Every single day artists work to overcome a rotating stock of mental stresses: the looming chance of rejection, staying out of debt in a gig economy, selling their work, picking up side hustles to pay the bills, finding gallery representation and juggling the roles of publicist, accountant and project manager. Often times, the overwhelming process of achieving mental balance within our studio practice means that our physical wellness takes a back seat.
“I was having a conversation with a group of Blacksmiths about the pain that they were experiencing in their hands as a result of their studio practice. One of them said to me that, ‘We are all going to end up with arthritis, so we might as well just suck it up and deal with it,’” recounts Missy Graff Ballone, a jeweler, licensed massage therapist, and RYT 500 Yoga Instructor.
Blacksmiths, she notes, are not alone in their plight. The type of work done by creatives often requires long hours with hunched backs, craned necks and hands in constant use.
“That was an important moment for me. It was very alarming to hear my peers expressing that pain and repetitive strain injuries are just something that artists should accept. I don’t believe that artists need to sacrifice their health in order to make their work,” she continues.
Graff Ballone went home that night and began reading about the physical strains placed on artists within their everyday studio practice and discovered a lack of resources dedicated to the subject. It prompted her to create Wellness for Makers, which provides resources via interviews, articles and videos on her website, as well as hands-on workshops, to teach artists about the importance of incorporating physical self-care into their daily studio practice. Here, she shares with a few tips building sustainable studio routines that improve the health of our hands and bodies.
The Importance of Taking Care of Our Bodies
Creating artwork is a physically taxing job. Long hours in the studio are spent with hunched backs, craned necks with hands in constant use over an easel, in front of a computer, over a pottery wheel or behind a camera. Muscles in the back, neck and shoulders are left strained and repetitive motions inflame tendons in our hands and arms. And the more successful an artist is, the more in demand they become, resulting in time in the studio that requires longer hours and higher chances of injury.
Likewise, independent creatives are tasked with the burden of securing their own healthcare coverage or budgeting for costly medical appointments or physiotherapy sessions. Not taking preventative care measures could place many artists just steps away from financial woes at the hands of a physical injury–which not only costs money, but time to heal, and subsequently results in lost income.
“Our bodies are our most valuable tools. If I were to lose a lot of mobility in my hands, for example, I would no longer be able to make my work,” explains Graff Ballone. “I have come across a lot of people who are willing to accept pain as the end result of an active studio practice, until they learn that there are ways to develop more conscious and sustainable studio habits.”
Graff Ballone stresses the importance of taking measures to increase the longevity of our bodies, relieving existing pains and keeping your studio practice within comfortable limits in order to avoid the physical, mental and economic strains that come with allowing physical discomforts and injuries to become an accepted norm of an artist’s studio practice.
Common Pain Points for Artists
According to Graff Ballone, the most common pain points she sees from artists of all mediums is on the neck, shoulders and lower back. Poor posture prolonged over many hours without breaks is often the culprit. Many artists may be spending entire work days in their studios producing work, but it only takes about thirty minutes of a hunched posture with the neck bent or flexed forward to result in strained neck, shoulders and lower back and trigger these common pain points for artists.
“Many artists experience neck and shoulder strain from working hunched over for long hours, whether it’s at a loom, jeweler’s bench, ceramics wheel, or computer.”
Other common pain points for artists is in the hands, which likewise don’t discriminate and can be experienced by jewelers, ceramists, painters or illustrators. Constant hand-use and the absence of proper massage or stretching techniques will increase the chance of pain, swelling, reduced range of motion and swelling in the joints.
Graff Ballone recommends a handful of simple and inexpensive tools that can be used throughout the day to increase the longevity of our backs, necks, shoulders and hands and alleviate these common pain points for artists.
For the hands, she recommends a soft foam ball that will “massage the hands and help hydrate connective tissue, lubricate the joints and maintain elasticity and mobility.” Acupressure rings are likewise gentle tools that stimulate the acupuncture points in the hands and promote better blood circulation to the fingers. Both tools work for those attempting to prevent arthritis, as well as those that already live with the disease as they are gentle, non-invasive techniques.
For other parts of the body, she recommends a bonger, a handheld percussive massage tool made of two sticks with rubber or wooden balls at the tips. Unlike foam balls or acupressure rings, bongers are an “energizing technique” that activate muscles, stimulate blood flow and reduce muscle tension.
Pay Attention to Your Posture
Artists are often spending up to eight hours a day working in their studio. According to Graff Ballone, artists should analyze their work environment and studio set-up. Poor posture often triggers a slew of pain points for artists, as its prolonged effect can cause a variety of strains in the body.
“It is important to pay attention to how you stand,” she says. “I worked with an artist whose studio practice involved standing on a cement floor for many hours every day. Standing on a hard surface for an extended period of time can create unnecessary pressure on your joints. Standing on an anti-fatigue mat is one way to create variety in the surfaces you stand on.”
When you stand with your feet outwards, you are creating a unique type of pressure on the joints that extends up to the knees, hips and lower back. No matter what task an artist is performing, it is important to do so in a strong stance that encourages balanced body alignment, or you risk triggering pain points for artists.
“I also noticed that she stood with her feet externally rotated most of the time, which is a very common misalignment,” adds Graff Ballone. “It takes time and effort to retrain our muscles, but standing and walking with your feet pointing forward will encourage your body to be better aligned, so you can have a stronger and more balanced stance.”
Good posture can even be extended to simple tasks like answering emails or working on social media. “It is a common tendency to hold our phones down by our waists,” Graff Ballone argues. “This adds a lot of strain to the neck since the head has to drop forward to read what is on the screen. Instead, hold your phone higher and straighten your neck.”
Take Breaks, Stretch and Be Conscious
Graff Ballone also stresses the importance of being conscious of taking a breather to avoid common pain points for artists.
“Take a break every hour,” she suggests, “It doesn’t have to be a long break. Just a few minutes to get up and walk around the studio, take some time to stretch, massage your hands or get some fresh air outside.”
Many artists find themselves sucked into their creative zone and begin to ignore or push aside the messages that our bodies are sending to us. Graff Ballone encourages artists to pay attention to their bodies.
“Discomfort is one of the ways that your body communicates with you. Sometimes we notice a little bit of pain, but allow ourselves to ignore it, then a few hours pass before you realize that you haven’t moved and the pain is worse,” she says.
Graff Ballone is working on a video series with CERF+, an organization that serves artists in the craft disciplines to provide safety nets and support programs. In the series, which you can watch here, she will visit with three different artists in their studios to analyze their studio practice and offer accessible and practical techniques to improve their daily routines. Fellow artists should take note and examine their own studio routines to create better habits that encourage wellness and longevity.