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Back in 2020, I was in lockdown during my final year of university. As I wrapped up my undergraduate degree in Philosophy and History of Art, I was contemplating what to explore in my final year project. Usually, my process for planning a project would consist of in-person conversations with lecturers and course mates. Although with the move to online learning, this process wasn’t quite the same. I found that through the transition to distanced learning, the student community had been fractured. With this loss of community, students’ “interpersonal connections had been weakened” (Kapoor & Kaufman, 2020, p.2).
At a social level, the prolonged lockdowns had negatively impacted students from all stages. First year students struggled to find and sustain a student network, while final year students felt isolated from their peers. Moreover, this decline in mood had presented academic obstacles amongst students too. As the world had been bombarded with the paradoxical rhetoric of necessary self-care whilst also being productive in this newfound ‘free time’, this tension had also proven difficult for students. In turn, with this array of research highlighting the shift in wellbeing amongst student communities, I wanted to conduct a project which adopted a more pragmatic approach.
With this, my project explored how online art workshops could aid student wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Following studies on the therapeutic qualities of art, my research highlighted the possibility of art in providing “avenues of hope” for students during this time of crisis (Appleton, 2001, p.6). With art providing a tool for self-understanding, I wanted to run creative workshops to aid individuals to make meaningful interpersonal connections with others. Correspondingly, this illuminated a promising tool of support while students couldn’t connect with other students.
To find students to take part in the online art workshops, I did an open call via my university department, as well as asking friends and their contacts. As the workshops were focussing on wellbeing, the open call highlighted that you didn’t need any prior art experience to take part. The finalised group ended up being seven students, which included both undergraduate and postgraduate students from a range of academic backgrounds. These workshops ran for five weeks, and each workshop was a two-hour session.
Once the group of students was finalised, a pack of collage resources was sent to each student prior to the first workshop.
In hopes to promote student wellbeing, I utilised a free-disciplinary approach towards the workshops. For example, the first week started with the activity of collage to ease the participants into artmaking and to allow myself to gain an understanding of the participants. Then, the chronology and theme of the workshops’ tasks were structured to correspondingly adapt to the participants’ feelings and their artistic skills. At the end of each workshop, we discussed as a group what mediums everyone would be interested in using for the following week. Once collectively decided, I sent out the materials to students for the following session. Likewise, the weekly themes for the session were decided as a group. After a check-in with the group, we collectively decided how we’d use that week’s medium of choice.
Owing to the personal nature of artmaking and the range of artistic capabilities of the participants, an informal learning approach was adopted for the workshops. Without restrictions, I hoped that the participants should create in a way which authentically reflected their personal experience of lockdown and even have new realisations about their experience through this process.
Additionally, during these workshops I emphasised how participants did not need to focus on producing aesthetically ‘beautiful’ artworks (CohenMiller, 2018, p.7). Rather, the students understood that the workshops’ focus were on enjoying the therapeutic benefits of art and communicating on individual experiences of lockdown. So, the group could communicate these personal experiences in their artworks through stick figure illustrations, metaphors or with words.
To assess the correlation between art and student wellbeing, anonymous surveys were sent out to the students, following the five workshops. Overall, the feedback was positive and indicated that the sessions helped students during this period of isolation.
“In the workshops, I forced myself to come to terms with my mental state at the moment in order to express this through art.”
“Getting how I feel down into an art form and physically seeing that in front of me has helped me recognise what affect lockdown has had on me.”
“When I was making my art, I zoned out, leaving me more relaxed”
“The workshops gave me an opportunity for reflection and a perfect outlet for stress and anxiety”
“It was only when I started to hear others talk so honestly about lockdown that I started to show myself a bit more kindness as we continue through this funny period of our lives.”
“I enjoyed the classroom environment and team dynamic. It enabled me to really find time to explore my feelings around lockdown with the relief of often finding others felt a similar way.”
Overall, with the students’ feedback highlighting themes of self-acceptance, togetherness, reducing anxiety and introspection, it indicated that art workshops can aid student wellbeing during periods of isolation. With this, I learnt from my project that online art workshops can be used as a tool to promote wellbeing amongst groups of people. Whether they take place during the pandemic or post-pandemic, creative sessions can be a beneficial space for groups of people to gain a better understanding of themselves, as well building connections with others.
Appleton, Valerie. (2001). “Avenues of Hope: Art Therapy and the Resolution of Trauma.” Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 18:1, 6-13.
CohenMiller, Anna. (2018). “Visual Arts as a Tool for Phenomenology.” Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 19:1, 1-22.
Kapoor, Hansika and James Kaufman. (2020). “Meaning-Making Through Creativity During COVID-19.”, Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1-8.