Member of the SBID Education Design Council and Founder of Super Power Agency, Maxine Sloss shares how her life-long experience as a professional designer and history using art as therapy has shaped her perspective on creative environments and the essential impact they can have on wellbeing and learning. Her current realm of expertise is also informed by the Super Power Agency mentoring centre which aims to improve literacy, foster aspiration and boost self esteem through the most fundamental super power; the ability to read and write.
As a designer for almost 20 years, I saw first hand how aesthetics can change peoples behaviour and how creative environments can transform attitudes from outside in. I found joy in transforming a space into a more delightful environment for an individual, or a group. There is a clear body of evidence and understanding which highlights the direct link between our surroundings and our mental health. This in turn could be described as unconscious therapy, bringing out the best in us without us being aware it is even happening. Creating spaces for a client that use expression and communication is often life changing! Clients often get a clearer understanding of the language of colour, texture, harmony and abundance and also a greater understanding of the art and artisans used in the interiors. Changing the energy of their spaces was frequently very therapeutic for the clients.
After training as an art practitioner, I realised that Art Therapy and Design are one and the same thing. Working with children who needed time away from the pressure of mainstream school and were struggling to keep up in the school system, only confirmed all I had learnt.
The spaces created to help children engage are therefore essential to their wellbeing. There is no difference between the needs of a client wanting a secure, creative space in their home to write or unwind and a child who needs to feel secure and be given a great sense of wellbeing.
There are many aesthetics that are required to help stimulate our brain with emotion and hopefully create a sense of natural wonder and in turn, a feeling of great pleasure and contentment. These are the same elements that were used when transforming a school classroom into a creative space for art therapy, or recently, in transforming a school bus into a creative library space to inspire creative learning for children with low literacy skills.
Colour & Light
Using colour was my signature design trait as it has always had a profound effect on my happiness. Transforming dark spaces using colour into light spaces for learning is key; natural light is essential and can make the best of classroom environments with the right choices of paint colours.
Colour has a very transforming effect on wellbeing. I have watched clients gasp with delight at a newly painted room and we have to ask ourselves, “why do most children paint rainbows and adults do not?” We are often preconditioned to think that as we age, colour is childish and frivolous, with neutral hues often being thought of as the more ‘mature’. Colour works on a deep emotional level, mentally and emotionally, changing our mood and sense of wellbeing. Knowledge of colour theory can help us express our feelings in an artwork. The importance of colour has been transmitted into our everyday language; you can be red with anger, green with envy and tickled pink. We often speak of cheerful bright colours, as well as sad and dull ones. A grey day may be depressing and result in the blues. Colour also has immense spiritual significance and has been intertwined into religious ritual throughout time. This can be seen in saffron robes of Tibetan Buddhist monks, to green being the sacred colour of Islam. Colours have the power to symbolise and communicate with an extraordinary immediacy, which words can never match. Colour therapy is a noted form of therapy, which can work alongside art therapy for children. Colour therapists believe that the seven colours of the rainbow relate to the body’s seven main chakras. How does creativity and colour contribute to our emotional wellbeing? It is believed that a catharsis takes place through positive use of colour. For example, if we are feeling sad or let down, wearing bright colours immediately changes our mood and a positive shift of energy occurs.
Red – gives courage and strength and shows a pioneering spirit. Red is the colour of exhilaration and often, a colour of war. For example, Roman Soldiers carried red battle flags and many nations have had red battle tunics. In the western world, red can also mean love/passion, action and dynamism.
Orange – an energetic colour, without aggression. It frees and releases emotions, stimulates the mind; renewing interest in life. Orange can lift spirits and is the colour of laughter and humour of frivolity.
Yellow – is happy, uplifting, optimistic and logical. It is also mentally stimulating and bright. In Jungian psychology, yellow symbolises the flash of insight called ‘intuition’, which seems to come from out of the blue – the visual field of the right side of the brain. It builds self confidence and encourages an optimistic attitude.
Green – creates a feeling of comfort and relaxation, calmness and space, lessening stress. Offering balance and links to nature, green helps us to connect with the natural world.
Blue – is the colour of communication. It is calming, relaxing and healing. Blue is used for the introvert to come out of their shell because it reduces nervous excitement. It relates to self expression, speech and the ability to communicate our needs.
Indigo – is a sedative colour. Soothing. It is believed in certain religions that indigo is the colour of divine knowledge. Indigo children are highly sensitive beings, with a strong sense that they want to make a difference. These children are said to have an indigo-blue aura. The aura is a field of luminous radiation surrounding a person and these auras can be different colours.
Violet – creative, intuitive and stimulates the imagination. It is associated with luxury, e.g. royal purple, as in some early cultures purple dye was extremely difficult and expensive to produce.
The painter who famously taught colour analysis, Wassily Kandisky (1866-1944) used colour to express emotional experience, rather than a reflection of nature. The painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970) used colour to convey a range of sensations near to what he described as a ‘religious experience’ thus illustrating that colour can transcend you to a happy place. Across every continent and every culture, colour dominates and permeates our lives. Colour surrounds us. Feeling and nourishing our senses; our minds, bodies and spirits are profoundly affected by it. Paul Klee (1879-1940), one of the greatest colourists in the history of painting, succinctly summarised its impact upon him; “colour possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always. I know it”.
Abundance & Variety
Providing a therapeutic space with a variety of sensory stimulation. Our brains cannot develop in isolation. It requires a constant dialogue with its surrounding environment. Children particularly adore the abundance of textures, colours, and shapes. This can be jars of pencils, a variety of books, coloured stationary, jars of badges, buttons, and art material. It is well known in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, where therapy called Snoezelen is used for developmental disabilities to create multi-sensory environments, letting the patients gravitate to the sensations that feel good for them. Watching students rummage through jars and jars of crayons or feeling their way through jars of buttons in an art space is a joy to watch.
Harmony offers visible evidence that someone cares enough about the space to invest energy in it. Often the students we work with come from disorder. Disordered spaces have been linked to feelings of fear, anxiety and depression, causing a negative effect on their behaviour. Creating ordered vignettes of beauty with colour and shape can almost certainly lift spirits. For example, the small things make a huge difference; from toys placed with books, to beautiful flowers and plants.
Everyone is born with a huge capacity to play and it’s very important to reconnect with that in a creative space of learning. Our culture needs more play. When we play, we learn without even realising it. Time diminishes and often our fear of self consciousness fades. This is obvious by the amount of adults dying to dress up on the Super Power Agency Bus in our dressing up costumes, releasing their creative inner child. Children go wild with the amount of play costumes available and all books they can touch and read – their joy is wonderful to behold. This play also removes the stigma of the dull, uninspiring classroom as they are blissfully unaware that learning is just about to become a lot more creative!.
Magic & Surprise
The permission to believe in magic is the true joy of childhood, from Santa Claus to fairies living in the garden. This magic is captured in thousands of books from Harry Potter to the Lord of the Rings. Creating spaces with the element of magic gives a huge sense of enchantment. Surprise an unexpected object can be in its contradiction, great for diverting the mind and creates humour and wit. Every student at the Super power agency adores the spider man hanging from the dashboard of the bus. They don a cape and immediately think they can conquer any disability in their writing skills!
Reflective materials of all kinds can create sparkle; metallic, glitter, sequins are all associated with a celebration. The dressing up costumes and accessories on the Bus are designed to sparkle to celebrate the children who enter the Bus and in turn, the start of their creative learning with the agency. ‘Glitter celebrates’, Carrie Fisher once said; ‘Its happy. It makes you look like your up for a good time’.
Founder of the Super Power Agency
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