Editor’s Note: How do journalists find balance in their often high-stress lives? For many, their artwork and crafts gets them through trying times. To mark National Mental Health Awareness Month, IWMF is helping to promote stress reduction through art with the “Art By Journalists” Instagram campaign featuring journalists and their artistic outlets. Reuters journalist Sandra Maler opens the project with her story about how her passion for watercolor helped her through a deeply stressful point in her life.
By Sandra Maler
When Reuters launched free online art classes for journalists in our Washington bureau, I jumped at the chance. I had been interested in art most of my life and had taken Chinese ink painting and clay sculpting/modeling classes in London. More recently I had fallen in love with painting animals in pastels, but somehow life had gotten in the way and it had fallen by the wayside a few years earlier. So I eagerly signed up, yearning for a return to painting and drawing.
Little did I know art would turn into a veritable lifeline.
The classes, taught by Leah Kohlenberg, a professional artist based in Portland who was once a journalist herself, were organized by time zones so they could reach Reuters journalists across the globe. They had been taught in New York for a couple of years, but now they were being offered for free to Reuters journalists around the world as part of the company’s Mental Health Program. The classes were timed to be taken after work, but since I worked a late shift I joined the Europe/India group and took them in the morning before my shift.
Within a couple of weeks of our Washington classes starting, we were in the COVID lockdown. In our Zoom class, our group of 10 or 12 journalists spanning several continents quickly became friends. We compared notes on how stringent our lockdown rules were, discussed how we were getting food and met each other’s pets as they photo-bombed the classes.
We learned how to draw and paint. In the fall, we switched to ink for so-called Inktober, and Leah introduced us to charcoal, acrylic paint and other media. Each term had a theme: portraits, animals, still life, etc., and a different medium. Our classes were not only a welcome break from the mind-reeling bad news but a sort of meditation that allowed us to escape the stress caused by a massive influx of news as COVID reached all corners of the globe and affected every single financial asset. It also provided journalists like me who lived alone (albeit with three Bengal cats) a fun but safe social contact.
Within six months of starting the classes, I was diagnosed with a very aggressive breast cancer. When at first I didn’t know whether it was going to kill me, I thought about whether I could let go or whether I wanted to hang on to something. I decided I wanted to hang on to my cats, to my brother (my parents had passed away already) and — now that it was back in my life — I wanted to hang on to art. I wasn’t finished with life. There were things I wanted to do still, and becoming better at art loomed large.
I continued working and attending the Zoom classes for as long as I could but the heavy-duty chemo soon took its toll. I lost all my hair and became very weak. I stopped working but continued the art classes. All I did was get up in the morning, attend to the cats, join the art classes and then collapse on the sofa. My art friends sent me private messages of support, and Leah even changed the day of our class so it wouldn’t coincide with my day of chemo.
When I became too unwell to even sit on a chair, I joined the class from the sofa and just used a pencil and drawing pad. Often, I just fell asleep, lulled by Leah’s instructions and the voices of my friends chatting as they drew or painted.
During the less toxic second round of chemo, I regained some strength and was able to paint at the table again. It was January, and the classes switched from charcoal to painting. Each of Leah’s classes focuses on a particular subject in a particular medium, but she welcomes students doing a different subject or using a different medium and will happily guide them through that. I decided to focus on animals — my favorite subject — and watercolor. It’s a tough medium, and I had a lot to learn. I was having many sleepless nights, simply because the steroids given alongside chemo to mitigate nausea interfere with sleep. But while I laid awake in bed at night with my cats snuggled around me, keeping me warm, I didn’t fret about my health or my fate — I just watched watercolor videos on YouTube for hours on end, almost obsessively.
Art became a lifeline.
As I got more energy, I began joining a couple of other students on Zoom and we painted together even on days when there were no classes. Then I was painting every day, and it became a core of my life. By July, I started working again and at first still needed so much sleep, that I barely had time to do anything other than attend to the cats, paint and work. But it’s the one thing I wouldn’t give up.
All in all, I went through two rounds of chemo, surgery, radiation and more surgeries, but art was like a shining light in my life. I never got depressed. I just focused on art. We learned about mixing colors (I am still bad at that), measuring to draw, perspective, acrylic, oil painting, watercolor, gouache, ink painting, as well drawing in graphite or charcoal. It’s been tremendous to notice each other’s and one’s own improvements. Even when chemo made it hard to think straight, it didn’t affect my art. I have made great strides in watercolor over the past year and have painted many different kinds of animals.
I am now in remission and continue to enjoy Leah’s classes. I paint almost every day. It’s part of my sanity, a form of meditation that keeps my mind sane and balanced and able to cope with stress and whatever else life throws at me.
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Journalists’ artwork — ranging from ceramics to painting to performing — can be found here on Instagram. New photos will be posted throughout May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month.
If you’d like to show the world your art/de-stress work, post your photos to Instagram with the hashtag #ArtByJournalists. You can find mental health and stress resources at IWMF, and donate to IWMF’s Black Journalists Therapy Relief Fund.
Social media specialists Sabrina Herrera and Arielle Kilgore created the “Art By Journalists” Instagram campaign, which was conceived and directed by journalist Jane Elizabeth. Several journalism professionals including Wendy Wallace, Diana D’Abruzzo, Evelyn Hsu, Shannon Bowen and The National Press Club Journalism Institute contributed their ideas for the project. We thank them and all our journalists/artists for their contributions.