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Using art to thaw the winter blues

Jenny Solomon has an entire room in her house dedicated to arts and crafts. She usually has 10 projects going on at the same time, and right now, she’s knitting a balloon animal, beading jewelry and learning to draw.

Solomon is wearing a necklace and bracelet she made, too. And in the free time she has left over, she plays the harp, a hobby she picked up from her childhood.

Solomon has hadseasonal affective disorder (SAD) since moving to rainy Seattle from sunny Houston more than twenty years ago. She says all these projects do more than distract her when its dreary and cold outside. They make her feel warm, and more importantly—happy.

SAD is more than feeling, well, sad. It’s a depression that occurs each fall or winter, and most patients typically feel fine in the spring and summer. Solomon says she starts to dread winter even a month before.

“I always feel like I need more light wherever I go. So if I go to some stores, I begin to notice which stores are lit better, and I can feel a change in my mood,” Solomon says. “I get a little more energy, I even start smiling, I’m not frowning. My shoulders relax a little bit more, I talk to people more. And I think, ‘Wow, this is a nice feeling. I wish it could be like this more often.’”

Seasonal affective disorder

Dr. David Avery, an attending psychiatrist at Harborview Medical Center, says the main treatment for SAD is light therapy. Patients will sit in front of a bright light box for half an hour, typically right after waking up.

Doctors think winter depression occurs because of the lack of morning light in the winter, which is especially important to the body clock. Morning light synchronizes that clock, and that’s why people with winter depression tend to sleep in.

“Some patients report that it feels a little like waking up in the middle of the night,” Avery says, “and our data indicate that biologically, it is the middle of the night for many of these people.”

Avery says it’s interesting that some art forms are associated with intense light exposure. Beyond the aesthetic value, this type of art can affect an artist’s mood.

Glassblowing light

In the hotshop at Seattle Glassblowing Studio in Belltown, artists dip long pipes into flaming kilns of liquid glass. It’s bright and it’s hot—some of the ovens reach 2,000 degrees, and torches can jump to 3,000 degrees almost instantly.

Jason Christian, the studio’s head gaffer, has been a glassblower for more than a decade. It’s almost like watching a synchronized dance as he and the other glassblowers spin, mold and cut the glass to make a bowl or goblet—or even something as complex as a replica of the Space Needle.

“I love my job in the winter the most because I can wake up when it’s dark and gloomy and go to a place that’s bright and warm,” Christian says. “So it’s like going to Miami every day.”

A little farther south, the Pratt Fine Arts Centersees an increase in students in the fall and winter months.

Helen Oh, who is taking a screen printing class for the first time, is making wrapping paper with a silver mushroom design on it. The idea that creating art in the winter is good for the soul resonates with her, too.

“Even if you’re not feeling blue, I think we all feel a little sluggish,” Oh says. “I think what art allows you to do is stay active and engaged. And it’s just fun—there’s nothing like fun to keep away the blues.”

That’s kind of like how my mom feels after knitting a scarf, making a stuffed animal out of felt … or playing the harp. It’s a challenge, but she loves the feeling that she’s improving, creating something she can share with others and accomplishing something for herself.