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Let Thy Art Be Thy Medicine

Engaging in artistic activities benefits the mind and the body. “Art keeps you from the mind reaper,” said Jennifer Aldrich. Photo by Len Villano.

“People grow old too fast when they are not keeping themselves busy with some kind of activity they enjoy,” said Jennifer Aldrich to a group of Miller Art Museum volunteers during her presentation “Creativity and the Mind.”

The group of more than 30 volunteers or curious community members gathered in the basement of the Sturgeon Bay Library on a chilly March morning to discuss museum news and needs. Over coffee and cookies, the short meeting adjourned and Aldrich, a painter, photographer, adjunct professor of Lakeland College, and employee of the Artists Guild, stepped forward.

“Art keeps you from the mind reaper,” said Aldrich, who clarifies that art encompasses a variety of artistic forms: dance, music, poetry, painting, etc. “Now the leading cause of death might be cancer, heart disease. In 2050, dementia and Alzheimer’s are projected to be the leading causes of death.”

Aldrich has witnessed the positive effects art has on a troubled mind, like one ravaged by Alzheimer’s, as well as cancer patients, veterans suffering from Post-traumatic stress disorder, at-risk youth, and more.

“Let thy art be thy medicine,” said Aldrich, referring to Hippocrates’ famous quote, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

“Health care workers find that art can reduce depression, help individuals relax, increase self-esteem, improve cognitive and sensory stimulation, encourage playfulness and a sense of humor, and foster a strong sense of identity,” lists Aldrich.

She uses her grandfather as an example, a man who spent his ten years of retirement building birdhouses and other crafts.

“Going to his house was like going to a magical land – it was very colorful,” recalled Aldrich. “He didn’t spend retirement in front of the TV.” She stressed that those artistic hobbies and interests need not wait until retirement. “Do it before you retire!” she said. “Make time!”

Art, according to Aldrich, nurtures an individual’s psychological well-being. “Art, music, dance, poetry – takes us beyond ourselves, adds meaning to our lives” she says.

Art can also pull memories to the forefront, helping individuals heal and express themselves.

When Aldrich worked with the Legacy Arts Project in Green Bay she led a painting workshop. “There was a woman who had progressive dementia,” she recalls. “She couldn’t speak. She would walk by the classroom and see what we were doing. Finally she came in and sat down. We slipped her a canvas and a paintbrush. She began to paint a red shoe. We hung it up in her room. A week later her daughter came by and said, ‘That’s really special. That means a lot.’”

Aldrich was curious. “What does it mean?” she asked the daughter.

The daughter explained that her father bought her mother red shoes for their first date, so they could go dancing.

“She was thought to be gone,” said Aldrich, “but she was hanging onto a beautiful memory.”

The purpose of engaging in art, continued Aldrich, “is not to prolong life, the idea is to live a quality life.”

Following the presentation, Aldrich screened the PBS film Art and the Mind, which showcased the positive effects of art on individuals as well as scientific findings supporting the claim that art is therapeutic, even necessary.

“Art generates emotions that effect physical health,” stated one doctor who supported the use of ‘expressive therapy.’ “When one is engaged with art, reward systems become activated. That gives us pleasure and a sense of well-being.” Art also lessens stress, which is not good for the brain and weakens the immune system.

Another individual quoted in the documentary led at-risk youth in dance classes in inner city Los Angeles. “Self-expression is a basic human need and it’s gonna happen, whether violently, negatively, positively, creatively,” she said.

From young to old – art enriches life, plain and simple.

Aldrich will lead a class called “Art & Writing to Heal” at the Nelson Healing Center in Sturgeon Bay three consecutive Saturdays on April 19, 26 and May 3 from 9:30 am – 1 pm. The cost is $120 for three classes, which will teach participants about using art and writing as tools for self-discovery and healing. The class is open to anyone. For more information email [email protected] or call 920.818.0045.

Check out Door County’s many artistic havens to view art created by local artists and sign up for classes, workshops, or clubs to create your own art!