Creativity and the Art of Well-being

ArtQuench Re-Introduces “Featured Artist” 

John Pollard who was first published in ArtQuench Magazine’s very first hard copy issue!

John Pollard is a painter, photographer and existential therapist. He has worked in mental health services, coordinated projects involving the arts, heritage and well-being and also worked directly with mental health arts groups.

Latest work Punked (120x150cm, acrylic on canvas).


The word ‘create’ is both important and interesting. In its everyday usage it can refer to both the making of art and something more universal. This wider meaning is well illustrated through dictionary definitions such as “bring (something) into existence” and “cause (something) to happen as a result of one’s actions”. These definitions have a philosophical, existential flavor to them, which I will be exploring in this article. I hope to illustrate how the fine arts can say something profound about being human.

The connection between the arts and well-being seems to be well established, whether it be creating or appreciating art, or utilizing it in various health settings. However, there are many ways to create art and many objects that end up as art works. I wonder whether we can identify ways of making art, and actual finished works, that are more beneficial to our well-being than others, or is this just down to individual preference and taste?  

I often recall a scene I witnessed when working in a mental health service. I needed to pass on a message to one of the nurses who was running an art and craft group. This week they were doing some flower arranging. As I knocked on the door and went in what I saw stopped me in my tracks. Around a small table sat five clients; each had a flower arrangement in front of them and they were identical. Either this group of people had been instructed to arrange the flowers the ‘right’ way or perhaps they had all just copied the nurse’s arrangement. Whatever the reason I think it is interesting to ask in what way is this being creative? They were all bringing something (a flower arrangement) into existence so in this way were meeting the dictionary definition of create. Yet we also tend to equate creativity with imagination, inventiveness and freedom.  It could be argued that within this group people had, in some way, lost or given up their freedom, along with their individuality and uniqueness.

They may have been getting something positive from the experience; perhaps it diverted them from their troubles, perhaps it was relaxing and helped with concentration and perhaps for a short while they didn’t feel so depressed or anxious.  But I think that creating art can have a much bigger and more impressive impact.

In mental health systems that are often driven by a medical model the importance of each person finding their own way is often lost, ignored, or devalued. Therapeutic goals that help individuals explore their own uniqueness and way of being are often not a priority. In this case the art and craft group is symbolic of the attitudes that can be present in mental health settings; people are given, and can become, the psychiatric label that restricts and disables them. In my view art can act as a therapeutic tool in this battle for what we could call our ‘freedom’, ‘identity’ or ‘selfhood’. To use an existential term we could say our ‘authenticity’.

Some of my own artistic story may also help to illustrate this.  On leaving High School at the age of 16 I took a foundation course in art and design. This course covered everything from painting, photography, life drawing, to product design, fashion and textiles. The influence this course had on me was much greater than how I created and appreciated art, it was more about my own identity and how I saw life in the widest possible sense.

It was a very liberating course; I remember having one lesson where we were encouraged to scribble. This was a source of much amusement to most of us but to the tutor’s credit he took it very seriously, coming round to critique each of our unique individual scribbles. This was an example of the philosophy of artistic exploration and questioning that was generally encouraged on this course. It opened the door to a wider questioning of what life was all about and how we could see, and live it, in a different way.

Untitled 2011 #8 (Bus Shelter, Woodbridge)


This experience became an artistic, personal, and political awakening, and started me on a lifelong process of questioning. I still try to maintain a childlike questioning of the world, an attitude of often asking “why?” There is something important here about freedom as the question “why?” is often addressed to those who are telling you what to think or do.

As a therapist working from an existential perspective I have a particular interest in certain  

issues, including how clients can get in touch with their own freedom and responsibility. Questions of meaning and purpose are also important. What really matters to someone? This is a process of exploration and clarification and a person’s values are central to this process – just what do we care about? I believe that our values inform our own identity and are the major motivation in our lives.

So how can we connect some of these existential ideas to art? Well, art can help remind us of our freedom: to question our choices about how and what we will make, to create something new from our own hands, to find our own voice and way of working. Existentially, we can ask ourselves what our art means, where its value lies, and we can ask whether it has a particular purpose. I believe that someone’s artistic development will have connections to their growth as a human being. As the critic Harold Rosenberg said “Whoever undertakes to create soon finds himself engaged in creating himself.”

One way that existential philosophy can really connect with creativity is in the idea of ‘authenticity’. People tend to use the term to describe the way someone can be true to themselves, often a self that seems quite fixed, maybe an ‘inner self’. In contrast the existential self is an active one; not a fixed entity but a ‘fluid’ self, always in the state of becoming. Although there is a sense that we can be true to our values and ideas, this is done from a creative, forward looking perspective: this takes us back to the definition of ‘create’ – to bring something new into being. We are self transcending beings, and creating art can be a very good example of this active, fluid self. The French artist Jean Dubuffet summed this up well by saying,

“Art by its very essence, is of the new. And views on art must also be of the new. There is only one healthy diet for artistic creation: permanent revolution.”

This belief in freedom and becoming does come with a price. Something many artists will identify with is the anxiety that comes with creating, whether this comes from being confronted by a white canvas or provoked by revisiting yesterday’s painting and the realization that it isn’t as good as you thought it was.

As for existential philosophy, anxiety (angst) is wrapped up with our freedom and so can materialize at any time. While we can challenge some of the irrationalities that stem from our anxiety an existential view is that this anxiety is about uncertainty and hence also our freedom. As our lives are not already mapped out for us we are free and responsible to choose, to create. As the Danish artist Asger Jorn said, “In every real experiment there is a moment of zero predictability.” This ever present possibility is part of the excitement, fascination (and anxiety) with creating art.

Some artists may believe that they are driven to create in a certain way as if they had no choice. Yet these artists might not get the benefits from a creativity that helps develop our freedom and ability to change and grow.

I generally create quite abstract images through my painting and photography. While I don’t think that abstract art is inherently better or more authentic than representational art, I do think that the nature of abstraction refers, in a particularly profound way, to something very important about the human condition.


Kick 50 x 50cm acrylic on canvas


I’d like to suggest that when an artist focuses on creating a completely abstract work of art, that has no reference to a subject outside itself, they can experience and express their freedom to a greater degree than with a representational subject. The work becomes a dynamic interaction between the artist, their materials and the composition that is being created. As there is no outside point of reference that the artist is trying to be true to, he or she is completely free to invent something new, the possibilities are endless, there is nothing (i.e. no subject) to inhibit the creative act. 

Accordingly, for the spectator, an abstract piece of art invites them to join in with this human process, to appreciate its ‘visual’ quality that challenges them to make pure sense of it emotionally and intellectually. I’ve seen people fighting this process, by working hard to try and see a subject that has an external reference outside the work itself, rather than doing some creative work themselves in appreciating its abstractness.

Urban Rural Construction 76 x 100cm acrylic on canvas


Developing my own appreciation of abstraction has affected the way I see the world; this I try to illustrate with the way I photographically abstract interesting objects from their environment. This is an interesting part of being human. We co-create our lives with other people and the natural world. The decaying wall does not exist as a piece of abstract art until someone sees it and appreciates it. The development of this visual awareness of abstract beauty in the everyday world is very important, both to my art and my life.

In terms of our uniqueness and individuality we cannot, of course, create out of nothing; we are embedded in a world full of meaning with other people and we share a cultural heritage that continually influences us. Yet, as an artist, I can be aware of when my work is too influenced, or influenced for the wrong reasons. In my work with art groups I try to encourage people to explore their own creativity and gain the power and satisfaction that comes from free creation.


Weston Homes Community Stadium (Concrete Step, Colchester)


Finally, I would also like to mention the question of quality, the aesthetic value of art. The link between a more authentic way of creating art and the judgement of quality is unclear. However, I do believe that part of existential authenticity involves ambition, as it entails transcending ourselves, projecting us towards the future, and involves embracing our freedom and responsibility in choosing  what we are to become.

Being aware of our mortality, and limited time, can also help with the level of our ambition. This stand towards life and art should result in a better art (as well as a better life), whatever that may mean to each and every one of us. And who wouldn’t want to transcend oneself in a way that didn’t improve their existence, or indeed their art?


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