The Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art's former GA, Marie Reff, reflects on art and mental health.
A Drawing A Day began as A Drawing a Day Keeps the Pandemic Away, a community outreach project for all ages and skill levels during Nevada’s stay-at- home orders last year. Between March 18, 2020 and April 30, 2020 the Barrick posted daily art prompts on its Instagram account. The aim was to offer a source of connection and hope to UNLV and the Las Vegas community through making and sharing art. A strong response from participants led to the Barrick receiving over 790 works of art from around America and the world, with submissions from such faraway places as Turkey and Queensland. A Drawing A Day demonstrates the variety of art submitted to the original project and includes drawings, sketches, collage, painting, and, even, a musical instrument. Intense emotions also shine throughout the works, communicating their creators’ experiences and states of mind while dealing with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. A Drawing A Day was curated by Emmanuel Muñoz, who is studying architecture and art history at UNLV. The Office of Undergraduate Research, which aims to advance undergraduate research at UNLV, provided guidance and funding for the exhibition and a series of reflective interviews that Muñoz conducted between November 2020 and January 2021. His conversations with the artists of A Drawing A Day reveal some insights that they learned through their participation in the project. Here are four lessons they can impart to us:
1. Art improves wellness.
The connection between art and wellbeing is well-known, with research and personal anecdotes attesting to the health advantages of making and experiencing art. (1) Many artists in A Drawing A Day note the benefits that contributing to the Barrick’s Pandemic Drawings had on their own wellbeing.
Glenn Nowak (Curly Head CBG, Sketch of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as performed by Glenn Gould) saw it as a way to infuse some variety into the daily grind of pandemic life. Stephanie Sumler (Caligula would have blushed…) found it helped her overcome “imposter syndrome” and express herself. Georgina Lewis (March 18. ’20) saw the project as a “democratic” and unifying endeavor because it was open to all. UNLV architecture student Daniel Magaña (Dots, Bus) felt similarly, saying, “a lot of people were brought together.” This sense of human connection offers a powerful antidote to the stresses and isolation that are so common in American life today.
Art heals. Both Jeff Musser (Uncertainty Mixed with Defeat) and Heidi Rider (Mind-Map-Can’t-Sleep, Thumb Up Yours) see art’s potential to help people cope with trauma and explore difficult issues. Discussing her emotional state since the pandemic began, Rider says: “My world and my creative-self have been nothing but emotions. Despair. Helplessness. Grief. Fear. I mean Loneliness. And it’s been a barrage of emotions.” Exposing these vulnerabilities proved essential to Rider’s art and her ability to process her emotions, and responses to her work confirmed her belief that art helps people heal. I can only agree. As an art lover and someone who has struggled with mental health much of my adult life, I find myself drawn to her Mind-Map-Can’t-Sleep as well as Musser’s Uncertainty Mixed with Defeat. Musser’s drawing is straightforward, a heavy outline of a man curled in on himself, head in hands, while Rider’s “map” depicts the constant flow of thoughts familiar to any anxious brain as it moves without pause from one worry to the next. I relate to the images, the words, the emotions, and I suspect others do too. Ultimately, reflecting on the pandemic and the Barrick’s project, Musser wisely notes that while art cannot fix everything, it can provide a light. He reminds us that “art is not frivolous. It’s one of the things that’s going to get us through what we’re going through right now.”
2. Everyone should cultivate a regular artistic practice.
An artistic practice is defined as “the ways in which an artist goes about his or her work.” (2) But one does not need to be a working artist to practice and make art. I cannot speak for all people, but I think it is safe to say, humans are creative beings with artistic impulses. Unfortunately, these inclinations often get pushed to the wayside in our busy world. While Rider is a professional artist and performer in Absinthe at Caesars Palace, it was during the pandemic that she finally resumed work in her home studio. She hopes the pandemic’s silver lining is for people to get back in touch with themselves and their purpose. Nowak did just that. As an Associate Professor of Architecture at UNLV, he reveals: “I used to draw a whole lot more than what I do as a professor. Now more creative energies are put into, like, preparing lectures and just providing feedback.” Speaking about Curly Head CBG, the musical instrument he built, he says:
“I wasn’t working on it prior to the pandemic. It was something I had in my mind. I wanted to do this for a long time. In fact, I bought a piece of wood. Just a standard one by three… [a] couple of years ago. And really, I’ve just been so busy. I never did anything with it. And then, you know, it was probably a few weeks into the shutdown that I thought, ‘if I’m not going to make time to do this now, I’m never going to build any instrument.’”
Sumler, who received her B.A. in Visual and Public Art, had a similar epiphany:
“[D]oing the pandemic drawings was the first thing I’d done in a while. Being creative and taking the time with my hobby. And before the pandemic, and I’m sure a lot of people can relate, people are just working, working, working, working, working. And never giving time to themselves. And the pandemic was—or the pandemic drawings was a good opportunity to just be like ‘You know what? I’m going to draw what I’m going to draw.’”
Despite an artistic inclination and love for the subject as a teenager, Beverly Neas (Untitled, Eyewash, Beware of Thorns) rediscovered her passion for art after a fifty plus year hiatus when she took part in the Barrick’s project and now continues to draw daily, even months later. Like these artists, we need to get our creative juices flowing; we all need more art in our lives.
3. Art education matters.
When I was growing up, art and music were my favorite subjects in school, but these classes were always the first to get cut. Unfortunately, this trend has only continued despite the numerous studies that show art helps children academically and socially. It instills creativity, teamwork, critical thinking, confidence, and self-awareness as well as assists with learning traditional subjects like reading and math. (3) Children also need opportunities to learn art skills and hone their creativity. Marianne Campbell (Roanoke and Amargosa Pupfish), a parent-artist and early childhood educator, enjoyed collaborating artistically with her daughter during the pandemic and disavows the belief that children are not artists, asking, “Why wouldn’t we be making art together?” Christel Polkowski (Commute), a graduate of UNLV and elementary school art teacher, feels similarly, expressing her fear that children’s artistic expression is misunderstood by some and “squelch[ed]” as a result. A series of drawings by the ten students from Pat Diskin Elementary School in A Drawing A Day presents some striking examples of why children’s artwork should not only be viewed as legitimate but celebrated as they hang among the professional exhibitions in the Barrick and look right at home. Kylee Zimmerman and Justo Almanza in particular stand out. Their drawings, My Galaxy and Dark Night, are a response to the prompt that asked participants to “make a drawing inspired by Van Gogh’s Starry Night.” To me, their submissions contain as much hope and meaning as the original work that inspired them.
4. Inspiration can turn a negative into a positive.
Inspiration comes in many forms and is often not as elusive as we believe it to be. Even amid the pandemic and the stress that it unleashed, artists were able to tap into their muses. Neas found inspiration in whatever caught her eye. Rider drew inspiration from her emotions. Campbell gained inspiration from her child and motherhood. Sumler and Nowak drew inspiration from music. Inspiration can also be deceptively simple. Magaña notes that he begins with a line, saying: “If I just want to draw a random thing, I just make a line through the drawing. And I kind of let that line be the focus point. […] It’s like with one line you can develop anything really. You could develop speakers, headphones, a keyboard, the sky.” Further reflecting on how lines motivate his work, he turns to another source of inspiration, the 2017 film Loving Vincent, recounting how the “whole movie is made with oil paintings [.…] While I was watching it, I was like, ‘Well, everything is just a line if you think about it. Everything is made up of lines, kind of manipulating everything.’” Ultimately, these artists demonstrate that we must find our own inspiration. Instead of sitting around and waiting to be moved, or for things to get better, we must open our eyes and ears, look inward, watch films, listen to music, and get influenced by other artists. Then, go create.
1 https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/11/795010044/feeling-artsy-heres-how-making-art-helps-your-brain, https://www.riseart.com/guide/2278/art-collections-art-and-wellbeing-the-healing-power-of-art