Opinion | Take an art break

By Leah Mensch, Opinions Editor

In the corner of a classroom in Cathy’s basement last week, my writing class used glue sticks and scissors with fervor. With our writing and the writing of other artists, we formed our own collages. I cut up a copy of James Agee’s lyric essay to make my own look better.

The art collage took me more than two hours to complete, though I was in a time warp for most of it. My professor called this “art night,” where each writing student brought in a copy of an essay they’d written and made an art piece out of it. The assignment was meant to cultivate inspiration as we make edits to this semester’s writing for our final writing portfolios, but it was also unexpectedly calming.

As it turns out, amongst other benefits, creating art is proven to relieve stress and cultivate brain activity — even for students like me who don’t regularly sculpt, paint, draw or make collages at all. Art is accessible for everyone, and so instead of taking a workout break or going shopping to relax this finals week, we should all just consider taking an art break.

While STEM students are studying for finals, many students studying the arts — whether it be linguistics, literature, writing, sociology or philosophy — are straining to write their final papers for classes. Though these papers are often deeply rooted in research, they still require creative thinking and writing. Exposure to art and creating art enhances these creative tendencies.

The Journal of Business Research synthesized a series of studies and found that people who are exposed and open to aesthetic experiences — like art — showed measurable signs of increased inspiration in daily life and performed better on creativity tasks. This inspiration extended past the liberal arts and also showed increased performance in business and STEM environments.

And if not for increased brain activity or inspiration, take an art break simply to destress. A 2016 study conducted by researchers at Drexel University invited a group of participants to channel their creativity in a lab and measured their cortisol levels — which is the human body’s stress hormone — before and after. Many of these participants did not consider themselves to be artists at all and only drew with markers or made small collages with paper while participating in the study. Still, researchers observed a cortisol drop in more than 75% of the participants after only 45 minutes of creativity.

As seen in the operation of this study, making art doesn’t have to be complicated. While some students may enjoy creating complex visual art or poetry writing, something as simple as an adult coloring book — or coloring pages available for printing online — and a package of colored pencils can do the trick. Perhaps return to a childhood favorite, and buy a container of Play-Doh to play with for 30 minutes in between writing an essay or studying for an exam. Or, you can just make a collage out of something you or someone else has written. You don’t need to be a writing major, or even a liberal arts major, to do any of these things.

For students looking for a more structured art break, consider visiting Pitt’s Center for Creativity. Located in the basement of the University Store on Fifth, the center has a collection of niche art supplies like lettering pens, canvas, acrylic and watercolor paints and 3D printers. The Center for Creativity also holds events for students to get creative. Last week, it had a yoga paint party in the Stress Free Zone. It’ll be open for students to drop in and get creative until finals are over. On Wednesday, the center will be holding a notebook creation event, where students can create their own notebooks and work with a letterpress. They can also look at other art that peers have created throughout the semester.

Art has long been proven to relieve depressive symptoms, and while this, along with stress release is always helpful, students can benefit from it particularly during finals week. Unlike exercise and shopping, art and creativity are accessible forms of stress release and study breaks for everyone. It can be incorporated into a 15-minute break, or a two-hour one — the benefits will be evident in both cases.

Make an art break the new study break this finals week. Your brain will thank you for it, and you might just make something worth hanging on your wall.

Leah writes primarily about mental health advocacy, cumin, essays and books for The Pitt News. Write to Leah at [email protected].