Natalie Marshall, our Trainee, leaves us with a vivid account of the role that creative expression has played in her life...

I went to a school where the visual arts were relegated to the bottom of the barrel, pushed down in favour of the all-important Maths and sciences. There was little value seen in the potential of combining the two sides. Unfortunately, my school was and is not the only establishment that holds this view, since a report last year found that ‘creativity, culture and the arts are being systematically removed from the education system’.1

Now, I’m no da Vinci. Seriously. I can’t draw. I was so terrible at school that when I drew what I thought was a three-dimensional still life of the standard bowl of fruit, my Year 8 art teacher responded with “No, not 2D… 3D!” Then, seeing the baffled look on my face, she realised that I had reached my maximum sketching potential. Kindly (maybe condescendingly) she said: “That’s a good attempt, I can see you tried your best.” I wasn’t encouraged to continue this ‘inadequate’ form of artistic expression later but I couldn’t be stopped.

I loved to doodle. Whether it was during classes, at home, when I was bored, frustrated, happy or sad, a world of shapes, dots and squiggles, in which I could make up the rules, flowed from my fingers. Not having to follow a set of instructions from a teacher, not trapped in the confines of the fruit bowl, only made it more appealing.

What I found really interesting was that I seemed to doodle more at certain times, in particular subjects. After a while I realised that my best doodles came during my numerous attempts at solving maths problems and equations. This may seem odd, even counterproductive, but recently I came across research from Sunni Brown that sheds a bit of light on it. Sunni says in her now-famous TED talk:

“We think doodling is something you do when you lose focus, but in reality, it is a pre-emptive measure to stop you from losing focus. Additionally, it has a profound effect on creative problem-solving and deep information processing.”2

I don’t know about you but as soon as I read that I felt like a light had switched on. It all made sense. The times when I struggled with problem solving, I ended up doodling, and would focus back on the question. I really believe that if I had been prevented from doodling, I wouldn’t have passed secondary school, let alone graduated from university with a degree.

As amazing as doodling is, I’ve found that it’s really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of creativity. While doodling can help improve focus, problem-solving and memory, engaging in the arts in general has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, pain and increase morale, pride and joy.3 Which is amazing…but completely unsurprising to me.

For some time, perhaps through looks of disdain and derision at my pen and pencil squiggles, I lost touch with my inner doodler. Through my young adulthood, I spent a lot of time in and around clinical places and, in 2015, I was at UCLH. It was here where I stumbled upon a corridor filled with artworks. One artwork in particular caught my attention. Anna Howarth’s ‘There can be miracles’ stopped me in my tracks. My mind, which was previously engrossed by the hospital appointment and racing off to the next destination, suddenly paused. I have no idea how long I spent picking out the intricate details of this extraordinary artwork, this mixture of pattern and illustration. Apart from my interpretation of the work, that anything is possible, I realised in that moment that I hadn’t felt this way since I last had a pencil in my hand. It had been two years since I had drawn anything.

'There can be Miracles' by Anna Howarth. Part of the Paintings in Hospitals collection.

From what had become a standard, frantic pace of life, this artwork had grabbed me, made me stop and made me look. And just from looking, I reconnected with myself. It wasn’t just about reconnecting with my creativity, it was also about reconnecting with my self-belief and self-esteem.

But don’t just take my word for it when I say that something so simple can have such a profound effect on someone. Even medical professionals are now prescribing creative activities as an alternative approach to improving mental health and wellbeing. Social prescribing, as it’s known ‘enables health professionals to refer people to non-clinical services for mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, chronic pain and some long-term conditions.’4

It’s clear to me that there is a constantly growing mountain of evidence to say that art and creativity has a vital role to play in all of our lives. By denying its importance in education and dismissing art as superficial, we are not only denying young people access to a creative economy, denying the potential of the arts to enhance their study in other subjects, but also denying them the chance to become healthy, happy, rounded human beings.

1. Arts and culture being 'systematically removed from UK education system'. The Guardian. 17 February 2015.

2. Sunni Brown. Doodlers, unite!. TED. September 2011.

3. Research and clinical studies. Paintings in Hospitals. Retrieved 01 July 2016.

4. Jessica Harris. Prescribing the arts for better health. Arts Professional. 05 November 2015.

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