Artistic Behaviors for Living Purposefully

Jeff Kasper, Scaling Vulnerability, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Artistic behaviors are skills and mindsets that anyone can acquire. Also known as habits of mind, behaving like an artist includes developing and displaying critical thinking, problem solving and creativity in everyday life situations. By incorporating artistic frameworks into our daily experiences, we are taking action that enables us to determine how we will live each day with intent and meaning, instead of waiting for these elements to reveal themselves (spoiler alert: they will not manifest themselves without active and cognitive participation).

Contemporary life is full of distractions and stimuli that often deter us from focusing on ourselves on a more mindful level (see: “Artfully Mindful” for more on how art and art education give us the ability to discover deeper meaning and intent in everyday moments). We all have the inclination to live a creative and fulfilling life. However, due to aforementioned distractions and stimuli, we are sometimes conditioned into a systematized way of behaving. This is not our natural way of functioning and these types of conditioning generally lead to feelings of frustration, alienation, apathy and self-doubt (to name just a few of the many detrimental effects).

Through art we can assert our autonomy and experience life with purpose. This is because, as anthropologist and scholar Tim Ingold (2013) notes, we “think through making.” Thinking through making comprises four major aspects of human development: physical, social, emotional and cognitive intelligence. Through improvisation, expressive communication and embodied activities that follow the artistic process and studio habits of mind, we form an insightful understanding and connection with our own psyche, other people and the world around us.

Artists Lizz Brady and Jeff Kasper provide significant examples of how thinking and feeling through artistic immersion leads to more purposeful intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships. They each make and/or initiate works of art that facilitate individuals and groups to hone their artistic behaviors and inclinations through both materials-based explorations and socially engaged participatory projects. Overall, their intent is for viewers of their work to have meaningful experiences by way of social, emotional and cognitive participation and reflection.

Manchester-based artist Lizz Brady is radically envisioning a near future wherein the mental health and well-being of people who make and view art are constantly and consistently supported. Brady founded Broken Grey Wires in 2015. The organization utilizes artistic habits of mind to tackle ongoing issues with mental health care and stigma, especially within cultural settings. Brady’s investigation into art and mental illness is made tangible by developing exhibitions, workshops, publications and mental health resources with participation from contemporary artists, communities and audiences across the world.

Lizz Brady and Broken Grey Wires’ Mad Manual Toolkit, 2023.
Courtesy of the artist and Broken Grey Wires.

Broken Grey Wires is not art therapy, but the goals are not too dissimilar. Both have objectives to improve one’s self-esteem, self-awareness and emotional resilience; as well as helping to cope with grief, mediating conflicts and reducing overall stress and anxiety. However, Brady’s work is more aligned with Mad Studies and Social Practice Art than traditional art therapy. The methods and concepts of Brady’s own visual artwork and the artwork she presents as a curator brings diverse individuals and populations with experience of mental distress into a conversation regarding care and treatment. This provides experiential insights which examine how art addresses and raises awareness around a myriad of issues that arise from living with mental illness. Furthermore, Brady and her collaborators re-envision traditional mental health practice and ways of accessing better mental health services in the United Kingdom and beyond. Brady and Broken Grey Wires realize that mental health and healthcare is not monolithic, and therefore, does not define or seek to conceptualize mental illness. Nor do they ask for evidence of mental illness from any of their collaborators and participants.

Sample of a prompt from the Mad Manual Toolkit, 2023.
Courtesy of the artist and Broken Grey Wires.

Broken Grey Wires’ Mad Manual Toolkit (2023 – ongoing) is a resource that represents how we can reexamine mental health in a way that is de-stigmatizing, and create cultural spaces that are inclusive and accessible to neurodivergent populations. The Mad Manual Toolkit is an interactive guide full of art-centered activities to promote mindfulness and a substantial emotional and cognitive engagement with artwork and the overall gallery environment. The toolkit is composed of different thematic categories, each with exercises that stimulate and support artistic behaviors that progress mental and physical wellness. There is a mindfulness section, which prompts the participant to focus on being acutely aware of what they are sensing and feeling in the moment (using all five senses), and responding to these immediate feelings without the judgment of being “right or wrong,” or feeling overwhelmed by outside stimuli. There is a drawing section, which enables participants to visually respond to what they are observing in the moments they are engaging with the artwork on view. There is a writing section, which prompts participants to extend their mindful observation with their own distinct interpretations of the artwork by creating stories or ekphrasis poetry. There is an embodiment section with physical activities that respond to how we can interact with works of art and the exhibition space’s layout in novel ways. And there is a cognitive behavioral therapy section, which incorporates psycho-social interventions that aims to reduce symptoms of various mental health conditions such as anxiety, through diverting negative thoughts and feelings with positive responses to works of art.

Lizz Brady and Broken Grey Wires’ “Comfort Zone” during the exhibition Two Plus Two Makes Four. Courtesy of the artist and Broken Grey Wires.

Brady unveiled the toolkit alongside the Broken Grey Wires recent exhibition Two Plus Two Makes Four, which along with presenting works of art by Brady and other leading contemporary artists, showcased the potential to view art in a manner that encompasses the idea of living purposefully. Visitors were introduced to the exhibition by being encouraged to take a Mad Manual Toolkit, which they could use to respond to the works on display through a very personal lens. In addition to the relational activities in the toolkit, they could take a break, meditate or just relax within a designated space called the “Comfort Zone.” The Comfort Zone that debuted during Two Plus Two Makes Four was designed like a living room, with warm, low lighting and ample comfortable seating. It also included a zine library, with artist and activist made publications on mental illness and intersectionality. The concept behind the comfort zone is that it provides a stark and necessary contrast to how art is typically viewed and presented in galleries. Brady studied examples of other exhibition design and museum layouts, and assessed that in general, these spaces do not take into account a person’s desire to sit, reflect and take a moment for themselves. Galleries have harsh lighting and limited seating because the focus is clearly on showcasing the art. However, the viewer is just as important to the overall artistic concept as the art itself; and a display featuring intense lighting and limited seating can be off-putting to those of us with physical and neurodivergent disabilities. Broken Grey Wires’ Comfort Zone is a space where visitors can choose their own experiences, both related to the exhibition, as well as the overall concept of living purposefully. They can relax, read zines, think about mental health, nap, meditate and fill out some of the activities in the Mad Manual Toolkit. On one side of the Comfort Zone, Brady installed an “Evaluation Station,” a simple informal participatory form of assessment where visitors to the exhibition could jot down comments, symbols or a numerical value to signify how they are feeling in the moment.

All the work Brady has done has been beneficial to her own appraisal of life itself. Through art she has found ways to live with intent and in doing so, she notes that “it has saved my life, not to be so dramatic or anything, but it has. As I learn more about art, the more I fall in love with it. If I am struggling with my depression, and I go to my studio and create something, then everything can seem alright again.”

Jeff Kasper, Soft Spots, 2021, on the Rockaway Beach Boardwalk, Queens, NY.
Photo by Ronald Weaver II. Courtesy of the artist.

Working across the Atlantic Ocean, Jeff Kasper also designs spaces and coordinates interactive aesthetic experiences that support accessibility and promote practices of care. He works in both the public space and institutional environments with the intent on inspiring others to interact with preexisting works of art, and collaboratively create new works of art in a mindful manner.

When New York City was slowly and cautiously responding to the initial months COVID-19 pandemic, Kasper was working remotely on ways to fulfill our need to socialize and feel connected, while still adhering to necessary public health and safety measures (i.e. social distancing). He held brainstorming sessions with diverse, intergenerational populations over Zoom to formulate a collective notion about self-help and mutual aid. The result was Soft Spots (2021), an installation along Rockaway Beach’s boardwalk in the borough of Queens and Stapleton Waterfront Park in the borough of Staten Island from September 2021 through February 9, 2022.

Detail of one of the circular designs within Jeff Kasper’s Soft Spots installation, 2021, at Stapleton Waterfront Park, Staten Island, NY. Courtesy of the artist.

The concept was to present the public with a mindfulness path full of colorful dots each with inspirational and empowering messages that remind us to exist and be present in the moment and support others’ need to be present and live purposefully. The design referenced the signage and graphics we became accustomed to with regards to maintaining a “social distance” of six-feet or more in public spaces, with text along the edge of each circular dot featuring affirmations and questions for those seeking social, emotional and physical support, such as “what would it take for them to know what really makes me feel safe?”

Jeff Kasper, Wrestling Embrace, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Another interactive project Kasper developed to reassess and re-imagine health and wellness in social settings, is called Give & Take Care (2019 – ongoing). In collaboration with participants and guest organizers, Kasper creates a sensory space with interactive objects and accompanying programs that are geared towards providing visitors with resources and inspiring activities for open-ended explorations around themes of care, conflict, consent and accountability. Like Brady’s “Comfort Zone,” Give & Take Care features many different areas where guests can play games, take a nap, meditate and read books from a non-circulating library on socially engaged art, queer sexuality and disability culture. The itinerant social space and workshop suite also features some of Kasper’s artworks such as Wrestling Embrace (2020), which is a soft, large black exercise mat with a circular graphic that contains phrases serving as activity prompts such as “navigate by touching,” “relax,” and “explore being together.” Kasper designed each experience and object in the space so it can be applied to conflicts, conversations and collective situations within everyday life.

The implementation of game play and comfort stations within art installations is especially transformative in gallery settings where people sometimes might feel uncomfortable and even anxious. Applying artistic behaviors such as embracing ambiguity (see: Faller, 2021) and making creative judgements in the absence of rules (see: Eisner, 2002 and Eynon-Lynch and Wenger, 2015) can help us navigate the space between feeling vulnerable and comfortable.

Research has shown the benefits art has on individual and collective well being. The arts are one of the foremost disciplines that motivate us to openly express and bolster our cognitive and emotional skills and intelligence. Based upon art’s ability to nurture the development of our sensitivity, it is an essential way of addressing mental health related issues in an accessible and nearly universal manner (see: Xuguang and Ye, 2022 and Mercin and Alaku, 2007).

Lizz Brady and Jeff Kasper reveal how the arts, when ingrained within the fabric of our society, can have far reaching benefits, and serve as models for how other pragmatic disciplines like psychiatry and medicine might adopt more holistic frameworks of care, empathy and cooperation.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Eisner, Elliot W. 2002. “What Can Education Learn From the Arts About the Practice of Education?,” The Encyclopedia of Pedagogy and Informal Education’ (Originally given as the John Dewey Lecture for 2002, Stanford University).

Eynon-Lynch, Michal and Wenger, Cassie, “Teaching Students to Be Judgemental,” Pear Deck, 9 December 2015.

Faller, Mary Beth, “Teaching Students to Embrace Ambiguity Can Spark Creativity, Design Expert Says,” ASU News, 2021.

Ingold, Tim. 2015. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. United Kingdom: Routledge.

Jin, Xuguang, and Yuan Ye. “Impact of fine arts education on psychological wellbeing of higher education students through moderating role of creativity and self-efficacy.” Frontiers in Psychology 13 (2022).

Mercin, Levent, and Ali Osman Karakuş. “The necessity of art education for individual and society.” DÜ University Ziya Gökalp Education Faculty Journal 9 (2007): 14-20.

Nguyen, David J., Larson, Jay B., “Don’t Forget About the Body: Exploring the Curricular Possibilities of Embodied Pedagogy.” Innovative Higher Education 40, 331–344 (2015).

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