“Making art allows the lava of emotions pent up inside of me to flow out slowly, avoiding an eruption. I fear that if people don’t express themselves creatively, all the natural frustrations of life will boil up and burst out uncontrollably, with less-than-ideal repercussions.” — Gregory Burns
Many of us seek outlets for our pent-up lava as we seek to reset and refresh while dealing with with emotional and mental health challenges.
Smartphones and computer screens worsen stress. Yet online programs and apps sell us on well-being and mental health as easily downloadable consumables. But technology and deep emotions are rarely best friends.
It is time to try something more…human. Maybe a pencil or paintbrush can be our new best friend.
Art is intrinsically linked to humanity. Humans have been making it since the dawn of time. Few would argue that art is not culturally enriching or emotionally and intellectually rewarding. Just as a painting or a song can say something that defies description, art therapy uses the power of creative expression to tackle our emotional challenges through understanding, self-discovery, and expression. After conducting “the most comprehensive review of evidence” on the subject to date, the World Health Organization concluded that engaging with the arts benefits both mental and physical health.
Arts as a journey of self-discovery
In 1958, when he was one, polio paralyzed Gregory Burns from the waist down. At the age of 5, a doctor told Gregory that he would never walk again without braces and crutches, and to avoid getting fat if he wanted to be able to use crutches at all.
So Gregory decided early on that he would adapt and learn to do with his arms what others did with their legs. He took to the water and learned to swim. He was also given paints and art lessons and took solace in sketching and creating.
Growing up with a disability and being different from his peers, Gregory processed feelings through drawing and painting. When his family moved to Paris, the toddler found escape and passion painting bottles of Beaujolais and slices of French bread. Over the decades, he has filled over 100 sketchbooks with scenes from the 60 countries he visited.
Like swimming, art guided Gregory’s journey. Hard work, optimism, and a thirst for life became the ingredients of his success. What started with pen and ink drawings of nature in sketchbooks gradually led to large-scale commissions worldwide. Since 1980, he has held 80 solo and group painting exhibitions in 15 countries and has been the celebrated Artist-in-Residence at 40 venues worldwide.
All the while, he was competing as a swimmer. By 2000, Gregory had set a dozen world and American records. He represented the United States in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Paralympic Games, winning two gold, two silver, and one bronze medal. In 2016, the United States Sports Academy honored him with the Sports Artist of the Year Award.
But his increasing professional recognition in the art world never changed his singular belief that art heals. “When I graduated from college, the floor fell out of my world. Instead of seeking out a therapist, I dove into swimming pools and/or puttered with paints. If I started a painting while burdened with doubts and fears, I found myself calm and focused an hour later just from making art. Painting and swimming are my enablers. They have stimulated me to surpass my emotional and physical limitations.”
The world as our studio
“You use a glass mirror to see your face. You use works of art to see your soul.” — George Shaw
The world is Gregory’s studio. Besides beaches and mountaintops, favorite locations include sacred sites that have welcomed people for centuries, from Muslim mosques to Buddhist temples and Catholic cathedrals. In these spaces, making art can become a spiritual practice, a channel to access the deepest layers of life and the self. “Art goes beyond passive observation — it is a kind of prayer or meditation where we connect with our internal and higher spirituality,” Gregory notes. Engaging in the creative process can help us lift our spirits, silence negative thoughts, and build resilience and self-esteem.
Yet, art is not always a comfortable journey like drifting down some quiet river. As with everything in life, art offers highs, lows, climaxes, and plateaus. It is a roller coaster where we can feel peace, anger, frustration, pain, and uncertainty — all while working on our art. Ultimately, if we keep going, we reach some resolution and peace with what we have created and with ourselves. Through this journey of self-discovery, the healing power of art is truly revealed — by pushing us to face our inner doubts and embrace or destroy them. Ultimately we rise from the ashes of our search.
Art at work
“Company values are usually pieces of paper with words on them. Painting these values forces us to embody and internalize them.” — Gregory Burns
Today, Gregory is using his journey and experience to support others in their healing process. He inspires individuals and organizations to go beyond their limitations, challenging audiences to question their excuses and doubts. Gregory’s interventions reveal the power and potential of art to heal and build more resilient, connected teams.
With unique, innovative, and empowering team-building events for groups of up to 1,000, Gregory helps organizations reimagine and reinforce their values by creating artwork that people craft in a collaborative effort as a testament to the team and their objectives. The process of visualizing, humanizing, and personalizing a shared culture creates a strong connection and trust among individuals, pushing everyone to step outside their ‘default’ lives and to become immersed in a creative journey of discovery.
Through artmaking, Gregory energizes us to embrace a series of “human activities and key performance indicators.” But he recognizes that the magic of art is also what makes it challenging: there is no right or wrong, no perfect pirouette, no prescription, no pre-conceived answer. As in every mindful creative process and spiritual journey, art is focused on connecting with our inner and higher self, facing and going through our fears, and ultimately questioning and reimagining our lives. It is all about building emotional well-being and intelligence.
How can you engage your team and colleagues in artistic and creative expression?
Activities based on art therapy approaches have proved to be powerful tools to connect people in a way that meaningfully and effectively addresses the strengths and needs of a diverse range of individuals. By enabling team members to express internal conflicts while facilitating their ability to implement change, art-making promotes healing and relationships. Creative arts therapy approaches are fun and effective ways for people to flourish as individuals and team members by acknowledging that we all experience life and work differently.
Dedicate and schedule time for arts during the day to re-energize — by focusing. Take a break to discover your creativity by sketching at your desk, on the bus, in your garden, or in a museum. Paint or redesign old artifacts, or dabble with an instrument. Carry a small sketchbook and pencils or pens and doodle/draw whatever pops up — like you did in grade school. “It’s the focus and concentration, which rewires our brain and being,” Gregory explains. “When we are done, time seems to have disappeared, along with many of our perceived troubles. We feel invigorated and emboldened. Creating as opposed to consuming generates an inner turbine that energizes us.”
Don’t censor yourself. Let yourself freely connect with and express your feelings. Dance like nobody is watching. Be creative without expectations — don’t think about the outcome, just see where the action takes you. Art is not about making sure you reach the top of the mountain but about taking in the scenery along the way.
Use art as a way to connect with friends and colleagues. From crafting to using visuals to express and share your thoughts and feelings, art can be a fun and powerful tool to build bonds among diverse individuals outside of their daily life routine.
Use art to practice moving forward without signposts in a time of extreme uncertainty. “I always hoped that huge floodlights would illuminate my path as an artist,” Gregory recalls. “Instead, I discovered that the journey unfolds without distinct signposts. It is like walking through a pitch-black forest on a windy, moonless night with a box of matches. I have gotten used to starting without a map and discovering “en route” which way to go.”
When you next have spare time, instead of automatically reaching for your smartphone, connect with yourself through paper and pencil instead. Like Gregory, you might we must rediscover yourself and your path forward “en route.”