As a new school year begins, it's not just children who are learning something different; many adults are signing up for classes, too. But instead of textbooks, they're picking up brushes and discovering how to paint.
Babita Shamji, a mother of three, chose a more academically inclined route to get there. Three years ago, she enrolled at the Lotus Educational Institute in Dubai, where she started taking fundamental art courses. “It was very technical. It felt like studying again,” she says. Through the years, she moved to more advanced classes and is now learning abstract painting.
Located in Dubai Knowledge Park, the institute focuses on honing technical skills with dedicated courses on perspective, composition, colour theory, light and shadow. Nazanin Azadikhah, general manager and faculty member who has a doctorate in art teaching, says the programme is ideal for those who intend to use art in a professional setting, since Lotus offers professional certificates. “Something that I thought would be a hobby is almost like a job,” Shamji adds, explaining that sitting with her canvases is now part of her daily routine. She hopes to sell these paintings some day.
Finding emotional healing through painting
Shamji used to run a family business, but the demands of motherhood pushed her to focus on home-making. Painting became a way for her to rebalance. "It has been a lot of personal progress. It has opened up emotional doors, given me confidence. Sometimes, I look at the canvas and wonder how I made that. I didn't know I had these things inside me," she says. Art has an effect on her family life, too. "My children love my energy when I'm painting. It's really healing."
The emotional benefits of painting are very much at the heart of Soul Art, an art centre in Dubai. This is largely driven by founder Lama Mardini, whose interest in psychology and wellness compelled her to create programmes that mix art and well-being. “I have so much passion for self-development, life coaching and energy healing,” she says. Personal hardship caused her to turn to art as relief years ago, then she saw the business potential in it and set up the centre in November 2015.
Mardini says she only hires like-minded instructors and, in some ways, even prioritises ethos over skill. Or, in the case of students, emotional benefit over pure technical precision. For proof, you only need to look at Soul Art’s class schedule, which reads a bit like a wellness catalogue with yogic influences. It has a series involving guided meditation and “setting new intentions”. There are also sessions entitled Connect with the Power of Unity, Meditative Finger Painting and New Moon Express Yourself, right next to the usual Art for Adults and Painting with Oil Pastels.
What happens during a Soul Art class
The process of teaching at the centre begins with a kind of exploration into the psyche. “When you start, the instructor will sit with you and ask you a few questions about how you’re feeling, what colours you see or like. Sometimes people bring in a nice painting and say: ‘I want to paint this.’ So we ask: ‘How does this thing make you feel? Why did you choose that?’” Mardini explains.
One of Soul Art's loyal students is Sunil Gomes, chief executive of a property development company, who has been pursuing his hobby for three years. Following his teacher's advice, he paints what he likes and knows – tennis players, Audrey Hepburn, ballroom dancers and, more recently, a portrait of his late father.
“It’s been incredibly rewarding and I’ve seen the progress in my art,” he says. Through the years, his paintings have become more complex and his materials more challenging. “I thought it was going to be one of those things where you do a six-week programme and you just think: ‘OK, you’ve learnt the basics and you go and you can do it yourself.’ But then you realise that there is just a volume of art skill that will take a lifetime to learn. So I continue to go,” he says.
Gomes recognises, too, the social benefit of his interactions in class. "You go there to paint, but also to get away from your friends and family to a certain extent," he says, adding, it is "semi-therapeutic" when people can bond over specific unifying interests. "When you have a skilful common denominator, as opposed to a food-based denominator, I think the level of the relationship becomes more genuine and more real."
Using art to unlock creativity
Perhaps one of the UAE's best-known and oldest community art spaces is thejamjar in Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz. Founded in 2005, it started as an open studio for artists and creatives, but demand for classes grew and thejamjar delivered. It has developed a programme that goes beyond education, but also involves artistic support, including residencies and the Occupy initiative, which allows artists to display their works in the space.
"I do strongly believe in bridging the gap between the public and the artist," says Camille Despalle de Bearn, head of projects and programming. "One of the aims of thejamjar is also to allow the young artist scene to use us as a platform." She not only refers to their programmes, but also the fact they hire practising artists as teachers
In a way, thejamjar is a balance between the structured system of the Lotus Educational Institute and the more freestyle approach of Soul Art. Its weekly classes are mostly limited to oil, acrylic and illustration techniques. De Bearn explains that the instructors have specific lesson plans for each beginner’s session, so while students are free to choose their own palette, their subjects are often determined beforehand. This allows students to focus on technique rather than concept at first, as they build towards their own style.
“In the more advanced workshops, we allow more fluidity and independence in learning. So we ask people to come with their own project, and the teacher will help them individually. Sometimes people don’t know what they want to do, so part of the learning is also about finding new inspiration, learning to look around you,” she says, recalling a student who always used to paint flowers and landscapes, then one day created a David Hockney-inspired piece. “A lot of the learning is actually learning to let go. It’s about rediscovering the pure fun of it,” she says.
How meditating and art can go together
There’s more to it than pure fun, it seems. In July 2018, thejamjar hosted a one-off spirituality and art workshop called Intuitive Creativity, which asked participants to meditate then produce abstract works of their “happy place”.
Led by Victoria Parrucci, who is also a ThetaHealer, it was a success. Now it is a regular feature of thejamjar's programme and held every Thursday. In her sessions, Parrucci prompts students to reflect on specific themes or issues – these can be positive or negative – before giving them free rein to create, occasionally guiding them on how to use the material, commonly Indian ink on paper.
Though these workshops are not art therapy, which is a more clinical practice that involves psychotherapy and the treatment of mental issues, Sara Powell from the Art Therapy International Centre says: "Subconscious content can be projected on to the artwork as a way to understand difficult emotions in a non-threatening way" during therapy sessions.
“I was attracted to the meditation side of it. The art side was like an addition,” says participant Lara Omran after a session that reflected on abuse. “I was a bit nervous in the beginning, because I knew we were going to do some deep emotional stuff. But after, because I was able to just let myself go into it, I feel much better now. I’m very content right now.”