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The personal connection you have with works of arts–what it does for you and how you use it in your life–rubs off on your students too and impacts their lives and those around them. Author John Butler once said, “Art changes people and people change the world.” How? I did some research to discover what looking at art does for us as people and the countless ways art can change you.
In this episode, I discuss how it benefits the broader spectrum of humanity physically, mentally, emotionally, and more.
5:38 – Hormonal and other health effects that just 30 minutes of art gazing has on your body
9:16 – How art rescued me during an emotionally vulnerable time on a week-long retreat
10:55 – How art alleviates feelings of isolation and increases empathy, tolerance, and compassion
18:56 – Why engaging with works of art makes you more insightful and creative
24:22 – Ways in which looking at art can transform and improve your thinking skills
29:32 – The impact of art connection on your relationships, communication, and emotion
31:46 – How seeing Picasso’s Guernica reflected in a real life event shifted my inner kaleidoscope
35:06 – Why yawns are contagious and what they have in common with looking at art
- 82 Questions About Art
- Free E-Mail Course: Reclaim Your Classroom
- The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers
- Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad
- The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael Singer
- “Art and Health: The Real-World Benefits of Viewing Art”
- “How Engaging With Art Affects the Human Brain” by Kat Zambon
- “Brain scans reveal the power of art” (subscription/registration required)
- “Art does heal: scientists say appreciating creative works can fight off disease” (subscription/registration required)
- Be a Podcast Guest: Submit a Voice Memo of Your Art Story (Scroll to the bottom of the page to submit your story.)
Cindy Ingram: Hello and welcome to The Art Class Curator Podcast. I am Cindy Ingram, your host and the founder of Art Class Curator, and The Curated Connections Library. We’re here to talk about teaching art with purpose and inspiration from the daily delights of creativity to the messy mishaps that come with being a teacher. Whether you’re driving home from school or cleaning up your classroom for the 15th time today, take a second, take a deep breath, relax those shoulders, and let’s get started.
Did this year take everything you had to give and then some? This year it was traumatic. Too much was expected of us and there was just not enough to go around. This year it was a wake-up call, but so many are ready to hit the snooze button and ignore all the lessons we learned. At Art Class Curator, we’re saying enough. We’ve had enough of teachers being under-appreciated, enough of the stress and overwhelm, enough of being told that art isn’t important, enough of being treated like a supplies closet, enough of being exhausted. This year, it’s going to be different because we know it can be, we believe it can be, because teachers deserve better. This year, we are taking back our creativity. We’re taking back our time. We’re taking back our worth. This year, we’re taking back our teaching.
Join us this summer for Reclaim Your Classroom: Take Back Your Teaching Spark with Intention, Joy, and Purpose. We’re going to reflect on last year and figure out how to make this year better by getting in touch with our purpose and our passion. Come together with the community, rediscover your spark, and learn what you need to do to make this your best year yet. Sign up for Reclaim Your Classroom at artclasscurator.com/takeback.
Hello, everybody. This is Cindy Ingram. I am excited to welcome you to The Art Class Curator Podcast. Before we get started, I want to tell you a little bit about this upcoming program that we have that starts on July 26th. This summer, we’ve been talking a lot about this school year, how it went, and ways to reclaim your joy of teaching in this next year. One of those ways to do that is to reconnect with your why, with why you are an art teacher to begin with, and why you’ve chosen to do this job. You know it makes such an important impact but it is just such a hard job to do.
My favorite quote is the quote by John Butler where he says, “Art changes people, people change the world.” I put it in the bottom of my emails. I include it in presentations. It’s one of those drivers for me. I started to think, “How does art change people and how does art change the world?” I thought I would go through the research to talk about what looking at art does for us as people, not just for your students—I’ve done episodes before where I talk about what students learn—but really I am talking today about the broader spectrum, not just students but you, too, and what looking at art does for you. All of the research that I found today is about looking at art rather than making art. There’s a whole slew of other research about that. We all know the crazy good benefits of making art, but you know that at Art Class Curator, we’re dedicated to art connection experiences and really deeply connecting with works of art. That’s what we’ll be focusing on today.
I have this structured in a way that I was thinking about the sentence prompt “Art transforms” and so I have art transforms your perspective, your connections, your satisfaction, your wellness, your thinking, your relationships, your connection with the past, your self-actualization, your emotions, your outlook. Art does so much for us. With that in mind, we’re going to go through some of those things that I just mentioned and talk about what art does for you. I really want you to think about how you’re using art in your own personal life because I think I’ve said it before on the podcast, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but that connection that you personally have with works of art is so important because that is going to rub off on your students. Not only is it fulfilling for you, it’s satisfying your personal needs, but it also then will rub off on your students, your passion and your connection to it, the energy that you approach it. All of that will benefit your students too.
It’s the same thing with social-emotional learning. They say that one of the best ways to improve the social-emotional learning of your students is to first improve it in yourself. I have found that to be so true. For me as a parent especially, the more I work on myself, the better it is for my kids. They benefit from all the work that I do on myself. The same is true for your students.
One of the most fascinating bits of research that I could find was that people who participated in cultural activities and people who participated in museum gallery visits—there were a couple different studies that I’m combining into this one section. All of my notes that are sources that I found will be in the show notes so you can check that out if you’re interested in doing a little bit more digging and research on these topics—so studies have found that looking at art, even for 30 minutes at your lunch break in an art gallery will lower your stress levels. It decreases your cortisol levels, which is that hormone in your body that controls the stress. It also increases your dopamine, which is your hormones that promote happiness. They say that dopamine response actually mimics the feeling of falling in love, that there is increased blood flow in the pleasure centers of your brain, and the more you like the artwork, the more blood flow you find in those areas too, which I think is really fascinating to me.
There’s also some research on lower inflammation. There was something called cytokines which are proteins, I guess, they’re released in your bloodstream that are markers of inflammation and that looking at art actually lowers levels of inflammatory cytokines. It could boost your immune system and make you healthier. The feeling of awe or wonder that we experience when looking at art—I talk about that a lot with the feeling of the sublime—I also have that same feeling when I teach a really amazing lesson with a work of art and have a really powerful art discussion. Jenn and I last week on the podcast tried to explain what that felt like. It’s just one of those feelings that just fills you up, and that feeling of awe, the people who had more feelings of awe or other positive emotions, had the lowest level of these inflammatory cytokines.
Along these same lines, looking at art has also shown to increase the satisfaction in your own life and also to lower your anxiety and your depression. This research, like I said, one of them, they spent 30 minutes in an art gallery, so you can imagine if you’re experiencing regular works of art, your regular trips to a museum, looking through art books, or perusing art online, that you’re doing yourself such a great benefit. Imagine if you’re doing that for your students, every week you show them a new work of art, how that will improve their lives as well. I found showing artworks to students, they really do dive head in to the artwork, they look at it full force, they’re really engaged in it, they’re connecting with it. I know that they’re experiencing some of those same positive benefits that these studies show.
We know as teachers, from things like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and just from the experience of being a teacher, that students who are not feeling safe, who are not feeling well, and aren’t getting their needs met are not going to learn as well when you’re in an active stress state. When you’re feeling anxious, you are less likely to have positive learning outcomes because your nervous system is too busy worrying about keeping you safe and learning is something not as important.
I have a personal story about this, which I’m not going to tell you in the full effects of it on a podcast because it’s probably embarrassing, but I know I’ve told this story on a podcast before as how I was at a retreat for a week. It was really this emotionally vulnerable place. I was really tired too because the sleeping situation wasn’t ideal. I was staying in a house with 12 other people. As a person who is highly sensitive and easily overwhelmed to sensory input and also an introvert, it was really a lot for my nervous system to handle. We had an afternoon break, a lot of people stayed back and chatted back in the house, but I knew I needed to reset and so I went to the art museum, it was the High Museum in Atlanta, and it was almost instantaneous, walking in those doors and into that space, I just immediately felt more relaxed. I had been having some digestion issues and just other things that were going on and the art museum solved all of my problems. I think when you have a safe space like that, a place to turn to, it can bring a lot of peace into your life.
Along the same lines of impacting your mental health, I think that connection to art actually helps you feel less alone in the world. We live in these silos in our brains. Every person has just a world of complex thoughts, ideas, dreams, aspirations, struggles, and circumstances that they’re dealing with and it can feel really isolating, especially if you have a harder time talking about those bigger things and sharing your struggles with other people. When you see art made by other people that is dealing with issues that you yourself also deal with, it helps you see yourself in the art. When you can see yourself in the art, you’re seeing yourself in another person because a person made that art. Seeing yourself in another person allows you to see yourself in a new light. It helps you maybe not take yourself so seriously and it helps you realize that your problems and your circumstances are manageable and also you feel seen in new ways that you hadn’t before.
Experiencing artwork and connecting with it in deep ways is transformational. This whole episode is about how art is transformational and there are so many ways that it is transformational. But that better understanding of self, mixed with the better understanding of others at the same time, connects us to that human spirit. It makes you realize that we are all so similar and we all deal with such same things. It makes our differences feel more surmountable, easier to tackle. Seeing yourself in art with another person also helps you transform your perspectives—your perspective on life, your perspective on the world, on other people, on art, all of that is challenged, questioned, and reinforced through experiences with works of art. When we see ourselves in art, we see ourselves in other people. We’re seeing new thoughts, ideas, and perspectives on different topics, and that is allowing us to better understand them, to better understand the complexities of the situation.
This is true for art, for literature, for music, any version of the arts, we can do this. The example that pops to mind right away is that I just finished reading a book recently, it’s called The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers. In the book, there are a group of aliens—I don’t normally read this genre of book but Madalyn had recommended it to me, Madalyn from our past episodes about Death and Life by Gustav Klimt, which if you haven’t listened to, you really need to listen to because they’re probably my favorite couple of episodes I’ve ever done—but anyway, it’s this sci-fi type of book that has a group of aliens and they’re all stranded on this in-between place island, it’s almost like a truck stop type of island, not island, planet. In it, they’re having all these conversations about their way of life, how they do things. There are conversations about gender, about all this stuff.
But throughout the whole book, it was so fun to listen to these conversations because they were, very clearly, metaphors about things happening on earth. It was pretty unapologetic in that way. But it was fascinating to be able to experience these really complex things that happen on earth in an art form. It made me understand them better. Looking at art and experiencing art allows us to stand in another person’s shoes, to see it from their perspective, and to experience their struggles from their individual voice. That’s going to help us with empathy, compassion, understanding which, above all else, art changes people, people change the world. When you have art that transforms how someone views something, there’s so much power in that.
That has been shown in research as well. There was a study done in conjunction with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which is in Bentonville, Arkansas. The study, which was published by the University of Arkansas in 2014 determined that the students that partook in this field trip program at the museum showed improvements in both tolerance and historical empathy. I had never heard about historical empathy specifically before until I read this study. The definition of historical empathy is the process of understanding people in the past by contextualizing their actions. Not only are we creating students who are understanding issues from more perspectives, they’re understanding how to use those in their personal lives. That, in itself, is super beneficial, but we’re also using art to understand the past in more substantial ways. We’re seeing patterns in the past, we’re seeing how things have changed through time, and we are looking at people in a really authentic way and not judging the past, not judging other groups of people, but we’re learning about them and we’re learning to understand them and to do it kindly.
Connecting with art from the past and connecting with art across time and across cultures will allow us to better understand where we’ve been as people, we understand where we’re going, we’re going to better understand history, culture, geography, time, place, it broadens your worldview, broadens your understanding of your place in time, your place in history, your physical place. Looking at art and experiencing art is allowing you to break out of the silo that we live in our brains and see the world more clearly, more kindly, and with less judgment.
At Art Class Curator, we use the word connections a lot. We have The Curated Connections Library. We’ve stopped using the term art appreciation or even art history, we call it art connection because one of the things that we’ve noticed in ourselves is the more art that you look at, the more that you read, the more music that you listen to, the more conversations that you have about the world, the more you engage in the news and world views. All of this stuff is going to feed your natural curiosity but it also is going to feed your ability to make connections between ideas. That’s not only going to make you just a more educated person and give you more to talk about, but it also will improve your creativity because basically what creativity is, is taking what you know and solving problems with it. You can’t be creative without being curious. Curiosity is all about the pursuit of new knowledge and new experiences. It’s about connecting disparate ideas. The more you experience out in the world, the more experiences you have to fuel your creativity and to fuel your new ideas.
I know that often if I get stuck in something, say I’m going to do a podcast episode, write an email, a blog post, or something and I can’t quite figure out what I want to say, often the best way to do that is to go out and have some experiences. I can sit and I can try to force my brain to come up with something or I can go read an article about something related, I can go read a fiction book, I can take a walk and listen to a podcast or even just listen to silence. Those things often will give me insight into whatever I’m trying to write about, think about, or teach about. You’ll find that a lot of my examples sometimes, or even things that sparked ideas for emails or podcast episodes, came from random sources like the book The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, that has nothing to do with teaching art but I’m pulling these connections from all sorts of places and they’re helping me develop my ideas and understand them better.
Even today, right before I was going to record this episode, I was listening to an audiobook while I was eating lunch. The book I’m currently reading is Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad, it’s a memoir of her experience with cancer. She said something so beautiful and I was like, “Oh, I’m going to use that as an example in this podcast I’m about to record.” It’s actually not about the current topic so I’ll tell you the example later. But there are always ways to find these new connections and it adds complexity to what you’re doing. Even when Jenn and I were recording our episode last week, we talked about student art connections and we were talking about how, every time we teach about a work of art and talk about it with our students, it adds new layers of connection and meaning that we didn’t necessarily have before because students are always going to have new ideas that we’ve never thought of, so the more art we experience is going to transform that for ourselves.
You know when you are shopping for a car and you’re considering a certain car, how all of a sudden, all you do is notice types of cars when you never notice what people drove before. Last week, I was tree shopping for my backyard and we have this new house that is new construction and we don’t have any trees and so I was trying to learn about trees. Now suddenly, when I’m out driving around, all I do is notice trees and I’m looking at all the different types of trees and studying which ones I like. Never before have I noticed what types of trees are around. You think about it, showing a work of art to a student, the things that they notice in the works of art are going to make them more aware of those things in their normal life, they’re going to start to make those connections. Maybe they see a work of art where they had a strong feeling of empathy for the character or the figure in the work of art, and then maybe they see an artwork with a homeless person and then they see a homeless person out and about in their town, they’re going to then experience the interaction with that homeless person in a different way because they had had that experience. Those connections are subtle but they also can be really overt. It’s really powerful.
Art also transforms your thinking. Along the same lines of making the connections, our brains are constantly firing, they’re constantly trying to make sense of the world. One example of this is how our brains are trained to look for faces. You can look at an electrical outlet and you naturally just see the face sometimes in it. Our brains are constantly just trying to figure it out; they’re trying to piece this puzzle together based on our sensory input. Our brains are naturally doing this already. Our brains are looking for connections, they’re looking for things that remind us of things we already know, they’re connecting back with our experiences, and they’re integrating these new awarenesses, new conversations, and new experiences into what you already know. It’s just building and building and building. When you introduce new works of art, when you introduce new experiences, your brain is already functioning to make sense of that and to connect it to other things.
Studies have shown that experience looking at works of art and participating in conversations and discussions around works of art have improved students’ critical thinking skills. Those are things like asking questions, finding links and connections between things, evaluating arguments, evaluating points, using evidence, being creative, taking things apart and restructuring them in different ways, making decisions, solving problems. All of these things that we use in our lives, day-to-day, can be improved through looking at and discussing works of art.
Art also transforms your thinking in that it allows you to slow down and focus. Studies have shown that mindfulness and meditation improves your mental health, your overall stress levels, your compassion even. But one of the things that meditation does is that it sharpens your attention. I think that looking at art is, in the same vein, if you think about the activity in our brains and how they’re constantly thinking, constantly narrating, constantly preparing for future conversations, reliving past conversations, reliving past experiences, preparing you for new ones, I read a book once about meditation, it was Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul which I highly recommend, but he, in one of the chapters, was talking about who’s in your head and he was talking about imagining that the person narrating your thoughts in your head was actually in the room with you and someone was acting the way your brain acts, that was hilarious because every now and then, when I’m sitting there, lost in thought, I hear my brain ping from one thing to another, to another, to another, and they were so random and it might be something I hadn’t thought of in a long time, it’s suddenly popping up and then it’s interrupted by something else. It’s just nutso. That’s going on in our head all the time.
We’re also used to constantly entertaining ourselves. A lot of people are not able to sit still and are constantly—if you have a few moments of silence, even at the stoplight—picking up your phone, checking your email, reading an article, checking out—mine is checking Apple News or Facebook—we’re constantly trying to feed that beast in our brain that wants to keep churning, keep processing.
The whole goal of meditation is to shut that part out of your brain, not to shut it out, but to calm that and learn to manage it and learn to quiet it. Looking at art does the same thing when you are sitting, looking at a work of art, focused on it, you’re thinking about it, you’re experiencing it, you’re feeling it, you’re noticing all of the details in it, you’re connecting with it. It is a moment where you’re paused, you’re focusing, you’re slowing down, you are not living in that constant scatteredness that so many of us live in every minute, every second of the day. I think for our students too, who probably have less training on this than we do, slowing down and spending 30 minutes looking at a work of art allows us to live in that place of wonder and curiosity.
Art can also transform your relationships and your communication. You think about having conversations—and we had an episode recently about big talk versus small talk—but the more experiences you have in the world, the more thoughts you engage in, the more art you engage in, the more travel, the more books, you’re going to have more to say and you’re going to have more to think about. That will impact your enjoyment in your relationships, your enjoyment in your conversations, your enjoyment in your own self too. Not only are you just going to have more to talk about, but talking about works of art with people allows you to have conversations that are hard and scary.
I think back to my episode I did with Jenn Easterling back on June 14th where we talked about the artwork of Shirin Neshat, and even the two episodes with Madalyn about the Gustav Klimt artwork, we’ve talked about some really hard things in those episodes. Having conversations that are challenging where you could say something and put your foot in the mouth that are about big topics, having conversations focused on an artwork that is about that topic creates a safe space for us to explore our thoughts, our relationships, and our connections in really powerful ways. Not only is that going to transform your relationship with other people but your relationship with yourself as well. Of course, art is going to transform your connection to your emotions. It’s going to help you become more emotionally literate, help you understand emotions and the language of emotions better, and it will help you process your feelings as well.
I mentioned the book that I was reading today earlier, Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad. In it, she gave an example of something that she heard or a conversation she had. I wish I had the exact quote but I was listening on Audible and it would take me a while to go back and figure out exactly what she said, but she called it her inner kaleidoscope, and that’s something that she said shifted her inner kaleidoscope. You think about a kaleidoscope and as you turn it, the beads or whatever it is inside, shift and restructure themselves into a new image. I feel like that is what happens when we explore the emotions in works of art.
It makes me think about my experience when I saw Picasso’s Guernica in person for the first and only time I’ve seen it. I saw it back in, I think it was 2017, spring break. My husband and I were going to Italy for spring break which was really exciting, but I got tickets to Italy on the app Hopper, which is an amazing app. It gives you really cheap airfare, but to get this really, really cheap airfare, we had to do a 24-hour layover in Madrid. I wasn’t mad at all about that because I had been dying to go to Spain to see mainly—I want to go to the Prado—but my main reason to go to Madrid was to see Guernica. We arrived in Madrid, super jet lagged, and basically went straight to the museum.
At the time, there was some bombing of Aleppo in Syria. In the news, there were videos of women and families covered in ash and there was one particular video I saw where a woman was holding her child. I believe the child had passed, I don’t remember and I’m not going to go look for it because I don’t want to watch that video again, but it was fresh on my memory of seeing all of this stuff, and then when I saw Guernica for the first time, I couldn’t separate that image of the woman that I saw in the video, the real life had happened in this world within a month of me visiting, and seeing this reflected onto the canvas, I was distraught. It was such a wrenching experience for me. It also made me think of 9/11, but the pain in that painting was so big, raw, and real. You could feel Picasso’s pain about that experience. My inner kaleidoscope that day was shifted.
All of these experiences connect you to the world, connect you to yourself, connect you to other people in such amazing ways. One other point about emotional literacy and how we experience art is that our brain, when we look at works of art, does something called embodied cognition. This is fascinating to me—and here’s another connection moment—just recently, last week, my daughter and I were curious about yawns and so we were like, “How are yawns so contagious? What is the yawn anyway? What’s its function? But also why are they contagious?” We’re watching some YouTube videos on it and in it, it talks about something called mirror neurons in your brain. When you see somebody doing something, your brain is like, “Oh, okay, that’s what we’re doing now. Oh, I’ll mirror that.” That’s why you yawn because your mirror neurons are firing.
That same thing is happening when you look at art. You see something and then your brain tries to recreate that and mirror that and so when you look at a work of art, your brain is making your body feel the same way as if it happened to you, as if it was happening to you. That’s why we are so prone to these profound emotional experiences when looking at art, when watching movies, when reading books is because our brain is putting us there. We’re practicing real-life, actual empathy because of these mirror neurons. Of course, I’m not a brain scientist, I don’t know, I just know what I understand based on the reading and research I’ve done and the connections that I have personally explored and made.
But all this to say, from all of these perspectives, art is transforming us on every level—in our brain, in our hearts, in our guts, with our relationships, with ourselves, with history—all of this is making such a profound impact on you. I hope this inspires you a little bit to go out and look at some more art, visit a museum this summer, explore some of the art we have at Art Class Curator on our website, and really reconnect with the beauty that is art. This joy that we get to do as art teachers, it’s such a privilege to explore. But even though we do have it as part of our jobs, I think it’s really important to be intentional about feeding that aspect of ourselves too.
Coming up on July 26th, we have a new program at Art Class Curator, and it’s called the Take Back Teaching Project where we are going to spend some time reflecting on our year, preparing ourselves for the coming year, and reconnecting with the things that matter to us. I hope that you consider joining us for that, you can go over to artclasscurator.com/takeback and sign up for that. If you’re already on our email list, you don’t necessarily need to go do that, you’re already going to get the program. But it’s going to be a really powerful time to get ourselves grounded, get ourselves centered for the new school year, and reconnect with our passion and our joy in our jobs.
Thank you so much for listening today and I will see you again next week on The Art Class Curator Podcast. Thanks for listening. Bye.
If your art appreciation classes were anything like mine, they happen in dark rooms with endless slides and boring lectures. Art in the dark. But art appreciation doesn’t have to turn into nap time for your students. Start connecting your students to art with powerful class discussions. It can be intimidating to start talking about art with students, so teachers always want to know what they should say. The real question is what you should ask. You can get 82 questions to ask about almost any work of art for free on the Art Class Curator Blog. The free download includes the list of questions plus cards that you can cut out and laminate to use, again and again. These versatile questions can be used in everything from bell ringers to group activities to critiques. Just go to artclasscurator.com/questions to get your free copy today.
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82 Questions About Art
82 questions you can use to start and extend conversations about works of art with your classroom. Free download includes a list plus individual question cards perfect for laminating!
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