The Transformative Power of Art

by Celeste Yarnall, Ph.D

          ‘Equine Tango’ Artwork courtesy of 


It seems that the act of making art and expressing ones creative urge forms a large part of what makes us human whether we realize it on a personal level or not. Sometimes I am certain that art is actually embedded in our DNA as there is no doubt that art has always been an important part of mans daily life, even since the very dawn of our creation. And now it is evident that it has been part of our daily life from our earliest footsteps upon terra firma.

In an article by Amina Khan, in the October 14, 2011 issue of the Los Angeles Times, I learned that in a tiny South African cave, archaeologists recently unearthed a 100,000-year-old art studio that actually contains tools for mixing powder from red and yellow rocks with animal fat and marrow to make vibrant paints as well as abalone shells full of dried-out red pigment, the oldest paint containers ever found.

This suggests to me that humans may have been thinking artistically and also symbolically — more like modern-day humans think — much earlier than previously recognized. Symbolic thinking could have been a key evolutionary step in the development of other quintessentially human abilities, such as language, and of course art and ritual, something our sub-conscious minds crave and can’t seem to get enough of, hence mans attraction and devotion to religious ritual.

The artifacts from the cave were uncovered at a well-studied site called the Blombos Cave, which sits by the edge of the Indian Ocean about 180 miles east of Cape Town. There were, it seems, two shells, lying about 6 inches from each other, with a red residue from a soft, grindable stone which most of us are familiar with, known as red ochre. Ochre is rich in iron compounds that give it those famous red or yellow hues, and we have known from other early explorations that it has been used in ancient cave paintings. Our earliest known human ancestors made paint to adorn walls and decorate artifacts. But here in this cave/art studio the suite of intact tools and ingredients found were indeed rare and suggested that a degree of planning and a basic knowledge of chemistry had been known by our earliest known ancestors.

Along with the ground-up red ochre, the mixtures also contained charcoal and crushed spongy bones that were probably once rich in fat and marrow. Rock fragments from the grinding stones that were used to make the mixture were also found and one of the stones had remnants of a yellow pigment, perhaps from a previous batch of paint, that was not present in the reddish batches from the abalone shells that were used as mixing bowls or perhaps even palettes.

The researchers were able to calculate that these paint tool kits were about 100,000 years old.

The cave/art studio was quite isolated and researchers found a few artifacts associated with constant human activity from the same period when the paints were being mixed. Perhaps only one or two artisans from a nearby community came here to mix their paints. I can almost feel their desire to translate what they saw and experienced around them in their daily lives to the walls they knew well, perhaps even to allow us to hear the echo’s of their burning desire to create something meaningful to their lives and leave a remnent of themselves behind. Many of us are compelled to express ourselves this way in our own daily lives. One needs only to see the graffiti artists at work to understand the compulsion to make art and proclaim to the cosmos we are here, now!

It is thought by the scientific community that modern humans evolved around 200,000 years ago, but much of the archaeological evidence of humans painting with ochre goes back only 60,000 years. Examples of ochre use and other complex behaviors from around 100,000 years ago seem to be few and far between.

The ability of ancient man to mix and use paint signals a lot of important behaviors that are key to social and cognitive development, because unlike weapons, utensils or other artifacts, paint has little utilitarian value. Paint could be used to decorate objects, clothing or the body, or perhaps to send a social message in an increasingly complex society.

In this cave what is so significant is the fact that the ochre had been mixed not with plant resins which would be the medium of choice for body paint or objects, but, no this paint was mixed with animal fat and marrow, substances that had no use as adhesives to make utilitarian objects or weapons but were excellent binders to make a liquid paint. Paint to create a legacy somewhere for someone to see and enjoy or communicate to.

Doesn’t this make you feel the significance of art in our environment today? Many people have changed their entire emotional landscape by purchasing a new art work and incorporating it into their living space.

This simple act of acquisition can transform your life, it can be a call to action. Part of what I express in my work as a holistic life coach to people is to not allow yourself to get stuck with the “same old” up on your walls unless your life is absolutely perfect right now. Ask I have the financial, spiritual, physical aspects going for me that I have always hoped and dreamed of in my life, right now? Well, if the answer is yes read no further, however if you are not in the perfect relationship or the one you are in could use a fire lit under it, or your health could use a boost of energy or you just plain want to change careers or make more money…change your space up! Just like our ancient ancestors is not always best if it simply relaxes us and provides a soothing image which puts us into a complacent state of mind. Art can and should call us to take action! It should pick us up and enable us to go for our dreams! We can take up that call to action by acquiring a new shape canvas, with a new subject matter, texture or just a new color, one that perhaps you would never have dreamed of before…and what is they heal thyself… for me the change that I needed to wake myself into an action state began with a surprising thirst for a new color for me! And that color was red!

Red had been a color I was more or less afraid of but one day when I was in Bed, Bath and Beyond I spontaneously bought a set of pomegranate red sheets, followed by a red duvet and several red throw pillows, and some pomegranate red candles and other accents. Ok, I know it wasn’t exactly red ochre but it was still red!

When I met the man who was to become the love of my life and my husband, Nazim Artist a professional contemporary artist from London, the first peice of art on his website that drew me to him was red thematically.

Red Lioness ~ Oil on Canvas with special holistic glaze by Nazim Artist

One will never know if that color shift brought on by The Red Lioness caused an earthquake to my consciousness but it must have been just the right hue to allow our relationship to bloom. I guess you could say that I learned straight away the significance of art and color and how it could set the stage for a beautiful new future and thankfully in my case, it did exactly that.

Try changing up the art on your walls and make it your own art gallery space and see what art and color can do for you. Let’s embrace the legacy of what began in a cave/art studio over 200,000 years ago and allow art to influence our lives in a most profound and powerful way!

How does art impact your life?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

2 thoughts on “The Transformative Power of Art

    • I like that term, spektakx. Phasing with another person is a very visual and auditory way to relate and look at how we interact to each other and to art. I have heard it said that the people close to us supply with our missing ‘notes’ in our vocal range and in our auditory sound range. That means my husband for example has all my missing notes and I his. Good subject for Celestial musings! Thank you! Tell us more about phasing with each other.

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