Art has stemmed back into the beginnings of civilization, but the term art therapy and the discipline it proceeded is relatively recent. British artist Adrian Hill coined the term art therapy in 1942 after observing drawing and painting provided a creative outlet for patients suffering from mental and physical health issues. The practice quickly spread to hospitals serving patients with mental illness and is still practiced today, though it has been practiced in ancient Greece and many other civilizations before us.
Art therapy offers several benefits to people experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. Art therapy supports space for people to break from thinking about their condition and focus on a project from start to finish. It has therapeutic properties because art is an avenue for creative expression and experiencing emotions. It allows feelings that are difficult to process or handle to be explored without communicating them directly to others. Research proves art therapy allows people to regulate their emotions and improve themselves. Additionally, it creates a path for building trust and confidence in yourself because you are completing an accomplishment from start to finish and following through.
Art can benefit anyone who wants to improve their mental health or relieve symptoms. Miami-based artist Masha Ermeeva says creating art for her is the only thing that allows her to focus for extended periods without anxiety. She says art takes her outside of her comfort zone and helps her to release emotion. When she starts a painting, she said it creates inner peace, and while painting, she feels an emotion within and releases it on the canvas, ultimately helping her to cope with her emotions.
Who is Masha Ermeeva?
Ermeeva started drawing when she was two and has since dedicated many years to learning her craft. Born in Russia, she went through intense traditional training at the Art Academy, grasping her skills in portraying the human figure and its proportions, a strong basis reflected in her art today. Later she relocated to the US and graduated from FIU with a BFA, and continued to receive her MA degree in Modern and Contemporary Art at Christie's in New York. She also took courses at Sotheby's Institute of Art in New York. Her strong knowledge and training in producing fine art seeped into her appreciation for the discipline.
Ermeeva's painting is uniquely known for broad expressive brushwork, monochromatic palette, textures, and a sense of movement with a foot in both worlds. She describes her work as autobiographical that every painting is a living piece with a story and message behind it. As an artist, her body of work consists mainly of abstract, figurative, large-scale paintings. However, her last series was focused on abstract figures, saying she was trying to portray her emotions with artistic expression. She started seriously focusing on selling her art during the pandemic after a sudden wake-up call into doing what she loved and what made her happy. Slowly, she transitioned to spending more time on her art and left her beauty business for a while to focus on her passion. Like most artists who find success through selling art pieces through Instagram, according to Statista, this is how most art buyers find new artists. As a result, Ermeeva began getting exposure on the social media platform. Later on, she started producing digital art formats and posting them there.
Mental Health and the Artistic Process
Ermeeva explores emotional and psychological states and themes like femininity and relationships through her paintings' expressionistic gestural figures. She continuously works to portray the transformation of identity, soul, and emotional states through her subjects, hoping to resonate with a viewer on a deeper personal level and evoke memories and open an inner dialogue. In her process, art takes her outside of her comfort zone and helps release certain feelings or stress. "When I do art, that time usually goes by very fast. I think it's the only thing that I can do for hours… It's one of the only things I think I can do for five or six hours straight. What else can I do without getting anxious?" Art helps her release emotions and cope with them. For example, she will feel emotion when working on a piece. "I complete that emotion within by releasing it on the canvas," she said. She often also overthinks, and when she gets into that loop, she procrastinates. But by thinking art will come out in the only way it will come out no matter when she starts, it helps her with her tendency to procrastinate and reminds her to slow down. Instead of quickly completing something, it gives her time to explore. "I may have an idea, and I will make an art piece, and then while I'm making it, it turns out different, not the way I wanted it to be," she said. "And then I see new things in the composition that I didn't think of, but they make sense when I'm done. So, it allows me to see deeper levels of the subject I was making."
A study interviewed mental health patients about their lived experiences of creating art within psychosocial rehabilitation services and asked about their views on how it affected their recovery. In the findings, participants said making art gave them an outlet throughout their recovery process. It gave them respite from the illness and brought a new sense of hope and meaning to their life. Also mentioned by participants were finding resourcefulness and resolution throughout the process through connecting and reflecting with themselves, which enabled problem-solving and new insights about themselves. Overall, participants felt stronger, more confident, and more capable of driving their recovery journey when making art continuously.
Art has been used as a form of therapy, using patients' artistic expressions to encourage discussion about the images and reflection on their meaning and insight. Art therapy is a great way to reduce symptoms from people suffering from mental health issues like depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment, dementia, Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, and more. In addition, findings suggest art therapy helps get patients to open up and share their feelings, views, and experiences. Researchers believe art therapy plays a meaningful role in getting patients to engage when they are closed off and provides a safe and indirect way to connect with others. Though art is a form of therapy and something people use to express themselves, it hasn't always been that way. Art used to be a way to represent a specific religious narrative or to portray important people in history. It used to be a way to take a picture before cameras. But it evolved into a form of self-expression." It's interesting to see how it's going to evolve now," Ermeeva said, explaining how digital art is a new form arising.
Physical Vs. Digital Art: Which is Better for Your Mental Health?
Through art, emotional states can be triggered by interacting with art materials. Ermeeva said there are therapeutic benefits of using traditional materials versus digital materials for producing art. "It has a therapeutic aspect when you experiment with materials using your hands… It affects you differently versus you just on the screen. So, if we talk about art as a therapeutic practice, I think the real materials, for me, will work better," she said.
When using a digital device to create digital art, the process also has a lot of benefits, she said. Digital art is less messy and more convenient. It allows you to switch between different materials and colors easily. It can also be used as a tool for creating physical art. Ermeeva said, "Sometimes, actually, I do a sketch on my iPad, to just see what I'm going to do on the canvas. Because I don't want to get messy." She uses ProCreate, a digital illustration app.
The trade-off, though, is it can affect an artist's skill set on the fine art side. It is easy to draw anything when using digital tools and working with software like Adobe Illustrator or After Effects. You can trace and copy and paste again, she said. "The more you do on an iPad, the less you know how to use traditional materials," she said. Additionally, without an undo button like digital devices provide, mistakes force an artist to problem solve and fix their error another way. This shows an artist they are improving their skills through fewer mistakes or solving the issue, thus giving them a sense of confidence.
Because most things are heading to a digital space, artists will not be an exception. She believes artists should dabble in both worlds. "As an artist, you reflect on the time you are living in, right? So, you cannot just be creating old school traditional paintings when you're living in the digital era," she said. "Because your art reflects on our society and the world and what's going on. So, I think all of the artists should be doing both." She mentions it is also a helpful tool to get artwork seen globally. Digital art can be a great way to connect with other artists and feel a sense of accomplishment when virtually sharing your work on a mass scale.
What Future will Physical Art Have?
Ermeeva said she still needs to touch things, feel them, know how they were made when it comes to a piece of art. She wants to experience it. "If we start having digital galleries, digital music concerts, when are we going to leave the house?" Art is supposed to make you feel, she said. It's supposed to be an experience. So, if it's a concert or live music, or a ballet, it's not something she would want to watch on TV. "There is a certain place for everything," she said. She believes there should be a space for both digital art and experience-driven art to coexist to have both experiences.
Physical spaces are popping up, showing galleries of NFTs on screens and much more. Ermeeva believes it is an entirely different experience going to an art gallery in real life versus the digital realm, like an NFT marketplace. "There is a certain experience when you go to an art gallery or museum… it affects you differently," she said. Tangible pieces should be seen in real in-person galleries to get the full effect of the artist's work. Mentioning the Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience as an example of a physical experience with virtual projections of Van Gogh's artwork in several major cities, she stated there is a clear difference between these two experiences, seeing Van Gogh's original paintings live and up close versus an immersive experience with animated digital projections of the paintings. "People won't even know how the real piece is supposed to look if they just go to these exhibitions," she said.
Value of the Human Touch in Art
She believes artists who can use traditional mediums will be more valuable because fewer people will have that skill set. When she started to feel like her work was outdated, one of her designer friends said that wasn't the case because everything is becoming robotic and digital, so anything created by the human touch will have more value. "We decided after I had that conversation with my friend that we would try to think positive. Everything that is made by human hand is going to be valued higher because everything else will be just made by computer products," she said. Though she is not sure what hierarchy types of artists will be standing in, in 10 years, she thinks the value of someone creating a tangible piece of art will last and remain valuable. But she is also impressed by what artists are doing in the digital realm. She said she wouldn't know what the magnitude of digital art is going to be, but there are some amazing things people can do digitally, "crazy things you cannot just put on canvas and some of the digital artists are so profound," she said.
Ermeeva has dabbled in the digital art realm, producing digital formats of her art and posting them there. She started putting digital animations of her art on the NFT market, a part of her most recent series called "Transforming States." She told MP this series was about human connection and transformation. She wanted viewers to associate with these paintings, so she decided against adding faces and instead painted figures and translated emotion and a story through hand gestures, body movement, and relationships between human forms. She said her thoughts on NFTs as an art form are that it is an "interesting new area in art" because you are not producing art for art's sake. Instead, you put it on the platform and sell it for cryptocurrency. And the industry generates so much money now, and it's still so new she can't predict where it will lead.
Advice for Aspiring Artists
Whether creating an NFT or a piece of fine art, Ermeeva said she could tell when people with no training just decide from day one to day two, they want to be an artist. "For me intuitively, it shows when I see a good piece of art or not, even if it's an abstraction, images, colors, it's the way an artist using colors, it's the way it doesn't just come from day one to day two, you can see if this person was painting for a long time or not." If someone wants to be an artist, there is a market for those people, but doing it for business' sake is not a good idea. "If you think it's just cool, you can do it, but you're not going to last, it should be coming from a feeling of, 'oh, if I'm not going to do art, I'm going to be miserable.'"
To get the long-lasting therapeutic effects of making art, it should be a regular, routine, well-thought-out, and planned practice. Not an attempt to make something quick for cash or try out once. As an artist, she said, every obstacle in art or life stemmed from fear. Fear to start, make a bad painting, fail, fear of judgment, fear to be an imposter. To overcome that, she had to listen and believe in herself.
Additionally, she said expressing yourself through art in a relatable way and allowing others to resonate with your work is the most critical aspect of an artist. "As an artist, you have to allow yourself to show what's inside and allow yourself to be vulnerable," she said. "So, you shouldn't be afraid of how people will judge it." She believes a good artist should develop their own original style through honest expression. Noticing that if you succeed in doing that, one person will resonate with the art because at least someone else is going through the same thing. When creating a piece, she said the most challenging thing is just starting. It takes a lot of energy "because you're thinking, where to put a stroke, and you're just actively thinking about what is good."
For her, a good piece of art makes you think. And also, "you connect to this piece, and you can see something different, not particularly what even artists meant, but you can see something new in it for yourself." Describing art as a visual and universal language, she said it is something any culture can feel. "Any culture, no matter what country you are from, you can experience the same piece of art versus if it's literature, if you can't read that language, you can't really experience it." In her last series, she focused on the relationship with her partner. "I am inspired by people in my life and relationships." She plans to focus on connection for her next series and use her mother and best friend for inspiration.
Cover photo courtesy of Masha Ermeeva.