How Art Supports Emotional Wellness

By Hajnal Eppley, Gallery Teaching Director

If there ever was a time to focus on social-emotional wellness, it’s 2020. In this year’s uncertainty and change, children and grown-ups traverse a wide range of emotions each day. As a parent working from home while also supporting my two children in their remote learning, I can say that today my household experienced excitement, frustration, guilt, confusion, joy, and exhaustion.

Naming these emotions is one of the first steps to helping children navigate their feelings. The next step: what does one DO with all these feelings?

When Governor Mike DeWine announced the move to remote learning in the spring, many of the teachers who work with the CMA told us of their need for additional support to meet state goals in social-emotional learning. This is the process by which children and adults “… [S]et and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make positive decisions.” Even before COVID-19, schools began paying attention to emotional education because more than two decades of research showed students who received such support in school performed better academically and experienced greater economic and life outcomes in adulthood.

Luckily, art has a unique capacity to help us navigate our social-emotional health. In response to teacher feedback and our own experiences in the world over the past six months, CMA educators developed new digital learning experiences to support K-12 students and teachers. Our work is guided by three big ideas that weave together social-emotional learning and the close study of art.

Self-awareness: Art can help us identify emotions and consider how the outside world impacts those emotions.

With young children, we can help them identify what emotions they see displayed in works of art and consider when they might have felt those emotions in their own lives. Look at the image below; “What do you think this person is feeling? What do you think might have happened before or after this moment to make this person feel this way? Have you ever felt that way?”

Portrait of Hottō Enmyō Kokushi, c. 1295–1315. Japan, Kamakura period (1185–1333). Hinoki cypress wood with lacquer, metal staples and fittings; overall: 91.4 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund, 1970.67

This begins the important process of learning to “read” body language and other cues to help us understand ourselves and others. We can also consider that people read and understand emotions differently and that we don’t always have a “right” answer to what the artist or subject was thinking or feeling.

With older students, we build on this skill by asking them to consider how artists express emotion to process events in their lives. When exploring this photograph below, for example, we ask students to consider what message the artist might have tried to send when documenting a family right after a flood damaged their home and business. Then, we can ask students to think about the messages they want to send about events in the world around them. Art can be a powerful tool for communicating what students feel is important!

Street Life in London: Sufferers from the Floods, 1877. John Thomson (Scottish, 1837–1921). Woodburytype; image: 11.5 x 9 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Photography Discretionary Fund, 2019.52

Self-management: We can use artful thinking strategies to help students process their emotions.

Spending time looking at artworks can mimic meditation: we calm and quiet our bodies as we settle in, we look carefully and slowly, and we reflect on what we see and what we think or feel about what we’re seeing. Students can practice grounding techniques such as 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 to consider what they see, hear, smell, and feel in an artwork. Teachers and students can discuss how this technique can help calm us when we’re feeling anxious or stressed.

A key is to provide choices for how students respond to works of art — choices that feel best for them: “There’s no one right way to look at a work of art. Some people prefer to talk about it or write about it or draw their response to it, or just sit quietly. We’re going to practice a lot of strategies today. At the end, we’ll come back and discuss which options worked best for you.” Allowing space for students to make choices and take responsibility for aspects of their learning can help them feel a sense of control in a chaotic time. It can also help them observe strategies to add to their personal toolkit and consider ways of learning that don’t come as naturally to them so they can be more aware of their learning styles.

Social Awareness: Art can help us investigate a variety of cultures and perspectives so that we may consider what we can learn from others.

In times of social distancing, it can be extremely challenging to interact with people and ideas outside of our own intimate bubble. But learning how to empathize and consider multiple viewpoints is a skill that’s needed now more than ever. Close-looking experiences with a variety of artworks, cultures, time periods, and ideas can help students make connections and explore different points of view. Using the CMA’s Collection Online in digital learning lessons allows us to make connections between artworks from many cultures and time periods. Artists in different parts of the world express their life experiences with families, communities, joy, and grief in ways that are similar and different. It’s important to intentionally reflect on what we can learn from others who have created art and from those who are responding to that work of art along with us.

To dig deeper into social-emotional learning and wellness, you can explore Social Emotional Activities for Adults and these age-based recommendations. We also invite you to join the CMA’s many art experiences to nurture your own wellness. Whether through digital learning experiences for K-12 audiences or live discussions such as Close Looking at a Distance, we hope you will join us for an opportunity to take a deep breath, experience a moment of focus, and connect with others.