance, and have been fortunate to live in a city that has produced some of the world’s greatest companies. Dance has often brought me both physically to the edge of my seat and emotionally far beyond. I love to imagine my neurons firing in delight as I witness the skilled interpreters hurl their bodies through space, communicating through embodied abstraction.

As January passed, we in Canada watched the pandemic unfold in Italy and other countries with   astonishment and horror. There was a collective, breathless, gripped sense of the inevitable. It was like watching a giant wave roll across the world and there was little way of knowing how it would crash onto our shores. We only knew that it would. Within a matter of weeks, the fine art museum where I work would shut its doors to the public and everything would come to a grinding halt. The very momentum of culture seemed to freeze in time. But this of course wasn’t true.

As my wife and I reorganized our professional lives, she as an ICU nurse educator, and me now working at home to figure out what virtual museum-based art therapy might look like, it became progressively clear that the pandemic would not be a short-lived experience and that we would have to dig deep into our most creative resources if we were to maintain mental, physical, and spiritual health. The daily reports from political and health leaders were both grim and pragmatic. The most urgent of questions arose: how would we both stay home and collectively take care of each other at the same time? Art, and artists, provided one of the key answers, as they always have.

At the same time as front-line and essential workers were deployed to protect the very health and sustenance of our populations from peril, artists took to the airwaves and cyberspace in droves to sooth the souls of listeners and watchers. Thousands of artists in every city and town, many of them now without work, audience, or any kind of certain future, rose up in song, performed, recited, and instructed. Artists responded to the pandemic with their hearts open and gave us somewhere and something to gather around while sheltering in place. In tandem, the instinctual nature of communities to work collectively and creatively found neighbours singing across balconies, church bells coordinating their chimes, and virtual dance parties streaming across laptops.

The pandemic has forever changed many of us beyond the threat it has posed, the chaos it has reaped, and the grief it has bestowed. It has accelerated a virtual means of connecting and communicating that might have otherwise followed a more palpable, albeit 21st Century pace. We are all huddled in squares on screens, facing forward seeing ourselves see others, and we know too much about neuroplasticity not to acknowledge that our very way of seeing the world and being in relation to others has been altered. The implications of this change on not only mental health but on recovery are yet to be realised. Telehealth and teletherapy were specialized practices not so very long ago, mainly delivered through national health services to remote regions and to veterans using specialized hardware and software. Now, legions of therapists have had to completely transform their way of working and as a side effect more people are being reached.

In my own domain, I continue to do group art therapy several times a week. I continue to use the same tools, including the exploration of my museum’s collection, creative activity, and group reflection. Groups, whether they be patients, trauma survivors, or the bereaved, all seem to share the profound need to connect by whatever means at their disposal. Given the location displacement inherent in virtual therapy, art, again, is well-suited to cross the digital divide and bring us closer. There may be no comparing it to real-life encounters, but something new and in its own way touchable is emerging in this way of working. For a couple of hours, we are able to deconfine and create something new together.

I once thought of group work as a practical model for the museum to embrace; groups came to the museum for visits, they could come for therapy as well. Groups also allowed us to accommodate more people. But the unique opportunities found in group work have been heightened and revealed to me through this virtual transition. People naturally seek connection, and those that are dealing with the complexities of trauma sometimes find it easier to log on than to show up. I have also learned a great deal more about how the arts, in my case the fine arts, help us to organize our senses and be together. A single painting from our collection can elicit a myriad of responses, emotions, and memories. Art is our means of telling our stories back to ourselves and hearing it renewed.

In the waning days of the Spanish flu pandemic, artists such as Munch and Schiele took to their brushes to make some kind of sense of the years they had lived through—in Schiele’s case only to perish. Dadaists would later pick up the task, but rather than succumb to despair and absurdity, they found a way through it using reassembly, humour, and risk. In this momentum, art found novel ways of expressing despair, disassembling it, and recreating something new to incite hope. In the case of 20th Century Europe, this would be Modernism. And while it would be more than another 20 years before British artist Adrian Hill coined the term ‘art therapy’ while recovering in a sanitorium from tuberculosis, the notion that art helped to externalize and heal what is most troubling was far from new. 

It is difficult to imagine what shape our art worlds will take after this pandemic. What I hope for is that there will be an end to discussion on the contribution of the arts to mental health and well-being. Art does not only restore our motor skills, our memory, our imaginations, and our connection to others, it restores our sense of self and meaning, and these very humanist objectives should be on every treatment plan.

Nelken, of course, was cancelled. The performance hall remains empty and quiet, save for the shuffling of feet of those charged with its maintenance and security. I am increasingly restless for the day when I can hold my family and renew my profession in the all too real world of people and their problems. Until then I will continue to meet courageous souls who are seeking their own healing or maintenance in the creative grid of online life. And I will be dancing my Nelken Line back and forth in the kitchen and dreaming of others joining me. 

Stephen Legari is an art therapist and family therapist based in Montreal, Canada. Since 2017 he has been the Program Officer for Art Therapy at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

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Stephen Legari

Art therapist, Couple and Family Therapist Program Officer – Art Therapy, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Montreal, Quebec, Canada

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