Art can take many forms in everyone’s life. It’s always there, even if you don’t see it. 

Art is the mural painting you see every morning on your commute to work that reminds you to take a deep breath, or it’s the artfully-crafted latte you treated yourself to on break because you had a rough morning. Art can even be the reminders you write down in barely-legible handwriting, just to ensure all your tasks are completed on time.  


Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series on Orange County’s mental health. All stories are produced by students in a digital journalism course at Chapman University. This story, the first in the series, was written by Brooke Lutz and edited by Kelly Itatani. Click here to see the full series. To inquire or write us about our Voice of OC Youth Media program or this piece of work, send an email to squick@voiceofoc.org.


According to the 2019-20 Orange County Community Indicators report, residents of Orange County generally enjoy visiting museums, painting or drawing, playing musical instruments, and reading books at statistically higher rates compared to national averages. 

With this community support, it’s no wonder OC is home to many individuals with arts-based careers. 

A Creative Outlet Becoming a Career

“Congruence” by Katie Willes. Image courtesy of Willes.

Katie Willes, a painter showing work in Newport Beach, began her career after her family’s long battle with mental illness. A mother of four, she recalls her children each facing their own battle with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

She recalled the emotional trauma that manifested through the years of guiding each child through similar struggles once they reached adolescence, resulting in pent up feelings as a mother.

Though just a beginner at the time, Willes turned to painting, using her canvas as a vessel for all her emotions. 

“I poured all of the bad feelings out onto the canvas in an ugly painting and kept painting until I was able to tame the ugly chaos into something happier and pretty. Painting went from therapy to something more for me.  It’s a lifeline, and a love, and something I can lose myself in.”

“Tangled Marionette” by Katie Willes. Image Courtesy of Willes.

Willes utilized painting as a mechanism for coping with the complexities of life that may not be best conveyed through words, which resulted in the beginning of a career. The link between art and therapy is not something that is exclusive to professional artists.

“As professional artists, we are fully aware of the benefits art has. Creating artwork can be highly therapeutic. Through creating art we are able to be in a great state of mind, creating tranquility and remaining centered and at peace,” Kimberly Duran, of the Heavy Collective, said. 

The Heavy Collective is a public art initiative, specializing in the creation of large scale murals and paintings. Based out of Downtown Santa Ana, The Heavy Collective, founded by Duran and Bud Herrera in 2013, brings art into a public setting. 

By painting large public murals, individuals who may not be able to visit art museums or purchase pieces for their home are able to receive the benefits of the work, they said. 

Inspired by the culture and heritage of Orange County, as well as history, ancient civilizations, philosophy, culture and organic elements, their work often elicits emotions in the viewers.

Mural by The Heavy Collective titled “Inner Self”, located in Santa Ana. Photo by Matthew Martinez.

“We have had people from the community reach out to us and share their stories with us, how our art has impacted their daily commutes and inspired them and how certain imagery that we have painted reconnects them with their roots,” Duran said. 

Various members of the community posing with the mural entitled, “Love Montebello”. Photo courtesy of The Heavy Collective.

Beyond the world of visual art, the ability to connect to consumers is a large part of the fulfillment in arts-based careers. 

Culinary artist Michael Rossi, the Executive Chef at THE RANCH Restaurant & Saloon in Anaheim, said his passion for cooking remains alive through the ability to make people happy with his creations. 

Though he loves many aspects of his job, to see a customer have a facial reaction to his work and share that feeling with the people they are eating with is what stands out the most and provided him with the confidence to continue his pursuit of cooking. 

Creative Approaches & Art Therapy

The benefits of creating art are not exclusive to those pursuing a professional career. The benefits of creative practice stem beyond careers, adn often cross over into medical therapy. 

Psychologist Dr. Monique Montalvo, of Montalvo Psychological Services, integrates creative approaches in her practice. Especially with children, art helps people understand mental health and puts their feelings into something tangible, she said. 

Creative approaches can include music, writing, drawing, dancing along with many other forms of art. You don’t have to be an artist to obtain the benefits of creating. 

Though mental health has a broad spectrum, and it’s not possible to generalize something that works for everyone, Montalvo believes everyone can benefit from doing a free write, regardless of their mental state. 

“You wake up, and you’re just ‘blah’. You don’t know what it’s about. That’s normal, everyone gets that,” she said.

If you’re happy, ‘blah’, or anything in between, consider journaling or free writing, Montalvo encourages. Your string of thoughts may reveal the motive to your mood.  

Journaling is a private practice anyone with a pen and paper can take part in. Sometimes, bringing invisible thoughts and feelings into a physical plane can be a challenging adjustment. For beginners, Montalvo suggests starting small, with just five minutes. Keep the momentum for the entirety of the time, even if it means writing the same word over and over, she says.  

Free Write:

  1. Play light music.
  2. Set a 5-minute timer.
  3. Just keep writing.

Write:

  • About stressors
  • Reflections
  • Letters to future self
  • Aspirations
  • Daily intentions
  • Affirmations

Within the realm of creative therapy practices, the American Art Therapy Association (AATA)

hones in on art therapy specifically, advocating for availability to the public, as well as paving the way for making art therapy more widely distributed.

Art therapy is a regulated, integrative mental health and human services profession, according to the AATA, treating a variety of challenges including mood disorders, learning disorders, neurological disorders, ADHD, PTSD,; in addition to trauma healing, navigating identity or major life transitions. 

Anyone can seek art therapy, and no prior art experience is required. 

“Through integrative methods, art therapy engages the mind, body, and spirit in ways that are distinct from verbal articulation alone. Kinesthetic, sensory, perceptual, and symbolic opportunities invite alternative modes of receptive and expressive communication, which can circumvent the limitations of language,” according to the AATA. 

Mental Health & Arts-based Careers

Professional dancers Katie Natwick and Sammi Waugh have been training in dance from a very early age, currently working with Orange County’s Backhausdance. Though the art form has in many ways become second nature to them, they still struggle with navigating the complexities of a career that is so demanding; physically, emotionally and mentally, they said.

“I think anyone who gets involved in comedy has some sort of mental issue,” Devin Dugan said with a laugh, joking obviously.

Dugan is a professional comedian and has worked in the industry for over 25 years. He is a Co-Artistic Director and founding member of ImprovCity, a professional improvisational comedy troupe based out of Irvine.  

Dugan frequently experienced the highs and the lows of the comedy industry.

The constant financial pressure has taken a toll on Dugan throughout his career as a comedian, often having to work several other jobs to support himself, and that pressure only worsened during COVID-19.

The uncertainty makes it hard to focus on the craft, as most of his energy goes into keeping his small business alive, despite not generating any income. 

“I love to make people laugh, it makes my soul happy. I haven’t been able to do that, ” he said, referring to the inability to perform in light of the pandemic. 

Artists of all mediums express the financial pressure faced in their day to day life, and only worsened in light of COVID. Without the ability to perform live, many artists are left out of work, and uncertain as to when they will be able to return. 

According to HealthGuide Coping with Financial Stress, financial pressure can lead to insomnia, depression, anxiety and many other things that alter the mind, body and social life. 

This just being one factor that makes up the mental well-being of an individual, factoring in pre-existing conditions and other sources of instability, the artists often find. 

Yet, for ImprovCity, the troupe continues to perform virtual shows every Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., on a donation basis, to keep the bills of their empty closed venue paid, a concept with which Dugan and other artists seemed all too familiar.

The Human Behind the Artist

Almost universally, the artists expressed gratitude despite hardships, and encouraged other artists and non-artists alike to continue creating, and acknowledge the power of art has to better the lives of anyone who wishes to be involved. 

More than anyone, they understand that creating can be intimidating, so non-artists can benefit from art from a consumer standpoint, rather than the creator. 

Kimberly Duran of the Heavy Collective, expresses gratitude for their public platform, but also can’t help but notice how companies can exploit artists to develop free content with no intentions of compensation, she said, especially amidst the pandemic.  

“These are individuals that have spent years mastering and perfecting their craft, so for people to expect them to do their profession for free, or for exposure, is an insult.  You wouldn’t expect a mechanic to fix your car for practice or exposure,” she said. 

In order to give artists the chance to respect themselves, consumers need to be mindful of how they are supporting the art they use for their own benefit. 

Dancers Natwick and Waugh urge art consumers to share the work that they appreciate, and support financially whenever possible. 

But most importantly, prior to consuming any type of art Waugh only has one required request: 

“Remembering the artists are people.” 

Backhausdance company members performing “One Continuous Line”. Photo courtesy of Backhausdance.

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