Fighting loneliness with art

PHOTOS BY KELLY PIEN ’20 | PHOTO EDITOR

“Be-Longing,” a pop-up art exhibit at Nolen, explores loneliness without promising all the answers.

Phoebe Lease ’21 | Arts Editor

Are you lonely? If you’re a college student, the answer is likely to be yes. A 2017 survey on 48,000 university students found that 64 percent of them felt “very lonely” in the past 12 months, and reports of depression and anxiety have been increasingly on the rise in America.

This is not news to most young adults. We have been bombarded with messages and programs about combating loneliness with very mixed results. When joining clubs doesn’t cut it, or therapy appointments are booked for weeks, what options are left for those who are struggling?

Last week, an exhibit called “Be-Longing” was created to provide an outlet for feelings of isolation through artistic expression. The exhibit is part of a larger program called the “UnLonely Project.” It is designed by the Massachusetts-based Foundation for Art & Healing. The foundation created “Be-Longing” as a pop-up art installation for Smith in the Nolen art lounge, which was on view from November 26 to December 3.

In the exhibit were six interactive stations, designed to get students involved in open communication about loneliness. Observers were greeted at the door by a daily reflective quote and ideas for contemplative writing exercises. There was a large board of blackout poetry and an opportunity to create a collage or decorate a mask. In the main part of the installation was a mirror surrounded by Post-its with phrases of self-compassion and a basket of origami cranes with a note above that said, “If you need peace today… take a crane.” Participants could also watch a variety of films on loneliness that are a part of the “UnLonely Project.” Lastly was a “community web,” in which people were encouraged to take a string and connect it to another on the board, creating a metaphorical network of support.

At the closing reception for the exhibit, members of Smith’s slam poetry group, SpitFire, performed. Some read their own poetry on themes of loneliness, while others chose to read blackout poetry created by other students from the installation. During the reception, the main organizer of the show, Susannah Crolius, spoke of her own struggle with loneliness in her adult life. She talked about the strict expectations of many of us to be emotionally “on” all the time and hoped “Be-Longing” could be an escape from that.

Besides the Art & Healing Foundation, the Smith Office of Student Engagement, the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life and the Wellness Center also helped with bringing this program to campus. It is one in several steps taken this year by the Smith administration to improve mental resources and reduce stigma on campus. Earlier this semester, the Wellness Center started a ribbon campaign for Mental Health Awareness Month, in which students tied a colored ribbon to the Campus Center staircase corresponding to a mental health issue they face currently or have faced in the past. There have also been several workshops around campus to address the more tangible issues of access and intersectional representation.

Sometimes, programs like this receive a lot of criticism despite their best intentions. Our generation is often barraged with not-so-helpful advice about mental health: “Maybe if we just did yoga or got off of our phones, we would feel better!” I went hesitantly into this installation, expecting a similar message. However, the organizers behind the “UnLonely Project” are thoughtful about their approach to loneliness; several outlets for expression are provided, but there is no insinuation that this is a cure-all for feelings of hopelessness or depression. “Be-Longing” simply wants to give students space to work through their struggles, if they want it. And judging by the many personal collages and notes that decorated the walls and tables, it was an opportunity well-received.