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Mental health and the healing power of art by The Ceramicist

May 16, 2021

The Ceramicist aka Vivien Phelan blogging logo

In the same month that has a week to Mental Health Awareness, artist Vivien Phelan, who blogs under the handle The Ceramicist, a former nurse, looks at mental awareness, something she believes - something we should constantly be aware of both for ourselves and others.

The Kiss by ceramicist Vivien PhelanThe kiss by Vivien Phelan
2 piece ceramic
H 29 X W 21 X D 20 cm

To learn how to commission Vivien click here.

Mental health is a huge subject but I will aim to keep this fairly short to give you the opportunity to respond.

Good health encompasses physical, mental, emotional, psychological and social wellbeing and these can all interrelate.

Mental health consequence of pandemic restrictions

During the past year of Covid 19 pandemic restrictions we have all suffered, to differing degrees.  Some of us have experienced increased loneliness, isolation, anxiety, stress, panic, lived with dementia, Alzheimers, domestic abuse - even contemplated suicide. I was shocked to hear on the radio that the suicide rate has increased by 20% since last March. Click here to see the statistics.

The secret of a long life

I learned with envy about the 5 blue zones in the world, discovered by Dan Bluettner a National Geographic Fellow, where the local people lived long, healthy and happy lives.

Sardinia in Italy and Nicoya in Costa Rica have a large number of male centenarians. Ikaria in Greece has the lowest rate of dementia. Those in Loma Linda in California live 10 years longer than in other parts of North America. In Okinawa in Japan, females over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world.

What’s the secret, you ask? The answer lies mostly in the tight-knit communities in these places, in communication, socialising, talking to others and of being part of something.  This is a huge help in mental health wellbeing. And, of course, diet and exercise also play a part.

This brings me to studies that have shown expressing yourself through the arts is also great for mental health.

The arts = music, dance, drama, painting, ceramics - provide a wonderful support system. Going to see a film, an art show, a play is important to wellbeing, to maintaining health and supporting health recovery. 

Arts and Mind, a leading art and mental health charity, took part in a two- year inquiry and found that the arts help meet the challenges in health and social care associated with ageing, such as loneliness and long-term medical conditions.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts (the APPD) was formed in 2014, lead by Lord Howard of Newport, with the aim of improving awareness of the benefits that art can bring to health and wellbeing. After two years, art was introduced into hospitals banishing the dreary, bare corridors. Art proved so beneficial because it provides a way of talking about your feelings about an internal problem in a non-verbal way.

This led Phil George, Chair of the Arts Council of Wales to ask the Government to fund the arts to improve health. I notice that £1.57 billion has been given to protect Britain’s world-class cultural, arts and heritage institutions.  But what about the lonely, elderly, disabled and men and women on meagre allowances who need a class to go to?

Art gives prisoners hope

Since graduating I have had an interest in art for prisoners.  A prison officer friend tells me that art in prison is crucial to prisoner’s rehabilitation and gives them a feeling of self-worth, which in turn helps repeat offenders to break their behaviour pattern. Prisoners are not obliged to take part in the art activity, but many do as prison is such a controlled environment - and boring.

Art also gives prisoners hope and helps them understand their emotions, which leads to better verbal or non-verbal communication, which, in turn, helps them see themselves as being valuable members of society. Through art they can experience a pride.

Every year Koestler Arts hold exhibitions and events across the UK showcasing the talent and potential of prisoners at London’s Southbank Centre. 

Pottery provides a new language to express your inner self

In most counselling environments the norm is verbal communication of your thoughts or difficulties, but this doesn’t suit everyone. Pottery provides a new language and an ability to express your inner self. Clay work is a non-verbal way of communicating where the mental and emotional self can be expressed. This can lead to interesting self-discovery, thereby providing relief from strong or repressed emotions. And, as clay is so tactile, it can invite a sense of relaxation and wellbeing. 

Absorbing arts

The arts in general are absorbing activities. It doesn’t matter how good you at them, are as long as you enjoy the experience.  The effect is to lower your heart rate, regulate your breathing and reduce your stress levels.  Art literally helps you leave your worries behind. 

In times of stress I love going to my potter’s wheel. It, and the lump of clay, demand my full attention, which in turn blocks everything else out of my mind. I am free as a bird, playing with the malleable clay. There is no right or wrong in clay work.  It’s just you and that lump of clay ‘talking’ to each other, producing something exciting and giving you a sense of self-worth. So pottery can allow you to awaken your spirit, activate your natural resilience, self-expression and self-discovery.  It also gives you the headspace to think creatively.

Pottery is not usually the first activity that springs to mind when discussing mindfulness and stress reduction. But it can play an important role in checking stress - an unavoidable part of life which can have a negative effect on a person’s mental and physical health.

One of our very experienced Skylark Galleries artists, Helen Trevisiol Duff  has told me how, during lockdown, her creativity and artistic practice really helped her mental health. At one stage, she suffered from depression and panic attacks, with the addition of physical pain and the stress of moving house. It led to her artistic creativity going underground. But, through teaching art, she found a focus and enjoyed demonstrating and sharing her knowledge. Teaching mindfulness through art helped enormously. Now she says her creative impulses are alive, "and the more I turned to the natural world for my inspiration the more fulfilled I became. Just spending a few minutes studying such a thing as a simple flower allowed me to get lost in the moment and reconnect with life in a positive way."  

Cragg Vale oil on canvas original artwork by Helen Trevisiol DuffCragg Vale by Helen Trevisiol Duff
Oil on canvas
Get in touch with her via the Skylark Galleries contact page or her social media

Monoprint circle oval dish by Caroline Nuttall-SmithMonoprint circle oval dish by Caroline Nuttall-Smith


Cutface original artwork by Skylark Galleries artist Corrine Edwards

Cut face by Corrine Edwards
Gold and red ink on Somerset paper
Limited edition 

Whoopee band mixed media on paper by British figurative artist Stella ToothWhoopee Band by Stella Tooth
Mixed media on paper
Mounted £375

The Ceramicist blogger Vivien Phelan


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