Free To Connect

By opening people’s eyes to nature and the great outdoors, lockdown’s new perspective throws up questions about how and why people respond to nature so strongly and why it can have such a positive impact on our mental health. So it is no wonder that the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (10-16 May) is Connect With Nature.

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For there’s more to people’s new motivation to spend time outdoors than simply exercising or escaping their own four walls for a while. Nature is known to calm us, to reduce stress hormones and to slow heart rates. Nature moves at such a different pace, following a set cycle, patterns of growth, gradual change as the year moves on. So it can calm us by slowing us down, as a counterbalance to the pressured pace of life, and can instil in us patience and new priorities.

Mental Health Awareness Week is run each year by the Mental Health Foundation, and this year the Foundation has two goals for its Nature theme. One is promoting new ways of connecting with nature. The other? Lobbying politicians and other authorities to consider access to nature not just an environmental issue but also an issue of mental health and social justice.

This set me thinking about access. In the UK we’ve come a long way from the mass trespasses of the 1930s, held by citydwellers opposed to landowners’ refusal to allow access to their moors. Their actions led to an opening up of the countryside and the creation of far more footpaths and bridleways. But other, more insidious barriers have emerged. Urbanisation is one, as urban sprawl creeps on, sometimes even over greenbelt. Then there’s crime, with many urban green spaces in particular unsafe. With little public transport in rural areas, getting to the countryside is difficult for non-drivers. Accessing nature can be impossible for disabled people. Age also limits people’s freedom to experience nature for themselves. Not all care homes have accessible gardens, but even in those which do many residents rarely or never go outside, particularly those who have dementia.

One solution is for people to enjoy nature virtually. The Mental Health Foundation found that webcam live streams of wildlife and wild places proved very popular during lockdowns. I’ve just heard that Swansea Botanic Garden has started running virtual walks. And technology could be a way to engage more younger people with nature to improve their mental health too.

So the virtual has a great part to play, but experiencing nature directly is irreplaceable. The surge of enthusiasm for nature must partly be a reaction to the virtual, to all the time people have to spend online. At some point nature needs to become real and actual, even if only in simple encounters people might overlook: growing indoor houseplants or watching a spider’s web. And don’t forget the sky. Light pollution deprives many people of a clear sight of the night sky, but in daytime watching the sky as clouds form and move across is a simple but striking way to experience nature, and one which is possible for most people.

Maybe you would like to share nature’s impact on your mental health, or how you think barriers to access might be overcome, in Medley’s Facebook group Thank you!

Eyes And Ears

While Medley highlights how art, music and nature can improve wellbeing for anyone and everyone, I also want to focus on specific ways they can help people in particular circumstances, like hearing loss. We’re now in the middle of Deaf Awareness Week (4-9 May), which is run every year across all different organisations involved with hearing loss. While these organisations all mark the Week in different ways, there’s always a common theme, which this year is Coming Through It Together: recognising how people have pulled together throughout this last year. So the Week seemed an opportunity to explore how art in particular can help people living with hearing loss, either lifelong or acquired.

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Art’s visual focus can level the playing field for people with hearing loss, so that when they stand at an easel or experiment with printing, their hearing isues become irrelevant: which must be truly liberating.

Art could become another language for people with hearing loss who might struggle to communicate or depend on sign language or Makaton. In paint, clay and pencil, people can all express themselves with no need for speech or hearing. People might turn to art as a tool to express their experience of hearing loss or their emotional response to it: to rage, to lament, or to celebrate. Or they might simply enjoy art as anyone would, maybe to calm down and relax, to clear their minds, to play around with colour and line.

Art’s impact could depend on age as well. Children with hearing loss have been found to benefit particularly from sensory activities to develop and draw out their other senses. Many people with acquired hearing loss will be older, and might find art reconnects them with other people and eases isolation. Of course, hearing loss can isolate people of any age, as easy everyday interaction can seem impossible and people can become withdrawn. Art can be one way for people to share common ground with others.

Living with hearing loss may even strengthen some people’s creative flair, as their focus on the visual will be more absolute.

Another way art can help is by raising awareness and as an opportunity to share experiences of being deaf. US-based artist Priscila Soares ( is someone who uses her art to do just that. She herself has lived with hearing loss since her teens and now also has a son with a different form of hearing loss. Her artwork is bold, striking and varied. Not only has she painted a series of portraits called Stories Of Hearing Loss Through Painting, but she has also illustrated two children’s books about hearing loss, and produces sculptures, puppets and comics. I particularly like her paintings of musicians wearing hearing aids.Being positive about living with hearing loss is one of Priscila’s goals for her art.

Creativity could also be a way for people who have hearing loss to respond to nature, with all its own proven impacts on wellbeing. People might be unable to hear outdoor sounds, but time spent in nature is known to be a beneficial sensory experience for hearing and non-hearing people alike, and art can make all of us more observant.

It would be great if you would like to share your own or others’ experiences of art and hearing loss on Medley’s Facebook group, Thank you!

Crafting Away

Fuelled by the times we live in, craft is booming. With Covid-19 lockdowns, many have turned to craft to occupy themselves or to make scrubs and masks. And as awareness grows of the climate emergency, people are reducing, reusing and recycling more, and upcycling as well. TV programmes like Sewing Bee and The Repair Shop tap into, and bolster, these trends. So how might craft – as distinct from art – improve wellbeing?

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Craft can help people in myriad ways. As with art, it concentrates the mind: if people are absorbed by sewing, measuring or cutting, craft may allow them time away from dwelling on the darker side of life. Craft can also create a feeling of independence and capability, which boosts confidence. And time spent making or sewing is probably time spent with colourful fabrics or patterns, with beautiful objects which themselves could lift the spirits. Craft is literally constructive and positive.

So how is crafting most beneficial? Is it the creating or the creation which helps? Is it the modelling, the sewing, the time actually spent making? Or are the end products the main reward, seeing and using what you make? It will depend on the craft and on the individual maker. With so many different crafts, it seems impossible to compare their impacts. It seems too simplistic to say that knitting is calming or wood-carving is expressive.

Making from new might have a different impact from upcycling. If people feel depressed or overwhelmed by pollution and planetary decline, then upcycling could become a positive way to regain some control and to reduce their carbon footprint ( as well as easing any money worries). Many crafts build patience or improve concentration. Crafting might be a way to get to know other people and share common ground, easing loneliness. Crafts have become important in many care homes, where residents enjoy participating in crafts they find practicable – as illness and older age do limit creativity if people lose the dexterity they migh tneed or if their eyesight deteriorates. The sheer range and diversity of crafts helps immensely, as peop;le can all respond or take part in different ways. And craft is a multi-sensory experience, which is known to boost wellbeing on different levels. Just think of the different materials you might use: clay, wood, glass, felt, silk, ribbon, wool, paper…People who have autism respond positively to multi-sensory stimulus like this, and it’s also helpful for people with sight or hearing loss, by opening up other senses.

Every craft’s impact differes then, depends on the individual taking part: and this is why it is so difficult to assess and monitor their use in wellbeing. Countless people have stories to share of how they find craft helpful, but funders and practitioners need metrics too. Slowly, cncrete research is growing. What Works Wellbeing’s 2018 evidence review on Visual Arts And Mental Health was the first review of its kind, and covered crafts as well as fine art. It cited evidence, for example, that modelling could help people with post-traumatic stress disorder, and presented case studies like a design studio working with people referred there by mental health practitioners over three years at a time.

So craft can be a way people find to calm themselves or to feel more positive, or can actually become part of wellbeing interventions led by others. Lockdown may come to an end, but crafting only looks set to go on growing. It would be great if you would like to share how craft helps you or other people you know in Medley’s Facebook group Thank you!

And talking about art and craft, would you like to take part in an art for wellbeing project – on a plants theme – from home this May? Each week I will email activity ideas to participants: different ways of painting, drawing or crafting plants, with step-by-step instructions and examples. There will also be ideas of music to listen to and ways to enjoy plants in nature. The project will be flexible and informal, no experience needed. Please book using Eventbrite by going to Thank you!

A Step In Time

Ballet might seem to be more about movement than music, but music is clearly integral to ballet’s impact: so it’s the latest music genre I’m exploring in my occasional series on why different styles of music might boost wellbeing in different ways.

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One genre I recently focused a blog post on was musicals, songs from the shows. Ballet might strike you as very different from musicals, but there is common ground. Like musicals, ballet is a multi-faceted art form. So, woven in with the music there’s a story to follow, a narrative, as well as a strong visual element (sets, lighting and costumes). Obviously ballet has a primary focus on movement, a further stimulus. Not only is it inspiring watching dancers’ sheer athleticism, even acrobatics, but seeing how music and movement work together draws out a specific response to the score. It highlights the music’s particular moods through performance.

But the music can also stand alone. Famous ballet scores like Sleeping Beauty and Coppelia have become familiar to many of us who have never seen those ballets performed onstage.

Ballet seems enchanting and other-worldly. Many ballets draw on fantasy to create an imaginary drama: so they can prove a refuge and an escape from the everyday. Ballet music also covers so many different moods and emotions. Traditional, classical ballet may have more impact on some people, while others might respond more to recent or experimental ballets.

Two years ago two important institutions began to collaborate on a dance project. One was King’s College London, a major university, the other was English National Ballet, one of the UK’s foremost dance companies. Their focus was how ballet could boost wellbeing for people who have Parkinson’s Disease. The project combined live ballet music with dance, rhythm and voice. And this is far from the only initiative looking at dance’s impacts on Parkinson’s: research at the University of Hertfordshire for one has highlighted how dance can build people’s physical confidence as well as their mood, making them feel more positive as they live with Parkinson’s.

There’s also evidence that ballet can even have a beneficial impact in preventing Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia. A 2019 research study stated that dancing regularly could reduce risk by over 75%. Key to this impact is thought to be the way dance provides mental as well as physical stimulus and exertion, as a mental workout is known to be helpful in preventing dementia.

Many people find that dancing boosts their mood, while dance specifically for wellbeing or therapy grows and grows, mainly for mental health and self-expression. Ballet is only one of many dance forms used for this – and dance does not have to be limited by mobility or fitness issues either. I recently heard about seated rock ‘n’ roll dance sessions taking place in some care homes. Dance’s strong communal element can also contribute to its impact on wellbeing by drawing people together, even if that has to be online for now.

All in all, maybe ballet reveals how movement added to music enhances music’s power: and how music added to movement enhances movement’s power as well. Have you found this to be true? It would be great if you would like to share how you respond to ballet music in Medley’s Facebook group Thank you!

Nature’s Remedy

At last spring is here, and as I’ve just heard that April is National Stress Awareness Month, this seems an opportunity to highlight how nature can ease the stresses which have become so common in everyday life. No, nature won’t remove these stresses, but it might help rein them in or create a sense of proportion, and become a space for us to let off steam.

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Nature eases stress most of all, I think, by freeing us from ourselves and by opening a door to a different perspective, to a different experience of what it is to live. Overthinking can be our downfall when it comes to stress, particularly overthinking the future. While we can’t enter into a bird or a dragonfly’s mind, as far as we can tell they live in the moment more than we do. So maybe as we spend time in nature, we overthink less. Maybe we too live more in the moment, as we focus on the here and now. It might last only as long as we connect with nature, but that alone can be a counterbalance, limiting stress’s power to overshadow all we think and do.

Different encounters with nature might help different people. Maybe the elemental liberates some people most – seeing an immense sky or sea. Maybe others respond more to the specific: to a known local tree, to birdsong, to watching marching ants or a spider’s web. Or it might just depend where we are and what nature we can experience. As wilderness shrinks in so many places and parts of the world, there’s less “otherness” to counterbalance our own perspective, there are fewer havens for us.

When I go for my regular walks I have mainly just spent time online, and I find walking then s helpful in clearing my mind. Some days, when my mind is whirling with what I need to do, getting outside slowly sets it all in perspective as the screen’s importance recedes. Of the three areas Medley focuses on, music boosts my mood, art absorbs and energises me, but I think on balance it is nature which calms me most.

Nature too is in an endless battle to survive. It has to feed, it needs space and shelter, it needs to be alert to threats from predators. But from our perspective, nature seems simpler. So many of the causes of our stress just don’t exist in nature. So it is that connecting with nature is an opportunity to forget, and to recharge. That might be by focusing on the local and familiar, on a species like the house sparrow which spends its life within just one kilometre. Or it might be by opening our eyes to the wider world, to species like migratory birds which cross the globe every year. It might be through walking or cycling, or it might be virtually, encountering nature through podcasts or slow radio, like the BBC’s new Soundscapes for Wellbeing on BBC Sounds. I also recently heard about the Virtual Nature Experiment, which is exploring the impact these virtual encounters have on wellbeing by asking questions about how you respond to different video clips. You might like to take part at

It would be great if you would like to share how nature helps reduce stress for you in Medley’s Facebook group Thank you!

Creativity And Autism

To mark World Autism Awareness Day on 2nd April, I’m focusing this blog post on how and why art – and music and nature too – can help people who have autism. World Autism Day was founded by the UN and is held every year on 2nd April, as an opportunity to rais eawareness of autism and its impacts – so it also seems an opportunity to explore the part creativity can play here, in boosting wellbeing.

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At the moment, particular research priorities for autism are mental health, communication and anxiety issues, specifically in adults (as although autism is lifelong, much autism research focuses on children). Creativity and nature connection are in a strong position to contribute to these priorities. Enabling people to express themselves is integral to so much art, music and nature for wellbeing and this could liberate people with autism who find communicating with others difficult. By fostering new ways of thinking, experimenting with art or improvising music could help people who have autism, who may commonly think in a more logical and literal way than many people. And drawing, painting, crafting, music and nature connection can all be calming, easing anxiety.

Art, music and nature are flexible too. People can be free to enjoy them alone, but they can also create common ground to draw people together, which may be useful if interacting with others is a struggle for people with autism.

I’ve recently learned about the charity Aspens’ work with children, young people and adults. Art is one focus of their work, and World Autism Awareness Day is seeing them run a My AuSome Art competition, as well as sharing videos on how art helps the young people involved. On 2nd April their Instagram feed will showcase the young people’s artwork. It really sounds as if art and creativity make an immense difference to these young people, during lockdown more than ever.

It was also great to learn that Aspens is linking art and creativity up with nature and sensory spaces too. As you may know, Medley is committed to connecting different art forms (like music and art) and nature. Their benefits feed off each other. That’s why Medley’s regular Creative Ideas cover all three areas, and why my recent art for wellbeing project has featured music & nature ideas as well.

I believe that a multi-sensory experience is likely to have a greater impact on most people. Art can have many benefits on its own, yes, but when music and art are brought in too, there’s a wider perspective and different stimulus. This may be all the more important for people living with autism. I have heard that young people living with autism in particular respond more to multi-sensory ideas, maybe art therapy outdoors with a musical element as well.

Back in December my blog post Through New Eyes highlighted the work of abstract artist Mahlia Amatina, who has Asperger’s syndrome (an autism variant) Mahlia is now marking World Autism Awareness Day and Month by creating a new artwork each day in April, and I’ll be following that journey.

If you have any thoughts, experiences or reactions on creativity, nature and autism, it would be great if you would like to share them in Medley’s Facebook group Thank you!

One Year On

Last Tuesday’s national Day Of Reflection set me thinking again about this last crazy year and how I for one have seen positives emerge in amidst all the darkness. Positives like people turning to nature, to music and to creativity in their droves, painting, drawing and crafting.

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Sometimes this has helped distract us, liberated us from over-thinking, to look instead at colour and line and no more than that. I’ve written before how art makes me more observant, as I focus more closely on what I see, while on a walk maybe: on shape & form, light, shade and colour. Maybe as people become absorbed by artwork and creativity, there’s less space for the darkness. And lately I’ve found that using different colours while painting has lifted my mood, literally brightening what might have been gloomy winter days.

Music too has helped many people through lockdown. Particular musical styles have stood out. Feel-good songs and anthems have become the most streamed, while classical music has gained new listeners. The impossibility of most live group music-making or singing has only highlighted how important gathering to sing in choirs or other groups is to many people’s mood and wellbeing.

Someone I know was writing about seeing the last year go by in her garden: as spring bulbs gave way to roses, to dahlias, eventually to bare trees – and now the bulbs flower again, and still we are in lockdown. I’ve thought this on my walks, as still, regardless, nature has gone on growing. Still the birds fly, still the cycle of the year moves on as if there were no pandemic, and that can make nature a refuge and a haven. As lockdown is eased and some people may struggle to adjust to freedoms restored amidst the continuing threat of Covid-19, that haven could be more important than ever.

It is absolutely true that there are many times when neither art nor music nor nature help. I know that it can be impossible to focus or concentrate. Art might seem impractical, music too emotional, nature too elemental when it is contact with other people, crowds, events that you miss. But there are many times when they do.

With so many virtual gallery tours, Zoom art classes or choirs and online music performances, lockdown’s move online has only accelerated the issue of digital exclusion. Significant percentages of older people and of lower-income households do not have broadband, and for them many doors have closed altogether. The loss of face-to-face gatherings and support groups has been all the more severe for these people, who are left with few or no alternatives. This is an issue where “levelling up” is hugely needed.

Maybe at a time when our opportunities to explore different places or to take part in different events are limited, we’ve become more open to the stimuli we do encounter. Maybe we’ve learned not only to look but to see, not only to hear but to listen. Art alone is so diverse and so rich in styles and media that it opens up new ways of seeing. It enhances the everyday, as do music and nature. And they will go on as lockdown recedes: and maybe evolve in new ways?

All About Folk

Medley’s blog is running an occasional series on different music genres and their particular impact on wellbeing. Last time I explored musicals’ impact ( ) and now it’s the turn of folk music. Does folk music reach people in different ways to other genres? And if so, why might this be?

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Maybe the clue’s in the name: folk is all about people. As folk songs explore people’s hopes and experiences, they might help other people to understand themselves, as they listen or perform.

Obviously folk itself is a diverse genre. Memory and heritage are integral to many traditional folk songs as people celebrate, recall or lament together. In a fast-changing world, this might be a helpful way to draw together past and present. But folk never needs to be lost in the past. Folk musicians go on reinterpreting tradition and writing & performing new folk songs. Either style could boost mood and wellbeing. For some, folk music drawing on memory and even nostalgia could be reassuring and familiar. It could be positive for people with memory loss. Many of the songs commonly sung in care homes, such as Molly Malone, are folk songs. As people who have dementia are known to remember most clearly songs they first heard during their youth, folk songs might enable them to respond.

For others, newer folk music could mirror their own experience in the here and now. Folk music has never shied away from issues like justice and pacifism. Folk greats like Woody Guthrie (This Land Is Your Land) , Bob Dylan and Joan Baez all responded to the controversies of th eday. Owen Shiers, a folk singer from Wales, is one musician now using folk to show all that we stand to lose as biodiversity is threatened. This might help people lament and maybe inspire them to act for change.

One way folk songs impact on us is by rooting people in asense of place. Some, like the Skye Boat Song, directly refer to place. Fewer of us now have strong roots in a place, as we move more, and this can make people feel dislocated and isolated. Folk songs may help people hold on to their links to a specific place. But they also root people in a new, maybe wider, kind of community.

Voice has a very important part to play in a lot of folk songs, sometimes taking centre stage while instrumental music forms no more than a background. This in itself can be powerful, highlighting the lyrics, unlike some other genres where you struggle to hear the lyrics at all. These lyrics might be comic, dark, reflective or rousing, reaching people in diverse situations.

In a recent BBC Radio 4 series, children’s writer Michael Morpurgo explored the power of folk songs, a power to unite. He has found returning to singing with others in later life to be a joyful experience. Integral to the success of the National Theatre play of his book War Horse was the musical score and specifically the folk songs written for the play, like Rolling Home.

So there are lots of possible ways in which folk music might prove beneficial. It would be great if you would like to share how folk impacts you in Medley’s Facebook group Thank you.

The Sound Of Nature

Experiencing nature through sound might boost mood, calm us, excite or uplift us. Nature’s impact on wellbeing usually focuses on the sights we see, or on exercising outdoors. But there’s a wealth of sounds to draw on as well. Biophony (as sounds of the natural world are known) has become a tool for monitoring biodiversity, and it also has power to improve mental wellbeing.

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Hearing more birdsong was one of the positives which stood out from the first lockdown last spring. The novelty might have worn off, and the traffic may have returned, but again the birds sing now it is another spring. It’s a wet and windy day outside a sI write this, but as the gusts subside I still hear birdsong. It lifts the depressing scene, making the day feel alive with activity. Birdsong is known to boost mental wellbeing, and it isn’t alone. Many trees and plants add to the way we experience nature by creating distinctive sounds, rustling, fluttering or shivering in a wind. Hearing and absorbing sounds to calm and ground yourself is integral to the idea of forest bathing, immersing yourself in nature.

Familiar sounds have a part to play here, but so too do the new and the unknown. Over 50 years ago Roger Payne’s album Songs of the Humpback Whale, which recorded whale song, became a chart hit. To this day, whale song hints at the mystery of the deep oceans, and entrances many people.

Just as we have depended on technology this last year to open doors to the world, so it opens our ears to nature’s sounds, and not just during lockdown. Podcasts have developed which share sound recordings from all different settings and countries. Slow radio also draws on this idea. When the Timber Fest was forced to cancel because of Covid-19, the organizers instead built a global soundmap called Sounds of the Forest, collecting recordings to create an aural picture of life amidst the trees.

I wonder if biophony’s impact on wellbeing could mirror music’s specific role? Music has so deep and lasting an impact that maybe sounds in nature could prove just as powerful. As music is one of the last memories to be lost by people who have dementia, maybe other sound memories also survive. Cognition declines more quickly than emotional memory, so people might still respond to sounds they recall. Hearing sounds of the natural world is also all the more important for people with sight loss, who may be unable to experience nature visually – narrated audio walks could be one possibility.

Different people will respond to some sounds more than others, and at different times. Some people might find the sound of water calming, relaxing or reassuring, while for others it might help by energizing them. And the sounds themselves will differ, for nature is never still. One outdoor patch might sound very different on one day from another, or at different times of year: all boosting its impact, and allowing us to experiencee nature’s many moods. There’s huge scope here for so many of us.

It would be great if you would like to share how sounds in nature impact you in Medley’s Facebook group Thank you!

In The Frame

Great art might open up great opportunities for wellbeing. So far Medley has mainly explored art’s impact on people who themselves take part in painting, drawing or crafting. In this blog post the focus turns to how looking at art might in itself also boost wellbeing and enhance life in diverse ways.

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How might enjoying artworks do this? It might be calming, mindful, a positive visual and mental stimulus. It lets you see the world through another person’s eyes, so it could free you from your own perspective for a while. It might brighten mood by creating a space for beauty. It could transport you to a different place and time. It might also inspire you to experiment with creativity yourself.

Specific impacts will depend on the art itself. Perhaps art’s emotional impact on viewers is more openly explored by 20th and now 21st century artworks than it was in earlier eras. This more experimental art clearly highlights knotty and difficult questions about mood and emotions, about life and death, about war and conflict: maybe through the use of colour, the brushwork or the subject matter. Think of Oskar Kokoschka’s paintings of the trauma of war, or of art focusing on isolation and loneliness, like Alberto Giacometti’s unusual figure scculptures, or of Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman who used colour to create emotion. Art like this might liberate the viewer and enable them to express – or to see reflected – their own pain or fear. But it might also be too disturbing or depressing.

Art might be more helpful as a refuge, an escape, a distraction, as a glimpse of beauty or order: maybe Impressionist seascapes or landscapes, or portraits painted centuries ago.

The charity Paintings In Hospitals was founded over 60 years ago to share art with people in health and care settings. Its unique collection of thousands of artworks is regularly loaned out to hospitals, as the name suggests, but also to GP surgeries, care homes and hospices. While the charity does also run art activities enabling people to respond to the loaned artworks creatively themselves, their main work builds on long experience of the hugely positive impact the sheer presence of artworks in healthcare settings has on patients. The charity works on a range of projects and recently cooperated with The Wallace Collection (a central London gallery) on a research study entitled Contemporary Art and Primary Care.

Initiatives like this brighten what could be impersonal, clinical settings and share great art more widely. More and more art galleries and museums now have outreach and wellbeing programmes engaging people in all different circumstances. But people may also find art helpful if they enjoy looking at art in books, online or on television. Technology has transformed this, with virtual tours of many art galleries only a few clicks away. Yes, this is a different experience from seeing art in real life, which many people would argue is richer and more authentic. But there’s a positive side to enjoying art virtually or through books, at your own pace: and it’s more practical for people who are too ill, frail or busy to get to agallery.

Maybe there are as many different ways to enjoy and respond to art as there are artworks to experience.