Maria Hayes
28 October 2020

The Art of Wellbeing

Maria Hayes

28 October 2020 | Minute read

How do we measure our wellbeing? What do we do to support it, especially in the time of COVID-19? I note that since March my emotional states have been more volatile and varied than usual. Every day brings challenges. Every aspect of work and life are subject to the unknown, the unplanned. There is very little we can control.

(c) Dr Maria Hayes

As an artist I leaned into my practice to preserve, nurture and save my sanity. I packed a rucksack with paints, pencils, brushes and paper and headed up into the mountains, down valleys and out to walk by the sea. Drawing outside, in nature - with nature - I have been able to balance my feelings, restore a sense of stability, learn about what I’m looking at and explore how to express it on the page. To date I have completed 74 paintings since April 2020, as well as other works in sketchbooks and in the studio. Each time I complete a work I post it to Facebook and share. Very quickly it became clear that others appreciate this sharing and wait for the next image to appear. Not only do their responses make me feel that I am not working in a vacuum, but that the shared work fulfils a need. As humans we need to do, share and respond. These are ways of connecting and remaining hopeful.

In research carried out by Denmark’s University of Aarhus it was found that:

Green space most strongly protects against mood disorders, depression, neurotic behaviour, and stress-related issues … signaling that psychological restoration may be the strongest protective mechanism that green space offers. The effect of green space is also dose-dependent, meaning those who have longer exposures to green space have greater mental health benefits.1

Painting in the landscape and sharing the works through social media alleviates my stress and contributes to my wellbeing, but does not wholly pay the bills. To make a living as an artist I have always facilitated others’ creativity. I am an artist facilitator – it is a double role and the latter relies on the former. I must be an artist first for the facilitation work to work.

In May 2020 I applied and was recruited for a project with Y Lab, NESTA in conjunction with Cardiff University and the Arts Council of Wales. The aim was to research and create a remote Arts in Health project to deliver in national lockdown (June - July 2020). 2

We worked in small teams with people we had not met before and could only collaborate with them remotely. The brief asked for an innovative project, so we first researched what was already on offer. The arts and museum worlds have been very generous in their response to this crisis by making the viewing of works available on line, commissioning artists to create remote participatory projects, sending out art packs and inviting participants to share their creative responses on provided online platforms. It was hard to find something new to suggest with so much already on offer. The range of offers and the speedy adaptability of the sector to the crisis was impressive.

I am lucky that I live up a mountain in Gwynedd, that I have the best of nature on my doorstep. I thought about those who didn’t, and for one reason or another couldn’t access natural spaces. There were times even I longed to go further - explore somewhere else. So our project used cardboard headsets with mobile smart phones to access virtual reality (VR) videos as a stimulus to draw from. We gave detailed instructions on how to draw the videos from the given links, which were reflections of our own creative practices. All the VR videos were of natural places and took people away from their everyday space. We took them diving underwater and up through the atmosphere, sat them by a waterfall and asked them to get up close and personal to lions in Africa.

I wanted to know if engaging in a daily creative practice would impact positively on our participants state of wellbeing. There is plenty of credible evidence to support claims that Arts in Health projects are beneficial to participants. In most cases a large part of the benefit appears to come from the increased social support participants experience when they engage in the projects. In lockdown we had the opportunity to see what impact the creative engagement had as it was now separated from the social aspect.

To find out if this daily practice was beneficial we needed to take a measure before and after the activities. It required a creative evaluation tool that could be used quickly, easily and remotely to provide evidence to answer this question. There wasn’t anything appropriate so I designed one. I reflected on how isolation in lockdown affected my states and listed them in an order that moved from negative to neutral to positive experiences. I also noted what I did in those states to soothe, settle or share. These suggestions were placed under the headline states as an offer to the participants. When in a state, especially a negative one, it is sometimes hard to remember how to be and what to do. These suggestions were offered as gentle supports.

Finally, reflecting on how devoid of touch my life has become and how negatively that affects me, I decided that the measure needed to be painted and handwritten to offer a sense of the interpersonal and the handmade. At first I thought of making the measure linear, but quickly opted for a circle. Circles imply cycles and motion. A circle also made me think of the colour wheel, so I used a spectrum of colours to define the spectrum of moods.

We asked participants to reflect on their state before and after participating in the creative activities we designed for them. They set the measure to correspond with their state, took a photo on their phone and every day, for the duration of the project, emailed us the before and after wellbeing measure photo together with a photo of the artwork they had created.

When the results came in, the Wellbeing Measure also provided quantitative data that I hadn’t planned for. It revealed how many took part and when, and how many participants improved/stayed the same/dis-improved after engaging in the creative practice. The actual wellbeing ‘score’ (what state the participant was in before and after) gave us qualitative information about how engaging in the activity affected them, although it did not tell us why. The ‘why’ of the altered emotional states were teased out in a final (documented) zoom group meeting and conversation. That put some flesh on the bones of the information we received from the photos. We found that overall, daily engagement in a creative practice that involved a VR experience in a natural setting, improved wellbeing.

Since this project I have shared and gifted my creative Wellbeing Measure evaluation tool to the sector. It has gone international and was described by Nicky Goulder, CEO of Create, as ‘a work of art and a work of heart’. It is available for use and adaptation on request.

Going by the responses to sharing my paintings on Facebook, looking at artworks is another positive way to sustain our wellbeing. Research on what sort of images work best in hospital settings confirm that landscapes and images of nature are the most effective form of imagery to benefit wellbeing and healing. Lankston, Cusack, Freemantle and Isles in their paper on Visual Art in Hospitals state that:

Colours that elicit high levels of pleasure with low levels of arousal are most likely to induce a state of calm, while those causing displeasure and high levels of arousal may provoke anxiety. The fact that patients frequently express a preference for landscape and nature scenes is consistent with this observation and with evolutionary psychological theories which predict positive emotional responses to flourishing natural environments. Contrary to a view which may prevail among some contemporary artists, patients who are ill or stressed about their health may not always be comforted by abstract art, preferring the positive distraction and state of calm created by the blues and greens of landscape and nature scenes instead. 3

Looking out at the world, especially the natural world, can soothe and distract from inner turmoil, helping to stabilize and calm volatile feelings.

We invite you to explore this phenomenon for yourselves by participating in a short virtual project on looking and to use a digital version of the Wellbeing Measure to assess your state before and after looking. You will look at six landscape paintings I have selected from the National Museum of Wales’s collection. The chosen works are pieces I return to again and again to see what I can learn from them, to feel the feelings I have on observing them and to be nourished by looking at them. To look at art is to engage in a conversation. You bring yourself and your life’s experiences to the viewing of an object that holds the energy of the process the creator undertook to make it. Give yourself time to explore that energy exchange and to reflect on how it touches you.

Often when we look at art we ask, ‘Is it good?’

In this project we invite you to ask ‘What good does looking at this do me?’

Image List

  1. Graham Sutherland - ‘Estuary with Rocks’
  2. Roland Vivian Pitchforth - ‘ Glaslyn Valley’
  3. John Piper - ’The Rise of the Dovey’
  4. Mary Lloyd Jones – Dyffryn Nantlle LLais Nantlle
  5. Peter Prendergast - 'Close to Ellin’s Twr, Anglesey.’
  6. Catrin Webster - ‘Untitled’


1 Story by Laura Rocchio, Landsat Science Outreach Team, with Mike Carlowicz. Accessed 20/10/20 15.48


3 Visual art in hospitals: case studies and review of the evidence by Louise Lankston, Pearce Cusack, Chris Fremantle and Chris Isles Accessed on 20/10/20 16.30


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