Seeking refuge in the arts

A little arts and culture good for mental health during pandemic

By Barbara Pierce

There is increasing evidence that being involved in arts and culture has a positive impact on our lives.

It relieves stress, improves wellbeing, helps depression, and slows down cognitive decline.

Susan Belasco, retired professor of English in Hamilton, found a new passion as a docent and board member for the Oneida Community Mansion House in Oneida. The Mansion House, home of the utopian Oneida Community, which thrived in the 19th Century, is a National Historic Landmark where visitors can enjoy period rooms and interpretive exhibits in the museum, in addition to the beautiful extensive grounds.

“The Oneida community is indeed good for my mental health,” she said. “It makes me very happy; I just love it and enjoy being a volunteer.”

“What we offer is a crucial thing for me and for our visitors. Coming into this historic home lets you enter another world, a world where others lived in a very different time and place. When I come out through the door, I feel like I’ve spent time in another world. It’s a compelling, fascinating story that I enjoy sharing.”

In the Mohawk Valley, we’re fortunate to have a thriving art community with a wide variety of performing arts and cultural activities across our region. Sadly, most activities are now on pause because of the pandemic.

Recognizing the importance of arts and culture to our community, leaders are finding innovative ways to share art with us during these times. Engagement with the arts takes on a higher significance during these unsettled times, helping with mental strain and unleashing feelings of well-being.

While tours of the Mansion House are not available, tours of the extensive grounds are available while the facility has developed an online presence.

“The pandemic has been a challenge and an opportunity to the Kirkland Art Center,” said board member Nora Revenaugh. “It’s tough to find ways to bring the community together when we’re not able to gather together.”

The Kirkland Art Center is a multi-arts center, housed in an old church on the village green in Clinton. Its mission is to educate adults and children, to advocate for artists and the arts, and to engage the community in a range of cultural experiences and opportunities.

Revenaugh became involved in the center after moving back from New York City. Growing up in the area, she was active at the center during high school. “I wouldn’t be where I am today in my career if I hadn’t gotten that support from them. I feel like this is a good way to give back,” she said.

Revenaugh developed an artist-in-residence program to support the mission of the center during the pandemic. A one-week residence in an artist’s retreat, with a stipend, is being offered to three artists. “We want to support artists who may have to work at a day job or are a parent,” she said.

“Art can be transformative for our lives,” added Revenaugh, a working artist. “Art is so great for our mental health, especially during a time when so much of our life is impersonal.”

Director Jane Malin of the Mohawk Valley Center for the Arts in Little Falls agrees. “Arts are a key part of a whole, happy, healthy life. We absolutely feel that the various types of art do quite a bit for health:  emotionally, physically, and mentally. Arts definitely promote a healthier, happier life for people of all ages.”

The center in Little Falls is “limping along during these difficult times,” she added. “Our gift shop is open; all of our items are made by local artisans.” And some classes are available online.

Research supports the positive effect of both active and passive arts and culture engagement has positive benefits. Persons who engaged in art and cultural pursuits regularly enjoyed better overall physical health, fewer doctor visits, less medication usage, less depression, fewer falls, less loneliness and better morale versus those who didn’t.

Other research found that making art reduces stress, even if you have no ability. It’s the process of creating that provides the benefits; it’s about the journey, not the end product.

Creating art provides a distraction, giving your brain a break from your usual thoughts.

Only 45 minutes of creative activity will significantly lower the stress-related hormones in your body. Whether it’s painting, sculpting, woodworking, gardening, drawing, sewing, or photography, a relaxing and rewarding hobby can lower your stress level and leave you feeling mentally clear and calm. It acts like meditation to focus your mind and temporarily push aside all your worries.

These are good times to explore culture or develop a creative activity, and there’s a wealth of information online.

Photo: Nora Revenaugh, a board member at the Kirkland Art Center, takes pleasure in playing the violin.