Deliberately taking time to pause and look at art can be therapeutic for both clinicians and patients alike.
“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play in your hair.” –Khalil Gibran
October 2020 should have found us both in Boston, looking at art on museum walls as part of the Harvard Macy Art Museum-Based Health Professions Education Fellowship. It was terribly disappointing when the in-museum sessions were cancelled. We’d gotten to know our cohort through online art sessions and were eager to meet them in person. But the pandemic had capsized our original plans.
In this December of our discontent, we look wearily ahead to a crisis that didn’t have to be. Whereas the spring felt terrifying, this feels grindingly familiar and soul-sucking. We feel a powerful urge to be out, away. Connecting to the earth feels like an antidote. Connecting with each other has its own pull, too, so the two of us set aside a time to closely observe an artwork together over Zoom, “The Separate,” by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.
One can imagine the woman in this painting felt the same pull. She turns to us, bright with the beauty of her surroundings and the satisfaction of reaching a long walk’s goal. She sits, grounded, yet still “above it all” on a promontory with a lovely view. Her smile welcomes us as she makes eye contact, and the spark in her eye seems to tell of the satisfaction of a hike uphill that ends with a beautiful reward.
There is true delight in her, perhaps because of the pleasant weather—she needs only long pants to be comfortable. There seems to be mist in the air, and one can imagine the freshness that brings, along with the smell of the ocean. Her delight may also come from her evident comfort with herself. Her hair is its natural color, and she wears no makeup or ostentatious jewelry—her most powerful adornment is her smile. She is willing to be captured just as she is, glowing with the moment.
Though there is ease and spontaneity, there is also intentionality and control. She found this faraway place and mapped out her walk. She is very much in the present, her body ensconced in the undulations of the ground, her head turned towards us with confident poise, her spine straight, her legs crossed in the soft haze of grass and waves. She isn’t caught off-guard—there is pride in her posture.
These two undercurrents of ease and intentionality permeate the work of the artist, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. She sets up her canvas and chooses her paints with purpose, yet she is known for completing her works in as little as a day. Without relying on preliminary sketches, she improvises with her soft and fluid brushstrokes. The painting is titled “The Separate,” words which could, at first glance, recall the isolation and alienation we all feel. In this setting, though, “separate” could indicate that this is an anticipated moment of freedom, a planned pause from the mundane, an intentional departure from drudgery.
Perhaps the figure in this painting feels so happy because she took this pause on purpose.
In looking at both her ease and her intentionality, we found ourselves reflecting on what made a pause truly restorative. We’d set aside this time to look at art together, we’d intentionally chosen this painting to transport ourselves from the current moment through its lens, all the while in the confines of our own homes.
In doing so, we realized we had inadvertently, and by happy coincidence, accomplished the challenge that this beautiful image offers us. To give the same planning and attention to our pauses as we do to our work, to set aside time with purpose and be present, yet give ourselves the grace to be free from the expectation of perfection. We both laughed about how it was the most awake and energized we had felt that day.
If only high ocean bluffs were nearby, and we too could climb up and away! But as we discovered, we could transport and reinvigorate ourselves simply by being intentional in how we took our rest, and our breaks. We must set aside time, do just one thing, feel the kiss of steam from hot tea, enjoy the crisp air, smell the sweetness of fallen leaves.
To make our pauses restorative, we have to intentionally take it easy.