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How Art Is Making People More Self-Aware

Did you know that looking at art can help you make better decisions? It can also help you overcome bias and become more self-aware. This is the premise of a new book, Fixed: How to Perfect the Fine Art of Problem Solving, by Amy E. Herman.

The author knows what she’s talking about, not just because she’s an art historian, but also because she runs a consulting company, Art of Perception, that uses art to teach people to change how they look at the world. In a recent interview with the Think podcast, Ms. Herman explained how she’s helped a wide variety of people–from medical students and business executives to cops and even former prisoners–to broaden their perception by looking at art.

Cover of the book Fixed. by Amy E. Herman

What makes her method effective is viewing art together. She asks participants in her workshops to explain what they see when they look at a particular piece of art. Even when they’re looking at something that seems straightforward, like a portrait, no two people see the same painting or photograph exactly the same way. Listening to others’ different viewpoints helps people notice things they overlooked the first time they saw the piece of art, and encourages them to look at it in a new way.

Herman says that people can even learn from looking at art they dislike. The key is articulating why you dislike the art, and listening to someone else give their impression of the same piece. By looking at photographs and paintings instead of charts and spreadsheets, she has taught people to examine details differently in their regular jobs, and to question their first impressions of what they see.

This is something you can try yourself. Take a friend to an art gallery, or look at a favorite piece of art on the wall of your home with a family member. Take turns saying what you see in the piece, and listening to the other person’s impression of the art. Notice how your perceptions of the same thing can differ.

You don’t have to be an artist or art historian to have an opinion about art, Herman asserts. Art is meant to be looked at, and every one of us is welcome to see something different in it.

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Amid the Madness, I Find Stress Relief in Art

a framed painting
a framed painting
The landscape by Alan McEwen hanging in my living room

Like many others, I had been looking forward to this fall. The pandemic was supposed to be over. We were supposed to be able to travel and go to festivals and let our kids go back to school. Instead, every day the news reports more people in the hospital with Covid-19, more disasters at home and around the world. It seems like there’s no escape from the relentless misery. It’s just not sustainable to endure so much stress for so long. Psychologists say constantly thinking about disaster is bad for our brains. So for mental relief, I turn to art.

The walls in my home are covered with art. Since I have a mother who’s both an artist and an art teacher, I began collecting art as soon as I had my own apartment. I added pieces from my friends at art school, and began asking for art from local galleries for my birthday. Now that I have kids, I’ve also added their masterpieces to my collection.

When the news gets too bleak, when reality is too ugly, I like to sit and immerse myself in my favorite paintings. One in particular I find really calming. It’s a landscape by Alan McEwen that shows sheep grazing on the edge of a shady grove with grass-covered hills in the background. There’s something about the dappled shade, the green grass, and the placid sheep that I find enormously peaceful. When I look at that painting, I imagine myself someplace quiet and calm, where the sun is warm but not too hot, the wind is light and the air is fresh. I fall into the greens, blues, and purples of the landscape and find a place free from stress and strife.

I’m not the only one finding mental solace in art right now. Looking at art in a contemplative or meditative way is a form of mindfulness, described by the Mayo Clinic as “a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment.” Practicing mindfulness can deliver real health benefits, both mental and physical. Art consultant Kimberly Poppe even has a guide for mindfulness meditation using art, if you need some ideas for started with this practice.

Having art around my home has been a real blessing over the past year. I’m able to look at something solid and real that makes me smile, or laugh, or just stop and let out the breath I’ve been holding. Art takes me out of my stressful, mundane reality for a moment and brings me someplace more beautiful and perfect.

If you’re looking for art to add to your home, these and other original paintings are available in our gallery.