Arts' Medicines- Why Making Art is Healing

Cedar bows and cedar basket with paint brushes
Art is our one true global language. It knows no nation, it favors no race, and it acknowledges no class. It speaks to our need to reveal, heal, and transform. It transcends our ordinary lives and lets us imagine what is possible.” —Richard Kamler
— Richard Kamler

With many expectations surrounding us from multiple sources—work, children, and spouses— life is stressful, fast-paced and overwhelming at times. It can be challenging to remain grounded and focused on the real priorities of life. Many of us are exhausted and/or experiencing depression and anxiety. These challenges are a part of my life and I suffer with anxiety on a regular basis. Making art is an effective way to bring balance, feel energized and restored.

There is a great freedom to be found in expressing yourself through the process of creating art. It helps you relax, express what can’t be put into words, boosts your immune system, and increases your resilience. It is good medicine for your mind, body and spirit. Finding art has been incredibly transformational for me. After sitting down to create, my anxieties melt away and I find my center again. How do you feel after you create art?

My Connection to Medicine:

I’ve been honoured to receive a Stl’atl’imx name from Elder Gerry Oleman through a naming ceremony. My name is 7mlemelwet and it means medicine. I’ve spent many years contemplating what ‘medicine’ means in my traditional Squamish culture, what is means in today’s society, and how I can ensure I am well myself, so I can share my gifts with the world.

This has not been an easy journey. I have held the limiting belief that if I look after myself that I am being selfish. Does that feel familiar? We all need to look after ourselves (without guilt) in order to be our whole selves and so that we can give to others. 

I cannot take care of others, unless I take care of myself
— Choices Seminars

Everything as Medicine:

In my Coast Salish culture, I have been taught that everything is medicine. Some medicines are directly beneficial like a traditional plant that has a healing property and is used to treat an ailment. Medicine can also come in the form of an experience that teaches us something. The experience may be painful at the time, but it may help us grow as a person. Everything has something to teach us and we can choose what we learn and how fast.

For thousands of years, Coast Salish people have drawn on the medicines of the animals and birds who live around us. Each holds different characteristics and qualities that we can reflect on and apply to our lives at different times. The animals have many medicines to share with us:

  • a wolf shows us how important family is

  • an eagle that flies high over the landscape shows us how to gain perspective

  • a deer has a quiet, unassuming strength

  • a whale shows us the importance of community

Medicine is… a ritual that nurtures the spirit

Medicine is…a teaching or lesson that we learn to better ourselves

Medicine is…a quality of another being or object that we can apply to our own life

Medicine is…an activity or food that helps strengthen our bodies

Medicine is:

  • spending time with friends

  • meditating

  • laughing

  • going to yoga

  • going for a walk

  • standing with bare feet on the earth

  • and of course--making art

How do you view medicine? What experiences have you had that you have learned a valuable lesson from? How do you look after yourself? Are you able to do it without guilt? 

An Ancient Need to Express:

Humans have been expressing themselves through symbolic art for tens of thousands of years. The earliest known cave paintings, made by Neanderthals, are now believed to be 65,000 years old.

The beautiful cave paintings at Lascaux cave, dating 20,000 years ago, are so incredibly moving. They are created with warm pigmented tones made out of oxides of iron and manganese, as well as charcoal (next time you use charcoal or grab your red iron oxide paint, think of these paintings). When I look at these paintings, I feel a deep connection through time to a core aspect of our humanity--- artistic expression. Check out this virtual tour. Anyone been there? I totally want to go! 

Arts’ Medicines:

Humans have a need to express, whether through movement, voice, music or symbolically. Art is an avenue to express and let out emotions, discover inner truths, connect to others, and share messages that cannot be put into words. The act of creating art has many medicines to offer. Here are a few:

Stillness: Engaging in art making brings you into the present moment. No past conversations to review, no future plans to worry about-- just the present. It settles your mind to be in the present. At your art table, in the present moment, you are safe. You enter a state of flow where you don’t perceive time. Serenity and peace emerge. 

Stillness isn’t about focusing on nothingness; it’s about creating a clearing. It’s opening up an emotionally clutter free space and allowing ourselves to feel and think and dream and question.
— Brene Brown

Joy: Pure joy can emerge while creating art. Let your inner child come out and play, paint with your fingers, use the colours you love, get messy, and don’t worry about the end product.

Connection: Making art helps you connect to your inner self, to discover emotions you weren’t aware of, to help find a path forward, to connect to forgotten pieces of yourself, and to connect to others.

Embrace your real beautiful self through the act of creating.
— Melanie Rivers

What medicines do you experience from engaging in making art?

Meet the Medicine Half Way:

abalone shell and sage

It is important to meet the medicine half way—to move towards it. This is a valuable teaching from my culture. When I apply this teaching to making art, I see how important it is to be kind to yourself while creating. Don’t take away the peace and joy of creating by judging what you are creating. Focus on the process and be present—meet the medicine half way.

Acknowledge, accept, and honor that you deserve your own deepest compassion and love.
— Nanette Mathews

I invite you to engage in making art today, even if it is 5-10 minutes. Grab a piece of paper and a pencil and do some sketching. Allow art to heal, restore, and transform you. Set aside time to look after yourself and ensure you are being kind to yourself while you are creating.

What is your next art project? When will you set aside some time? How do you want to feel as you create?

Melanie Rivers Indigenous Mixed Media Artist and Teacher

Author Profile:

Melanie is a mixed media painter and teacher. She believes that we are all creative in some way and that the very act of creating is healing. She invites others to experience arts’ medicines--- joy, connection, and stillness.