Based in New York, Vanessa Daou believes social emotional arts is a “multiverse, a new way of simultaneously sensing, perceiving, discerning, and speaking” and is exploring the intersection of art and health with older adults.
To what art form do you feel most connected? How did you become connected to it?
When I was starting out as a dancer, I remember watching the Olympics and being enthralled by the Russian gymnasts with ribbons. I remember imagining the colorful ribbons were trails of paint. It was always in my imagination that I felt most free. More than anything, I’ve always been drawn to the feeling of freedom, and more than that, to expressions of the ecstatic in the creative act. That feeling of lifting, of defying gravity, that I experienced through dance, and the ideation of beauty and grace, has since become a life-long pursuit of mine.
While dance was the first art form I fell in love with, I guess you could say drawing was my first marriage. I view drawing as an external extension of my innermost, intrinsic self. Because the drawn line exists outside of the self, it takes on a new life. I have since come to see dance as an expressed idea and drawing as an idea that’s born.
In what ways have you integrated your training in social emotional arts into the work you are currently doing? What difference has it made?
While in the Certificate Program in Social Emotional Arts (SEA), I was inspired by each facilitator’s unique approach and perspective as well as UCLArts & Healing staff, who have a profound understanding of the nuances and complexities in creative expression. I was especially drawn to the Beat the Odds® training program, which inspired the idea of developing my own social-emotional-arts-inspired process by integrating my own creative and investigative practices with a more formalized research-based methodology stemming from the SEA curriculum.
My own thinking and interdisciplinary practice is inherently research-based, so rejiggering my perception to view all the arts as neurological fuel and fodder comes naturally to me. This has changed not only my professional approach as an art practitioner, but my entire worldview, as an artist and researcher, and as a person with a long-standing interest in the human condition.
As Activities Director at Westside Federation of Senior and Supportive Housing, one recent example stands out for me. The residence is comprised of 92 older adults. I’m currently working with a man who was a soldier in World War II. He enjoys drawing, but early in his life he was dissuaded from doing art because he was told he didn’t have talent, like his brother, who went on to become a professional artist. He expressed further frustration that, not only did he not feel qualified as an artist, but because of the shaking in his hand, the lines he drew were uneven, and the end points of the shapes he drew were not matching up. He articulated to me that he wished he could draw because, as he phrased it, it takes his mind off “the terrible times” that visit him.
I introduced him to works by Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly, Louise Bourgeois, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. We talked about how, over time, each developed their own unique and singular expressive language, and that the elements that make their work interesting are what might be viewed by some as imperfections—such as a jagged line or an uneven spiral. I pointed out that art history is filled with artists who embrace the idea of imperfection, and, in fact, aspire to it. We talked about how research shows that drawing activates reward pathways in the brain, and fires the part of the brain connected to decision-making, which translates as feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. With a broad-tipped black Sharpie,, I wrote down one of my favorite quotes by the artist Paul Klee on a piece of paper, and handed it to him: “A line is a dot that went for a walk.”
This quote ignited a conversation about how drawing a line is a metaphor for the brain journeying on the page, and that drawing what we feel, what moves us at the moment, frees us in many ways±from having to explain things in words, from having to worry about what happens next, and from having to make logical sense of things. After the class, he asked me if he could keep the piece of paper with the quote, and hang it on his wall.
This shift in thinking and approach ignited a playful and inquisitive spark in him which infuses all the many drawings he has since created, which are equal parts improvisations, explorations with the journeying pen, declarations, and expressions of pure freedom from aesthetic judgment.
What does “social emotional arts” mean to you?
The Certificate Program in Social Emotional Arts unlocked many hidden and subtle facets of the arts, which I had always understood as having restorative potential, but had never formalized a way of understating the what, why, and how’s of. I had also never considered that social emotional learning goes beyond a way of teaching non-judgmentally and empathetically, but a manner of communicating or grounding on a new paradigm. The shift was seismic, and I arrived at an understanding no longer focused on the idea of authority (or, artist as teacher), but centered on the core concept of autonomy (artist as facilitator).
For me, social emotional arts is a multiverse, a new way of simultaneously sensing, perceiving, discerning, and speaking. Paired with a new, multi-dimensional understanding of the arts—now grounded in neuroscience and biology—it was, for me, a breakthrough in not simply the way I do things, but how I feel, see, hear, touch, taste, and most of all, sense things.
Looking back on the Certificate Program in Social Emotional Arts (SEA), what have been some of the most impactful components of this training for you, personally or professionally?
Some of the most impactful components have been learning the method of designing a program based on assessing a given population’s needs and risks.
I am organizing a group show called Draw the Line, which expresses the idea that drawing manifests many social-emotional elements of engagement and expression.
My own particular interest is in abstraction, and how the improvised line, specifically, can lead to self-awareness and self-knowledge. For the aging population I work with, cognition is often impaired. When a line takes on the abstract character of a thick gash, undulating wave, ecstatic burst, or wobbly spiral, there’s an instant, visceral resonance that is especially important for this population.
The focus of Draw the Line is on abstract drawing as a chance-taking gesture, expressing the idea that when we embrace pure feeling, chance, and the unknown, we unburden ourselves from the need to understand. For an aging population, often experiencing cognitive decline, understanding can be a difficult and frustrating endeavor. In Draw the Line, we increase the radius of what we are capable of with each decisively drawn line, and, in the process, what was doubtful becomes what is possible.
Additionally, I’m working on a synergistic exhibition and coloring book program with the local public library. The idea is to create a series of coloring books by our residents, and then integrate them into the public library’s existing program.
The first coloring book, Afternoon at the MET, is a compilation of six drawings created after a recent trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where our residents participated in a program uniquely designed for seniors. The program, MetEscapes, addresses issues such as memory, mobility, and motivation. The guided tour is followed by an art workshop where Met facilitators provide a few items for participants, such as paper, graphite pencils, and tape. The result of our post-tour workshop was a remarkable array of drawings, and a reflection that Afternoon at the MET is as much about thinking as it is about feeling.
The drawings in Afternoon at the Met reflect the participants’ responses to the profound experience of art, and art’s singular capacity to ignite, inspire, invite, and involve—all fundamentally SEA goals. The hope is that Afternoon at the MET will provide many hours of entertainment, engagement, and enlightenment, and, most of all, serve as an invitation to dive in—and age creatively, decisively, and fearlessly.
Any words of advice to those interested in either taking the Certificate Program and/or incorporating social emotional arts into their current profession?
My advice is, to start: Imagine you’re a gymnast, and the ribbons you hold are trails of ink you swirl into the air. Grab a pen and large blank sheet of paper, tape it onto the wall, and feel the freedom in turning a point into a fluid, unbroken, spontaneous, ecstatic line. Hold onto the feeling.
How have you been able to implement your SEA training during these challenging times?
My SEA training has been a much needed well of water during the COVID-19 pandemic, where it might otherwise be a time of creative drought and deficiency. Over these past five months, I’ve witnessed the need and desire for community growth, in inverse proportion to the opportunity.
Designing needs assessments, an essential tool I learned in the Certificate training, has been valuable to me during this challenging time. When a community is faced with the deficit of hope and purpose, it is important to think strategically on multiple levels: by looking closely at the population by means of immersing, observing, listening, conversing, and shaping a program which is aligned with the collective spirit, as well as needs, of that population.
While art-related activities are considered optional in society and culture, food and nourishment, on the other hand, are acknowledged as universal needs. Because many of our residents do not feel the need to creatively express themselves through the arts on a daily basis, I am looking at our daily, well-attended 3 pm Tea Time as an opportunity for a majority to participate in a social-emotional activity centered around food.
Keeping in mind the specific needs of older adults, I’ve designed a cooking class that centers on the planning, preparation, and pleasure of food as a social connector, mind-body, and memory stimulator. While food stimulates smell, taste, touch, sight, and sound, cooking requires physical movement of the fingers, hands, wrists, arms, elbows, shoulders, back, spine and neck, as well as necessitates cognitive skills, involving carefully considered acts such as measuring, kneading, stirring, mixing, and pouring. The process of cooking is motivating and stimulates the appetite, promising rewards of future enjoyment in the form of taste—translated by the brain as satiety, pleasure, and joy.
At the end of the class, we eat! And whether the resident chooses to enjoy their creation in the quiet of their own mind, or experience it communially, we’ve all just been able to tap into the full spectrum of our individual needs, and raise our collective spirits as a result.
You can follow Vanessa’s work on Instagram.