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Why Rosie O’Donnell Wants You To Pick Up a Paint Brush

 Dimitri Otis/Getty Images
Dimitri Otis/Getty Images ,

by Janice Holly Booth

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Tony Curtis, the beloved hunky actor from the 60s, was as well known for his paintings as for his lead roles alongside Kirk Douglas and Marilyn Monroe. Comedian Red Skelton painted clowns (no one is really sure why). Singer Tony Bennett paints landscapes and, in honor of his heritage, signs them with his real name, Anthony Benedetto. Sylvester Stallone also gets busy with a brush, and says that except for his family, he loves art “more than anything.” Why these hugely successful entertainment icons, a group that also includes Pierce Brosnan, Lucy Liu and Paul McCartney, make creating art a priority in their lives reveals a secret that people who paint (or sing, or sculpt, or play a musical instrument) have known for a long time. Making art brings joy into your life. And it doesn’t matter if you can’t draw a smiley face: what’s important is putting brush to canvas and letting ‘er rip. 

Making art brings joy into your life. And it doesn’t matter if you can’t draw a smiley face: what’s important is putting brush to canvas and letting ‘er rip.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Beyond the sheer pleasure of creating something from nothing, there are other reasons to give painting and other creative art forms a second look. According to the Association for Natural Psychology, making art has been shown to be more effective than medication in treating ADHD, OCD, depression and addiction sometimes. Psychologist and theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to art’s healing properties as flow, “a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand…The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing…characterized by a feeling of great freedom, enjoyment, fulfillment and skill, and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.”

Even more interesting, art therapy boosted cognitive function in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and actually gave back, in some part, what the disease has taken away, in research conducted at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Canada. Not only does creating art stimulate the senses, it can trigger dormant memories and encourage conversation. Researchers found that Alzheimer’s patients can use art as a form of expression, important for individuals who can no longer communicate verbally.

Art is also a way to explore our own hearts and minds. There’s something mysterious and thrilling about unleashing your inner Picasso when you start coloring outside the lines. What ends up on the canvas or in the sketchbook is a visual manifestation of our internal state of affairs. It is another form of communication and, like our dreams, the vocabulary revealed in our paintings is singularly ours.

If you can’t imagine creating something but like the idea of using art to soothe your soul, try the newest craze, coloring books for adults. “When coloring, we activate different areas of our two cerebral hemispheres,” says psychologist Gloria Martinez Ayala. The various actions of brain involving both logic and creativity lower the activity of the amygdala, the part of the brain involved in controlling emotions affected by stress. In other words, we de-stress because when we’re focused on coloring, we stop thinking about our worries. But Ayala says it also “brings out our imagination and takes us back to our childhood, a period in which we most certainly had a lot less stress.”

Perhaps one of the most compelling statements from a celebrity dabbler-in-paints comes from comedian Rosie O’Donnell who is a passionate advocate for restoring the arts in education because she believes in art’s power to transform. O’Donnell has said, with neither embellishment nor drama, that art “saved her.” For O’Donnell, art is everything. “We use it I think to express all of the best parts of being human,” she says. Jerry Fresia, Ph.D., a political scientist who left academia to pursue a career in painting, wants people to know “that we are born as creative, daring creatures. All of us…We are born as artists. You, at this moment, have this creative force churning within you. You know it as an urge. Your challenge is always the same: it is to risk being you.”