Pitt researchers are studying the impact of art on mental health in the pandemic
When the COVID-19 shutdown began on March 13, 2020, we suddenly had to view other people as potential vectors of a deadly disease. Isolation was bewildering and disorienting, but creating art helped many to make sense of their experiences.
Making art is a way of telling others who we are and how we understand the world around us. Viewing art can offer a form of connection, a way to relate to someone else’s expression of fear, anger and confusion, as well as hope, resilience and joy.
As part of a research study at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, professors Jessica Burke and Sara Baumann and doctoral student Liz Kaselitz are studying the impact of art on mental health during the pandemic. They interviewed more than two dozen Pittsburgh artists. Following are highlights from the project with portraits of the artists by photographer Justin Merriman. Virtual and in-person exhibits featuring all the artists’ work and the full research findings will open this fall.
Artists’ quotes have been lightly edited.
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Has artwork — of any form — had an impact on you during the COVID-19 pandemic? The researchers would love to talk to you. Learn more.
“It was more on a positive note and more about self-love.”
“For me personally, when it comes to art, it’s easier for me to paint something than it is for me to talk about what that subject is. So I was pulling a lot of inspiration from, unfortunately, all the negative news headlines that were coming out and all of the issues that were going on. But after a while, I was getting depressed reading about this stuff. So I had to turn off my news notifications for a while.
“After I did that, I stopped thinking about it as much and my work wasn’t really centered around that, which I think actually helped me because that was not a nice place to be. My newer works are just what I was feeling at the time; it was more on a positive note and more about self-love. I’m still learning to love myself, appreciate myself and my flaws.
“So that’s where some of these ideas come from, like this sculpture — even though it’s cracked, the gold is still coming through because there’s still beauty inside [referring to the sculpture].”
“Focusing on positive pieces is a good way to keep it upbeat.”
“I respect and love artists who create a sad, sort of melancholy feeling with their work; but for me, when I’m leaning into a bigger painting project, it has to have a distinct meaning, and that usually means I don’t want to sit here painting for 20-plus hours on a depressing piece.
“Focusing on positive pieces is a good way to keep it upbeat in the studio. If I’m in a bad place, sketching or just scribbling on a page blankly is a good way to relieve stress, just like a walk or meditation. It’s been interesting to see how artists have adapted in these times, I think humans are amazing in that they face an adverse effect and use that to develop or change.”
Ellen Chisdes Neuberg
“It’s sort of like a cover up, but in a way, a coming out.”
“[My] art form basically is abstract. It gives me a chance to experiment and to let out my feelings … and other people then can look at it and decide what they think it is as well … . I’m known for color, however, I have tried now to teach myself to limit my color and paint more, I guess, subtle black and white.
“I am known for people telling me that they always see people in my abstract work … . And I find that people — I have a psychology degree — people are the most interesting things that there are in life. And so I end up using images of people, abstractly, in a lot of my paintings.
“So this painting [pointing to an abstract mostly black and white painting in a studio filled with colorful paintings] to me, has people coming out, having been, maybe covered up with snow, or beliefs, or freedom of movement, or freedom of being with other people. And it’s sort of like a cover-up, but in a way, a coming out.
“For me, [art] was important because it got me doing something and expressing myself. I’m not a yeller and screamer, and I don’t have anyone to yell or scream to, and my husband would not deserve that if I did, so basically, it lets out my feelings and my expression of them. I see a lot of negative stuff going on in the country, in the city, and the world, the whole world. When a natural disaster befalls us, I think that, [art is] a relatively healthy way to express our feelings — writing, playing music, writing music … playing even with children. There has to be some way to let it out. And I think that this is a good, safe way for me to let it out.”
Max GEMS Gonzales
“Leaving the space nicer than you first came to it.”
“I wanted to give a lot of graffiti writers opportunities to paint on walls in a legal manner, so that they can create something a lot better, where they’re not having to look over their shoulder at 2 in the morning.
“So at the time, I was living in Wilkinsburg, and I lived next to tons of vacant lots. And prior to that, I’d even gone to one of the lots next to me with an abandoned garage, and I just cleaned up the whole thing like throwing all the trash. [I] brought up the weed whackers, [and] did a graffiti piece on this abandoned garage.
“And all the locals, they loved it and all my neighbors they’re like, ‘Wow, this is so cool’… . So I wanted to replicate that. And being that there were tons of vacant lots throughout Wilkinsburg, I just sent out a group DM to a bunch of graffiti friends I had and I was like, ‘Hey, do you guys want to paint some walls?’ And graffiti writers are always pretty eager to be able to paint the walls, since they usually get arrested for doing that.
“So outsourcing labor from graffiti writers was not a difficult thing… . They were all so eager to do it, and I was just like, the one stipulation is, if we’re going to paint these walls, we got to spend like, at least like four to five hours beforehand, or even like a whole day beforehand, cleaning up the lot. And like, just with the intent of like, leaving the space nicer than you first came to it. And also, because sometimes people will say graffiti is ugly based on the context that exists.”
“It took a pandemic to get me to slow down and do something that was actually meaningful.”
“These paintings [points to a painted collage including an old family photograph of her and her grandmother], I try to share the stories of people and connections. They are almost like shrines. My grandmother, when my mom was working all the time, was my rock, you know? This is a tribute to her. You can see in the background of this work is a pattern from a tablecloth from her table that I use as a stencil. She would plant these flowers in her front yard and she’d always feed the birds. She always had gold earrings, always gold hoops — big gold hoops. And so that’s what the gold hoop is for [painted around the photograph]. And so that’s a very special painting for me.
“I actually had time to stop, reflect and to do something that was more meaningful because it was such an earth-shattering experience, to go through COVID. My ground was kind of pulled out from under me. I had time, for the first time in a long time. It took a pandemic to get me to slow down and do something that was actually meaningful. I think it pushed me to a level that I might not have gone to on my own.”
“It’s been about creating this haven, this sort of safe space.”
“My work helps me emotionally to keep depression at bay. … It’s really important. I think with most creative people, it’s always a bad sign if the person is not creating anymore. I think that’s kind of a warning, and I’ve seen that in my family.
“I just needed it to be something meaningful enough to me personally and not something that, ‘Oh I think it will sell’ because there was something with COVID that made most people stop in their tracks and think how quickly life can just change and what is important.
“Also, last year, it wasn’t just COVID, it was also the whole political climate in our country. It was just a difficult time all around.
“As an artist, for me it’s been about creating this haven, this sort of safe space. It’s something that’s in my head, but I make it tangible in a way. In my studio I’m surrounding myself with my art. I guess if I just lived by myself, I might just make this whole cocoon of work, and it would be something eccentric that might be found after I die. I kind of understand when you read about artists, that that’s what happened: ‘Oh they discovered all this work that they’ve been doing for years.’”
Nicole Renee Ryan
“I just want to create these little magical pockets for people, just for a break from everything.”
“I think I was probably one of the few people that enjoyed lockdown in COVID because it’s a little bit like an artist residency where you’re stuck in your own head and you’re stuck in your own space creating, and there is no excuse not to be showing up and making work. And I don’t necessarily mean from a productivity stance, but I build up so many ideas and questions, and the things I want to experiment on, so it was just a really good time to focus and work on all of that.
“I read a ton during COVID (and I normally read a lot anyways), and I thought back to the books that impacted me in childhood, such as ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ where worlds are discovered or born or fall apart. For me, the part I loved about those books was the magical spaces to be discovered, even in the midst of chaos. That’s my overall inspiration behind most of my pieces … . Anytime I’m stressed, I just quickly go find a fictional world to go into, and then I forget about all of my worries, all my problems. … [During COVID] I was just dying to be in the studio, even when I didn’t know what I needed to make, but I just knew I needed to be in there making.
“Art is important for my mental health, creating, making, working with my hands. There’s a lot of dark stuff out there already. There’s a lot of stress … . I couldn’t even have Facebook on my phone for a long time because it would just put me in a really dark mood. So I’m creating things that I want to exist or creating these fun spaces, these abstract landscapes I call imagined spaces and misremembered places. I create them just for me, or at least, I am the first audience, the first one who gets to discover them. My art practice balances out the stress of the world and what is going on. Creating is a much more active way to deal with things than just worrying about everything I can’t control … . So during COVID, I lost myself in books, and I lost myself in my art, and I just want to create these little magical pockets for people, just for a break from everything.”
A way to “populate my studio with people when there couldn’t be anybody here.”
“I put out a call out on Instagram to anybody who followed me that if they wanted to send me a photo of their face looking forward with a neutral expression, I was going to do a portrait project and I might paint them. I was back in my studio at that point, but I couldn’t have anyone else here other than the other artists in the building, and that was tough for me because I was only getting feedback virtually on my paintings and my work.
“We weren’t having any Open Studios or anything like that where people could actually come and interact with my work in person, and it was really interesting and became very comforting to me to have this whole wall basically just covered [with these paintings]. … They were all the same size, and I had them sort of hung up in rows, and that was really cool to be able to look up at all of these faces.
“It wasn’t just therapeutic for me to have that sort of connection with people in a very isolated time, but I know from certain people telling me that it was also very beneficial to them to feel like they were connecting and being represented somewhere else. A lot of people were really interested in following it on Instagram, so it just became a way to connect and to sort of populate my studio with people when there couldn’t be anybody here.”
“Art’s a way to describe various ways that mental health looks and what self-care looks like.”
“I think COVID for a lot of people shifted things where they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, what’s important to me?’ And for me, I knew that illustration was super important to me. I was doing a lot of work between public health and illustration when I was working in The Gambia, and using digital illustration as a tool to do public engagement and to, like, share health messaging and that kind of a thing. And so it just kind of shifted that, and I said, ‘Wow, I need to put more energy into this.’
“Art’s really powerful for conveying not just a public health message, but also a personal journey.
“I think art’s a way to describe various ways that mental health looks and what self-care looks like. And just talking about sharing of experiences. You know, everybody was thrown for a loop by this. It’s a pandemic.”
Sara Eve Rivera, PMA Tattoo
“The tattoo brought the two of us together… like a memorial.”
“The client that the tattoo is in tribute of was a longtime client of mine. We lost touch around COVID because I try to limit my contact. Because I’m in constant contact with people tattooing them, it makes me a little worried about seeing my friends and, and [this client was] a barber, so they were in contact with people, too.
“So we went through a lot together, and then one day I heard that they had passed away, and I still don’t know the full story because with COVID we don’t get this opportunity to meet and talk and grieve in person. And I got this email from someone I didn’t know, saying they were also friends with this person and they wanted a tattoo in tribute to them. They had no tattoos ever, but they felt compelled to get something. And they felt I was like the artist to do it since I had this connection with this person.
“So the tattoo brought the two of us together and we were saying that it was almost in a sense, like a memorial, when I was tattooing. We were sharing stories that we knew about them, and it was really cool cause they were a barber client of this person. And I was the person’s tattoo artist. We had two very different relationships, so the stories that they had to share with me and the stories I had to share were very different. And it was just so nice to get a wider sense of who this person [was] … . It was really touching. It was really powerful to do this tattoo.
“[While doing the tattoo] we both cried … . I mean, it was like a funeral, it was like a wake. And we had a lot of laughs, too, you know, this person was full of life. Hilarious, clever, funny, talented, sometimes disruptive. So there’s lots of stories to share. At the end, I was like, ‘Hey, are you comfortable with me giving you a hug?’ We gave each other a big hug, and it felt really good.”
Art allows us to create “other worlds to escape into.”
“I needed to do something as an outlet just to cope because it was really physically crushing. Emotionally crushing. And I was super isolated. I live alone. And so … I became engrossed with painting… Creating other worlds to escape into besides the stuff that was going on became tantamount to survival… A couple of months into it, I was just like this, this is what I have to do to make it because nothing else is making it.”