Cate Smock takes part in "Abstractions from Nature,” a painting class led by local artist Barbara Klema on Wednesday afternoon at the Durango Arts Center. Studies show that staying creatively engaged can spur new neurons in the brains of older adults./Photo by Jennaye Derge

The art of smart

Creativity good for growing brains and brains growing older

by Jenny Mason

Margaux Newby, 10, loves art. When she is working on a project, she says, “I feel like I am really where I’m supposed to be.” To her, art is a way to express her emotions.

What Margaux may not yet know is that artistic endeavors – painting, dancing, acting, sculpting, writing, and so forth – are physically altering her brain. A flurry of recent neuroscience studies has revealed how art benefits the brains of kids, adults and seniors.

Get Me a Brain, Igor

To better understand the brain, make a quick mock-up. Simply grab two hunks of angel food cake. Squish these into lumpy blobs about the size of your fists and place them side by side. Next, envelop them with pliant fondant.

Voila! You have a brain. The angel food cake represents the white matter, the fatty tissue that passes information back and forth. The fondant is gray matter, where the brain transacts the majority of its thinking and processing.

In an adolescent brain, gray matter naturally prunes back, removing a lot of unnecessary “cortical thickness” in order to work more efficiently.

But we can directly influence how the brain streamlines itself. For instance, a recently published study monitored how adolescent brains respond to regularly playing a musical instrument. The findings in essence suggest that musically active kids mature their brains quicker than their nonmusical counterparts.

These findings contribute to a long and expanding body of work linking arts and smarts. The arts have been shown to improve processing skills, critical thinking, memory, sequencing, language acquisition, kinesthetic memory, and emotion and impulse regulation.

These studies suggest that by doing what she enjoys, Margaux is drastically improving the fondant of her brain. But with most public school budgets across the nation severely constrained, many students like Margaux get at best a once-a-week exposure to arts participation. Families often look to extracurricular arts programs.

Igor, Get Me More Art

Seed Studio has been Margaux’s go-to summer camp since she was seven. Heidi Craw and Kathryn Samaltanos, the co-creators and co-founders of Seed, blend art, yoga and sustainable thinking with lots of fun, silliness and play. Starting in January, they are expanding Seed to a year-round program with offerings for various ages.

A mental workout

- Seed offers after-school classes on Mondays and Wednesdays; morning pre-K classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays; and various teen and adult programs to come. Learn more at
- Durango Arts Center offers programs and workshops for kids, teens and adults. These include an after-school arts program, the Girls’ Opportunity for Art and Leadership program, and Applause!, an after-school musical theater program. Learn more at
- To learn more about the Stillwater Foundation, visit www.stillwaterfounda or see the musicians perform live at the Winter Wonder Bands celebration Sunday, Dec. 14, 1-6:30 p.m. at the VFW.
- The Durango/La Plata County Senior Center offers classes on quilting, ceramics, sewing, yoga, tai chi, writing, zumba, line dancing, and plenty more. Learn more by calling 970-382-6445.

Another community resource, the Durango Arts Center (DAC) is available to those in need of bolstering their gray matter. “We’re kind of an octopus,” Education Coordinator Sandra Butler says, “but all the tentacles are connected … We try to be really cohesive.” These tentacles include after-school arts and theater programs, as well as classes and workshops for adults.

Through the Stillwater Foundation, kids and adults use music to develop their brains. Jeroen van Tyn, program director, notes that the Stillwater experience is especially enriching because every class is a band, and every band performs.

Van Tyn was hardly surprised by the findings on music and the young brain. “Music,” he says, “is one of those things that we all have a meaningful, daily relationship with our whole lives.” He bears witness to other benefits like confidence, resilience under stress, teamwork, collaboration, leadership and followship (the ability to listen to what others contribute).

Seed’s founders echo van Tyn’s observations. They constantly observe children getting better at creative thinking. Craw notes, “Art builds confidence. We’ve had kids say ‘I can’t do art. I can’t do anything.’ But4   then they discover how much they can do.”

Other advocates see similar benefits in aging artists, too.

Teach an Old Dog New Crafts

Rosemary Juskevich, 69, has painted for more than 30 years. “It keeps my brain active, my mind focused, my heart happy, and my spirit uplifted,” she says.

Seniors like Juskevich tend to take up hobbies because, unlike young Margaux, they knowingly want to have a direct impact on their brains. According to Sheila Casey, Director of Senior Services at the Durango/La Plata County Senior Center, getting older often comes with greater awareness of one’s health.

“You notice when your body or your mind isn’t working as well as it used to,” she says. With aging, too much of the brain’s gray matter can thin out, resulting in those “senior moments” of forgetfulness or poor concentration. Physically, this thinning shows up in poor hand-eye coordination and poor ability to balance. However, the brain may be able to withstand this downgrade.

With the emergence of advanced neuroscience, we have discovered that our brains can, in fact, generate new connections. German researchers found that retirees who actually made art had better connectivity than those who just looked at art. In other words, too-thin gray matter can grow thick again. New neurons can replace old ones that have been pruned away or died out.

In order to live longer or to regenerate, neurons need continual learning. New challenges, new information, new anything allows the brain to connect more and more neurons. So long as neurons stay connected, they do not get pruned out.

Learning, Focus and Flow

Continual learning is one reason the Senior Center is such a happening place, with 35,000 visits annually. The Center offers diverse classes from ceramics to zumba. The successful “Watch Your Step” class focuses on coordination, balance and physical strength. These seniors’ brains must pay close attention. They must focus.

Researchers suspect that being in a state of “fully emerged” attention and focus is a crucial part of a better brain. This mental state, called “flow,” is when a person performing an activity is fully immersed in energized focus, full involvement and enjoyment.

“You get so wrapped up. Time goes so quickly. You forget about the troubles you might have brought with you.” This is how Lorraine Rombeck, 86, describes what she feels when she paints, and it pretty much sums up the concept of flow.

“I can’t speak about gray matter, but I know that as you get older, the more things you keep your brain interested in doing, the better off you are,” she says.

Rombeck, who now teaches painting out of her home, taught classes at the Senior Center for 14 years. Her students experience the same kind of immersion.  

Likewise, Mary Jane Ward finds that her Senior Center tai chi students improve their ability to focus. She always asks her students, “What’s your intention? When you pay attention, are you doing what you intend?”

The benefits of flow are not just for those growing old. Neuroscience is steadily uncovering how art trains the growing brain to focus and concentrate. The community art educators see evidence of flow all the time. “We have some little boys that can sit there and meditate for 10 minutes. That’s huge,” says Samaltanos. “I think about how hard it is for me to sit still for 10 minutes.”  

The DAC after-school art class can start off pretty rowdy. But when the room falls completely silent, that’s when Butler knows, “They are totally focused.”

Ultimately, being able to flow improves a child’s ability to learn, retain information and even take tests. That’s part of why Butler hopes to see more art integrated into the standard curriculum. Likewise, van Tyn would like to see more music integrated in school, and integrated much sooner – first grade, not fifth grade.

But flow skills have huge implications for lifelong learners of all ages, which is why community arts educators anticipate a growing demand for arts participation. 

Both Butler and van Tyn hope to see that need addressed with the creation of the riverside arts venue known as the STEAM Park, where science, theatre, education, art and music will converge for Durango residents and visitors, pending the results of a feasibility study which kicked off this week. 

With or without a riverfront arts complex, these community arts organizations and resources concur: more people would benefit from taking up art. For Butler, it has less to do with being smart and more to do with being human. “Art is imagination,” she says. “Imagination is so intrinsically human and if you don’t nurture it … then it takes away the really essential part of being human.”

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