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11 Jun 2020

A practical guide to wellbeing through art

By poet, visual artist and creative coach, Stephanie Christie

When the pandemic reached New Zealand, our early, science-based reaction meant we had a relatively safe lockdown. People were anxious, but many also experienced a surprising relief. We had stepped away from the rat-race. The nation took a deep breath.

Coming out of lockdown, lots of people realised they wanted to hold on to what they’d discovered – inadequately summed up by the words ‘work-life balance’. I believe engaging in some kind of arts activity is a great way to do this.

Arts activities, just like physical movement, are intrinsic to human existence and wellbeing. 

In fact, surviving artefacts show that doing arty stuff is as ancient as the ‘modern human’ (that’s at least 70,000 years old). But as advanced as we may consider society to be, many people are disconnected from this most human inheritance.

Now is the perfect time to change this.

Two key definitions: Creativity v arts

First, I want to separate out two entangled terms – “creativity” and “the arts”.

Let’s look at two familiar statements. The first claims, “Everyone is an artist.” But then we hear, “I don’t have a creative bone in my body.” These seem to contradict each other but that’s because we assume being an artist equals being creative.

I see ‘creativity’ as a way of using the brain. It can take place within any area of life, from netball to statistics. It’s like turning on all the lights at once. Your creativity can be developed, though some people have a stronger inclination towards it.

To me, ‘the arts’ refers to behaviours to do with cultural expression, engagement with the senses, skill development and producing meaningful objects or experiences. I consider ‘arts activity’ to include embroidery, telling a story about your day, home tattooing, and singing in the shower.

Creativity and arts activities often overlap but don’t have to. The good news? This means you can engage in arts activities even if you stubbornly believe you’re not creative! Declaring, “I’m human, so this arts activity is great for my wellbeing,” may be all the permission you need to get that ukulele off the shelf.

Alternatively, if you thrive on using your brain creatively but feel blocked within your usual medium, you can be creative with something completely different. If your screenplay got derailed during lockdown, a short-term obsession with cake decoration could get you back in the groove.

What’s the point?

You’ve done arts activities before, so I want to remind you of a few of the basic benefits they bring to your life. There’s the buzz that comes from getting better at a skill. There’s the enjoyment of getting into the flow zone, totally absorbed by what you’re doing, and released from your usual worries. There’s the satisfaction of making something that didn’t exist before.

Finally, thinking about what we learnt in lockdown, there is the beauty of doing something for its own sake, and for yourself, without worrying about whether it’s ‘productive’.


To engage in an arts activity, all you need do is choose a starting point. It’s not forever, so pick something that feels more like play than work. Beware perfectionism: A needlepoint rendition of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ album art sounds great, but over-the-top expectations can kill your drive. Once you’re regularly doing arty stuff, you can branch out into ambitious projects.

Be open whatever calls you; it can take a while to recognise what lights you up. It might be unusual and specific, like photographing clouds or crafting moss gardens. You get to define what your arts activity looks like; that’s the point. This is an area where you are free to do whatever you want, just because you want to.

Fighting external obstacles

Here are some common challenges people encounter as they engage in arts activities, so you can be ready.

People are sometimes put off by their (usually imaginary) fears of others’ reactions. You may need to tell your partner that doing arty stuff will make you happier, and therefore nicer. Your arts activity may need to be tweaked so your kids can do it alongside you. You might even decide to be arty on the quiet.

I often hear people say a lack of discipline or motivation stops them doing arty stuff. Nowdays, instead of stressing about my character flaws, I have set up my life to make it easy – even automatic – to do the arts activities I’ve chosen. One simple solution is to join a class or group, in person or online. The collective energy and expectations carry you along.

Another key obstacle is a perceived lack of time. You can schedule time into your calendar, or find an activity that you can do in your downtime – knitting is the classic. If you put energy into getting organised, you can liberate the little bits of between-task time that might otherwise be sacrificed to social media.

Battling internal obstacles

The biggest block to doing arty stuff that most people face is their own attitude. We’re probably all hounded by an ‘inner critic’ – the negative voice in your head saying mean things if you try to do anything risky, uncomfortable or tiring.

You may not see arts activities as valid. You may believe taking time for yourself is selfish or wasteful. (Given the blossoming of our environment during lockdown, now’s a good time to question our cultural obsession with productivity.) Guess what? You’re allowed. If you don’t accept this from yourself, take it from me.

Let’s talk about ‘bad art’

There’s an insidious block to inviting arts into your life, if the arts activity you’re attracted to is part of The Arts in capital letters (say, watercolour painting, or playing the guitar).

In response to a recent financial stimulus package for the arts sector, I read this headline: Government arts package will lead to ‘bad art’. The quote, from a respected artist, relies on an existing cliché which can be paraphrased as: Leave the art-making to the geniuses, folks.

Let’s imagine the government announces a stimulus package for the sports/recreation sector, and Richie McCaw complains, “This will lead to a lot of uncoordinated joggers!” This wouldn’t happen, because it’s accepted that all levels of sports are valid and contribute to wellbeing. This is also true of arts activities.

The ‘bad art’ idea stops people from trying out different arts activities. It also hinders people who are passionate about their art, validating the inner voice that says, “Give up, you’re a hack, you’re not a real artist…”

Let’s say NO to this idea, and YES to celebrating all kinds of arts activities – even the ones that aren’t in line with our taste.

Arts are for everyone

The lockdown taught many of us that we want to be more present, play more, lower our stress levels, and reduce our reliance on shopping as entertainment. Arts activities can offer all this, and there are a zillion to choose from. You can even invent a new one to suit your life.

If you want to keep the zing in your life, ask yourself what arts activity attracts you, and go for it!