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Seeing Things (17): Art and Healing
January 20, 2017

This is the seventeenth in a series of personal observations about how people experience and explore museums. Take a look at Howard's other blog posts about seeing things.

The Healing Machine

Emery Blagdon's The Healing Machine

The story behind Emery Blagdon's The Healing Machine had captivated me even before I saw the installation in SAAM's reimagined galleries for folk and self-taught art. I find myself coming back to it frequently, just staring into it, and wondering about the artist and his belief in the ability of his artwork to be a catalyst for healing.

Blagdon created his healing environment in a small building he constructed on his farm near Callaway, Nebraska, in order to alleviate pain and illness. He cared for family members who suffered from cancer and felt there must be ways to alleviate such suffering. Blagdon began working on his creation in the late 1950s, and was still working on it when he died in 1986. His installation used found objects such as hay baling wire, magnets, and remnant paints from farm sales, as well as mineral salts and other "earth elements" that he obtained from a local pharmacy. Some of the wire pieces bent into hoops remind me of dreamcatchers or talismans. The paintings feel rife with symbolic gesture. In the thirty years he worked on the piece, he added to and rearranged his array and made constant adjustments in order to channel positive, healing forces. The individual paintings and sculptures, which Blagdon called "his pretties," are suspended from the ceiling and also occupy spaces on the floor. Blagdon believed that energies were drawn upward from the building's earthen floor into the space and worked with the hanging pieces to create a functional machine.

Healing is a theme that finds itself present in other works in the folk and self-taught galleries, and is an idea that artists throughout time and across cultures have grappled with. But, in many ways, isn't healing one of the reasons we seek out art in the first place? We often come to a museum to let a work of art find us, whether it be to fix a broken heart, a troubled soul, or even a failing body.

Posted by Howard on January 20, 2017 in American Art Here, Seeing Things


In the context of discussion of the importance of arts and culture programs for healing, I wanted to flag this analysis that my colleagues and I at Createquity developed on the relationship between arts and wellbeing.

Here are the details of the analysis:
Scholarship on the how the arts benefit society is frustratingly decentralized. Every few years a new literature review or meta-analysis comes out, each considering a different set of research covering a slightly different evidence base. To fill this gap, Createquity has created the first ever one-stop, at-a-glance resource detailing the extent to which evidence supports (or doesn't) a wide range of benefits of arts participation and arts programming. Most importantly, Createquity intends to keep the resource up to date over time in response to the release of new research. You can see this tool at the attached weblink.

To cut to the chase: there is robust evidence that arts participation contributes to wellbeing via, at a minimum, its effects on education and personal development across the lifespan as well as mental and physical health. In particular:

Participatory arts activities help to maintain the health and quality of life of older adults. Singing improves mental health and subjective wellbeing; taking dance classes bolsters cognition and motor skills; dancing and playing a musical instrument reduce the risk of dementia; and visual arts generate increases in self-esteem, psychological health, and social engagement. Based on this robust evidence, Createquity recently published a stand-alone feature article detailing the impact of participatory arts activities in older adults.

Arts therapies contribute to positive clinical outcomes, such as reduction in anxiety, stress, and pain for patients. Music interventions tend to dominate studies in this area, mostly characterized by passive forms of participation (e.g., listening to music).

Arts participation in early childhood promotes social and emotional development. For example, teachers report fewer instances of shy, aggressive, and anxious behavior among preschoolers taking dance classes, and toddlers receiving music instruction demonstrate increased social cooperation with other children.
Student participation in structured arts activities enhances cognitive abilities and social skills that support learning, such as memory, problem-solving, and communication. (While arts participation may improve academic attainment as well, any effects are fairly small.)

Research on community-level effects of the arts (both social and economic) is comparatively further behind and more speculative at this juncture. That said, there is still room for more and better-quality research on all areas of the arts, including areas that have been well-studied.

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