HOW LOOKING AT ART CAN IMPROVE YOUR MENTAL HEALTH WITH YAËL VAN LOOSBROEK-SPECK
This week on the podcast: I’m delighted to be talking to Yaël van Loosbroek-Speck about art and mental health
Yaël believes, like me, that everyone can engage with art, and that it all starts with looking – hence the name of her company, ArtSee.
About ten years ago Yaël herself suffered from depression and severe anxiety disorder. The only place she could find peace of mind was in front of an artwork. This experience motivated her to create Art as Perspective for people going through the same mental issues as she did.
In today’s chat we discuss what Art as Perspective is and how it works. We talk about how to design art programmes for people living with depression & anxiety, the frameworks she uses and the questions she asks.
We also talk about how art discussions help people living with depression, anxiety and negative thoughts and the mental health benefits of looking at and discussing art.
Yaël also shares some really helpful tips for creating art programmes that have a positive impact on mental health.
We had a really lovely chat and I hope you enjoy it. Here it is!
Masterclass Art as Perspective 08 February 2022
The Merry Family by Jan Steen
Claire Bown 00:08
Hello, and welcome back to the art engager podcast. I’m your host Claire Bown of Thinking Museum. And this is episode 37.
Now this week on the podcast, I’m delighted to be talking to Yaël van Loosbroek Speck about art and mental health.
Now Yaël believes, like me, everyone can engage with art, and that it all starts with looking hence the name of her company art see, at the moment, her main focus is on her programme Kunst Als Perspectief or Art as Perspective. This is an art tour for people suffering suffering from negative thoughts, depression, burnout, and anxiety.
This tour has a very personal aspect, because about 10 years ago, Yaël herself suffered from depression and severe anxiety disorder. And the only place she could find peace of mind was in the museum in front of an artwork. This experience motivated her to create Art as Perspective for people going through the same mental issues as she did.
So in today’s chat with Yaël, we talk about what Art as Perspective is and how it works. We discuss how to design programmes for people living with depression and anxiety with art, and the framework she uses and the types of questions she asks. We also talk about how art discussions can help people living with depression, anxiety and negative thoughts and how art can really have a positive impact on mental health. Yaël also shares some really helpful tips for creating art programmes that have this positive impact on our mental well being.
We had a really lovely chat. And I hope you enjoy it. Here it is.
So Yaël, Hi, and welcome to The Art Engager podcast.
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 02:33
Thank you for having me. You’re welcome.
Claire Bown 02:36
So, can you tell us where are you right now?
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 02:39
At the moment, I’m at home, in a little town called Zwijndrecht, which most of you probably don’t know, but it’s somewhere in between the city of Dordrecht and Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Claire Bown 02:54
So you’re south of me, because I’m in Amsterdam right now. Lovely to hear where you are? And could you perhaps tell us a little bit about what you do?
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 03:04
Um, yeah, well, in a nutshell, I do. I do a lot of things. But what I do mostly now is Art as Perspective, to translate it into English. It’s an art tour that I created for people with negative thoughts, depression, anxiety, and everything that comes with that. And I host these tours in museums, and at the moment also online.
Claire Bown 03:33
I’m so interested to hear about Art as Perspective, or Kunst als Perspectief (hope I’m pronouncing it ok)and how you why you set it up. So, tell us a little bit of the background about how you came to set up this amazing programme?
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 03:51
Well, it’s a long story. But starting at the beginning, I think it started about 10 years ago, when I went to London, with the university I was enrolled at at that moment. And I don’t exactly know why. But I always was very interested in art and museums. So when we went to London, the first thing that came to mind was, Oh, my God, I can go to the Tate and I can go to the National Gallery. But my fellow students weren’t that much interested into art because I wasn’t enrolled in the Art Academy yet at that moment, so I decided to stay there myself for a few days.
And it was just amazing. I mean, I got to see so many great artworks, and I felt extremely happy being there. And it was actually until I came back and I was I think it was sitting in a train. And I thought like, well, I was actually happy there. And the weird thing is that I allowed myself to be happy over there. Normally when I get that feeling, yeah, I kind of punish myself for it. So that realisation that there was another way of feeling, and that I could actually do that. Yeah, kind of put things in motion. And it helped me to recognise that I had the depression.
So I went into therapy. And well, also during my recovery, art, and museums were a big part a big help in, you know, getting back out there. And I always say, I like to, I like to talk in images.
So I always say like, my head is like a bowl of spaghetti, like, all tangled up. But when I’m in a museum in front of an artwork, it kind of gets like this spaghetti gets laid out, and organised in pieces that I can actually understand. And, yeah, that that helped me so much. And it still does even the 10 years after. And, to me, it was, you know, it was so weird, and no one told me about this, no one told me about the power that art can have. So I thought maybe I should be the person to tell everyone that this exists. Yeah. And that’s actually when this idea was born in my head.
And after I graduated from the Art Academy a few years back, I decided it was time to actually do something about this idea. And, you know, just to start and work something, work something out. And from thenon, I created Art as Perspective, which is about I think, three years now.
Claire Bown 06:39
It’s a lovely story to hear, it’s a lovely story to hear that you found that peace of mind when you were in a museum when you were in front of art. And I’m also really interested in you saying that it’s not very well known. There’s not many people talking about this, I think things have changed. Definitely, in the last couple of years, perhaps, due to what we’re all going through the pandemic. And people have realised, perhaps when museums have been shut, that perhaps they are these special places that can help us to connect with others, to connect with ourselves, to feel that peace of mind. So I’m so grateful that you’ve set this programme up, perhaps you could tell me a little bit about how it works, and what sorts of groups you work with, and how it works in practice.
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 07:23
Yeah, yeah, you’re totally, you’re totally right, that it’s, you know, I think it’s even more needed than it was before. I mean, before, before, all COVID It was already important that something like this was there. But I think now more people realise how much they actually need it. So that’s a very good thing. And yeah, so I really hope that when the museums open in the Netherlands, again, more people will, will go to museums and find that peace of mind.
And if they join my tour, what I do is I take them, it’s all it’s all people who have, either, how do you say that, like they have anxiety problems, depression, or, you know, in a preventive stage of this, so having negative thoughts or are very stressed.
So these people come to the museum. And we’re in a small group of about six people. And we actually just start looking at the art, and I just help I help people to actually, you know, go into the painting, not literally, but with their minds. So we stand in front of a painting. And by asking very simple questions, like, what do you see? And what kind of situation do you see happening before you? And people answer those questions. And I always ask, after the normal question, like, how do you see that? And then people have to explain why they see that it’s a party, or they have to explain why they see that it’s a woman riding a horse or whatever you whatever they see. And from that, from that moment, from those questions on, I go deeper into their own thoughts.
Because it’s what people see actually says a lot about what they think. And at first, of course, like with normal questions, you just help people get get into the slow looking and, you know, really taking the time to stop their thoughts and go into the painting and you know, just be busy with, what am I seeing? And then I get these thoughts, like all these answers that they give me, I’ll take them back. And I kind of translate him through the painting, and then ask a question back with their own words. If that makes sense.
Claire Bown 09:53
Yes, absolutely. So if I can just paraphrase what you were saying, talking about paraphrasing, I think when you’re just repeating that people’s words or restating in their own words, what you have said to you, and you restate that back to them. And I was really interested as well, you’re talking about observation being the sort of the starting point, the key to opening up these conversations. And I obviously, feel very much the same. I start all my discussions, whatever group I’m working with observation, as I think it just creates that level playing field, it helps everybody, everybody can look at this artwork and start to say, what describe what they see. And from then on, then you can start sort of having a window, as you say, into what they think, and use that as the sort of anchor around which to base your discussion. So yeah, it’s very interesting that you have a similar framework to the frameworks that I’ve been using as well. Can I ask you a question about types of artwork? So what types of museums do you do this with? Are there any special types of objects or artworks you choose?
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 11:01
Yeah, that’s actually that’s very funny. Because when I, when I started doing this, when this idea started, I was convinced that I needed to do this with abstract paintings. Because, you know, me in front of a Rothko, Mark Rothko, and I’m gone.
So I was convinced that it needed to be something like a Rothko, or a Pollock, or Picasso, Mondrian, you name it. And then I got talking to someone at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. And like, I think about 90% of their collection isn’t abstract art. So I thought, okay, oh, god, how am I going to do this? I mean, the Rijksmuseum is one of the biggest museums in the Netherlands. I think it’s, it is the biggest museum in the Netherlands, I think. So, you know, I, I need to, I need to do this, you know, they gave me access to their, to their collection. So I just started started doing it, and also using a few of their abstract arts, artworks. And I actually noticed that portraits and, you know, things that people can actually recognise really works. And abstract art is way more difficult. Because most people that, that come to me, you know, that that join Art as Perspective, they know art, and they go to museums, but some of them don’t. And they don’t really know how to look at art yet. So abstract paintings are for most of them very hard to understand.
So actually, it actually works very well with portraits and landscapes at first, and then once people actually know how to look. And you know, I’ve given them some tools, then I go into the abstract art. Yeah, and that actually works. While at first I thought, okay, it needs to be all abstract. Now I see that there’s this kind of learning curve in how to look at art and that abstract art does work. But you should give people a bit of a guide. I think we’ve got some guidance before you do that before you throw them into the colour fields.
Claire Bown 13:12
Yeah, it can be very overwhelming. I think, working with abstract art, quite often, people have a sense of ‘I don’t know where to start with discussing this’. So I’ve often found that using some kind of framework, using a thinking routine, which breaks it down into categories or things to look for help give people an entry point into that abstract artwork. So things like looking for colours, shapes, and lines, and then moving on from there. Yeah, and, and using things like portraits are wonderful, because you can talk about all sorts of feelings and emotion. So do you move on to thinking about what the figures in the artworks are feeling or what they’re perceiving what they’re knowing? What sort of questions do you ask when you’re working with portraits?
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 14:01
Yeah, it’s the easiest ways always to start with a portrait because people recognise it, and then they know that what they say isn’t necessarily wrong. So like, I always say, my most important thing is that everything you say is okay, like, if you think something is ugly, that’s fine. If you’re standing in front of a painting that’s to me obviously is purple and you think it’s green, that’s fine.
But by starting with the portraits, most people have the same idea. So they kind of feel secure as an okay, you know, what I’m seeing is is good. And then depending on the group, depending on their answers, I go more into okay, how is this person feeling? How is this person, person feeling in this environment, and then playing that back to them to, like, how are you feeling in this environment? And what would you do and what should she or he do in the painting. So, it’s kind of, I have these little steps that I take, because most, because most tours are with three or four paintings. Yeah. And sometimes also objects or sculptures. And I start with something that’s very, I would say, like normal, you know, something that everyone can recognise. Yeah, you know, to be to help them get into the way of looking and like, Okay, I got this, I know how to do this, I can stop my negative thoughts, and just be in this moment with this group of people. And then the second painting is way more about, okay. How are the people on that painting feeling? How are they doing? And how do you reflect on that person? Like, what’s the connection between you and that person. And then the third painting is most of the time putting the participants in the situation of the painting that they see in front of them. So a good example is the, the Merry Family in the Rijksmuseum, from Jan Steen. And it’s a picture where you see a family having fun, they’re singing and playing music. And it looks very nice and comfy. But, for someone who has anxiety problems, or social anxiety problems, this is hell. I mean, they see this and they’re like, Oh, my God, can I please get out. But then I put, put them actually in that position as an okay, you need to go in there, you need to go and join that family even though you don’t know them. But because the situation is paused, I mean, it’s a painting so it doesn’t move, they can slowly look at certain aspects of that painting of that situation, where they feel comfortable with. So and I always I always say, Okay, so now you do this with a painting because you pause it, but you can also do this in real life, you have a situation, but you just kind of, you know, slice it into pieces, and then it becomes way more open and way less scary to join. Yeah, I hope this answers your question.
Claire Bown 17:21
Absolutely, yeah, I’m just imagining the painting, because I know it really well. And it’s a really jolly painting, although there’s some symbolism, and there’s some messages in there about how we should behave and how we shouldn’t behave. And it’s very busy, isn’t it? So there’s a lot going on a lot of really, there’s movement. And what you were saying reminded me a little bit, I’m not sure if you familiar with Art-Based Learning where you take a walk inside a painting, and you walk around and sort of think about what you see and you feel and you notice, and try out different positions in the painting to see what feels comfortable is was it influenced by art based learning? Or?
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 18:01
Yeah, the method, the method that I developed is, indeed a little bit based on Art-Based Learning, a bit on Visual Thinking Strategies, a bit on visual intelligence a bit on their cognitive behavioural therapy. So it’s a bit of everything, which becomes something new actually.
Claire Bown 18:21
Exactly, yes. And it’s taking the bits that work for the types of groups that you work with and the people that you work with. So it’s, yeah, it’s wonderful taking, you know, things from other methods and finding out how you can uniquely use them with the groups that you work with in the situations you work with, as well. So yeah, loving hearing about this, this programme, I have loads of questions buzzing around my head. But what I’d really like to know is what what are the outcomes? So how can art or how can these tools with small groups have a positive impact on their mental health?
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 18:57
Yeah, it at first is? Well, it, it seems to work, because every participant I, I had had some kind of positive impact. That varies very much from having a very nice hour. You know, just in that hour, they’re not thinking about all the negative, but just thinking about the painting and something they see in front of them. But some people actually how do you say that they feel this joy, this freedom, this enlightenment, to know if I can say that for for a longer period of time.
So I got an email, I think from one of the first participants and she emailed me, I think about a week later, and he said, like, from the moment we started, even till now, which is two weeks later, I still feel like so much lighter in my head, because we looked at art.
And then I thought Thank God, you know, it actually works. And I’m not saying that it changes everyone’s lives because everyone’s different, and everyone has different problems. And you know, someone that’s in a very big depression and someone that’s, you know, having stress are two very different kinds of things. It works for both of them, but it works in different ways.
So I always say that people who are on top of the mountain of the top of the mountain called depression or anxiety or burnout, they know they can use this as a tool to get further. And, you know, you should also have a little other guidance next to this, but it does, it does work, you know, and even if it’s just an hour, it’s just an hour of seeing things differently, which, you know, helps them see that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. While for someone who’s just very stressed out at the moment, he or she can just see how to look differently, like how to think differently. So I actually always think about, you know, the way you think is in a certain way.
So it’s like the stream of water, that always takes the easiest route. So some information comes in a thought comes in your mind, and it goes a certain way. But if you dig another channel in the ground, the water will go there as well. But you need to know how to dig this channel. And I dig this channel by helping people looking at art. If that makes sense, in a way,
Claire Bown 21:37
That’s a lovely metaphor for thinking about it. Yes, I wonder… I love it. It’s a really creative way of thinking about it. And I wonder also, whether you’re transferring these skills to people so that when, after their, their time with you, whether they do one tour, or they do a few tours, they can then visit a museum on their own using the skills that you’ve taught them, and use it to have that time distressing or to you know, just to make their mind a bit lighter or to unravel the spaghetti in their mind. Did you find anyone talks about that happening as well? Yeah, a few
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 22:17
Yeah, a fewof them actually. They said like, Okay, I used to go to museums, like, like, everyone, not everyone, but a lot of people, you know, to go there and look at the art and think about, Okay, what did the artist mean to say with this painting? While this it like, but now I go there? And I think, Okay, what do I see? And what does that say about me? And then I’m completely smiling, because that’s all I want. I want them to see arts, not only as something beautiful and as something that someone someone’s meant to tell a story with, but also what it can do for you what story it can tell about you and about the way you think and about how things can be different. So yeah, that does happen. Yeah.
Claire Bown 23:04
That’s great. It’s great to hear, because you’re actually giving people the skills to be able to go to museums themselves and connect with the art in their own way, which is fantastic. Yeah, I want to ask you if you have any top tips, because I know there’s going to be lots of people listening who will be interested in thinking about how they might create art programmes that have a similar positive impact on mental health. So do you have any top tips for if others wanted to create programmes in the same vein?
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 23:33
Yeah, I do. There are a few things that I always say to people when they come, do an artist perspective tour. And the first thing is, which I think is also the most important is that nothing is wrong. I think I said it earlier in the podcast as well. By giving people the freedom to tell what they see and how they feel. You also create the freedom to, for them to actually talk about things that they might find difficult to talk about. So I always say just go with the flow. And you know, if you don’t want to talk or you don’t want to engage, you don’t have to. But when I ask a question, I most of the times direct a question to a specific person. So I say like, oh, so what do you see Claire, for example. But if you don’t want to enter you don’t have to. So I think that’s very important that you give people that that freedom and that that security.
Second of all, let people discover their imagination. And I always try like if the museum lets me I try to cover up the little board of text with the title and little bit of information. Because most people always go to that bit first. They want to know what kind of situation it is what the artists meant with it. But by taking that away they have to do with Under own power to have to use their imagination. And by triggering that, they also go deeper into their, into their own their own thoughts. So that’s also very important. Like the scope, let them discover their imagination and help them a little bit with it. So don’t, in the Netherlands we say ‘Kauw alles voor’, – so don’t chew everything beforehand, if I say that correctly, but let them you know, Let them struggle a little bit and just just be there to help them. But once they discovered it themselves, it will stick, it will stick way better. So, yeah, be a helping hand, but let, let them do let them use their imagination.
And the third thing is, start a conversation, also help start the conversation in the group. So I also, I tried to do it just one on one, so just me with one person. And that worked. But it didn’t work as good as in a group. Because, you know, I’m just one person who has one opinion, and has one way about seeing things. But if you’re in a group, you know, you can see so much more, because everyone has different life experience, different thoughts, different ways of looking and experiencing things. And by helping starting that conversation, you actually give someone new ways to think that even I haven’t seen, for example, like the marry family, again, that I talked about earlier, I have done that painting with many groups. And it’s not that big of a painting mean, it’s not that small, but it’s not really big. But every time again, I see new things because I look through someone else’s eyes. And, you know, by being able to see those things, and also play that back to someone say like, oh, wow, I haven’t even seen that yet. That’s so it’s so cool that you see that, it gives them the confidence to look further. So yeah, I would say, one, don’t tell people what they’re doing wrong. Give them the confidence. Second of all, let them discover their imagination. And third of all, start a conversation in the group about what you see.
Claire Bown 27:20
After enough talking about the power of the group as well, because it is working together with groups, creating conversations with them makes everybody feel that they’re part of something that they’re all discovering together. They’re all finding out new things together. And they’re all helping each other in some way. So, yeah, it’s a it’s a wonderful experience.
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 27:38
Yeah. And they’re all people in our perspective, tourists are all people with similar problems, similar mental health issues. So it also kind of makes them feel like I’m not alone, you know, and it gives them kind of recognition of, oh, I felt that the exact same way. And you know, that they start a conversation about the way they felt in a certain situation. And they help each other like, oh, but you know, I did something may give you tips, for example, on how to handle certain situations. So it’s not only looking at art, but it’s also the conversation that that artwork starts within a group.
Claire Bown 28:12
Yeah. And you have that important role in facilitating those conversations, though. Yes. Wow. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So I’m delighted that you’re going to be doing a masterclass for my membership programme. Could you tell us a little bit about it’s on Eighth of February. So in a few weeks time, could you give us sort of an overview of what you’ll be teaching us?
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 28:32
Yes. I’m very much looking forward to it as well. And I will tell a bit more about how I develop the method for Art as Perspective. So in the in this podcast, I already told a little bit, but I’ll go deeper into that. I will also tell more about the importance of a programme like this, like what kind of audiences you can reach. And now why it is so important for this audience, that something like this is happening in a museum. And I also will give a little part of the tour, just a little sneak peek, because normally it will take about an hour at least. So I won’t do the entire tour, but just a little sneak peek so that people who attend the masterclass can experience themselves what I do and ask questions about
Claire Bown 29:22
that. Fantastic. Oh, I’m really looking forward to it. I can’t wait. Tell us how people can find out about you. Where can they contact you? Where can they find out about artists perspective?
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 29:36
Well, I have a website. It’s called Art See Projects And I also have an Instagram just for Art as Perspective. It has a Dutch name, but you can find it on my website as well. But for the people who know Dutch, it’s called Kunst als Perspectief. So you can find that on Instagram
Claire Bown 30:17
One, I will put all the links in the show notes so that people can click directly through to your website and your Instagram for perfect.
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 30:23
Thank you so much.
Claire Bown 30:25
So thank you so much for chatting with me today. I think we could have talked for a lot longer. It’s been brilliant getting to know all about your work. I love what you’re doing with the artists perspective. I love what you’re doing, introducing people to art and museums, and having a positive impact on people’s mental health. So thank you so much for this chat.
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 30:45
Thank you so much for having me. And, yeah, I really hope to see a lot of people in the Masterclass and now hopefully talk to more people about this, about this programme and the importance of it, because I really hope that more museums around the world go and do something like this to help people with their mental health because it’s so extremely important.
Claire Bown 31:07
Thanks a lot. Yeah,
Yaël van Loosbroek Speck 31:08
thank you so much.
Claire Bown 31:10
So a huge thanks to Yaël for being on the podcast today. You could tell how much I enjoyed talking to her. Her passion and enthusiasm for her work just really shines through. And if you want to join Yaël’s masterclass, on the eighth of February, you can do so by becoming a member of the Thinking Museum Membership. So all master classes are now sold as part of the membership. You can become a member for a month or much longer. We’d love you to stay around for longer too. We’re going to be exploring in this masterclass how art can have this positive impact on mental health. She’ll be telling us about the method she uses, and how she gets to start conversations about mental health using art, you will also get a chance to experience a mini version of the tour for yourself. So if you’re interested, I’ll put a link in the show notes to sign up for this very special class. Now don’t forget as well every Friday I send out the TM weekly, my newsletter full of inspiration and ideas. I share one thing to watch, one to read and one to listen to and all the details of upcoming classes and courses too. That’s it for this week. Thank you so much for listening. I’ll see you next time. Bye Thank you for listening to The Art Engager podcast with me Claire Bown. You can find more art engagement resources by visiting my websites thinking museum.com And you can also find me on Instagram at thinking Museum, where I regularly share tips and tools on how to bring art to life and engage your audience. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please SHARE with others and subscribe to the show on your podcast player of choice. Thank you so much for listening, and I’ll see you next time