How to Walk Like an Artist

Art teaches us that we can apply the creative and conceptual studio habits of mind to all aspects of our lives. I have used the term “habits of mind” frequently throughout this blog. It basically refers to the types of the thinking that educators aim for their students to learn, develop and hone while they are making art. Of course, these habits of mind extend beyond traditional art making and can be beneficial to other subjects, disciplines and ways of life.

There are several different lists of habits of mind that are acquired through art education. Some include Elliot Eisner’s Ten Lessons the Arts Teach, Harvard University Project Zero’s eight studio habits of mind and Lincoln Center’s Capacities for Imaginative Learning’s ten habits of mind (the one that I usually refer to). Additionally, there is Joseph Beuys’ concept of social sculpture, a philosophy and methodology combining pragmatic pedagogy with civic-minded aesthetics. Beuys believed and communicated through both his teaching and art practice that every act of consciousness can be an artistic process; and that everyone can be an artist if they embrace the habits of mind related to artistic thinking, creating and reflecting.

The crux of all these artistic habits of mind include: the ability to distinctly express ourselves, develop craft (learning and strengthening tangible skills), engage and persist in the creative process (being flexible, exploratory and innovative when things do not initially work out), astute observation and sensory processing, a thirst for inquiry and a more replete understanding of the culture at large.

In addition to helping us express ourselves, these habits of mind have allowed us to expand the definitions of art and the role of an artist. As Bueys’ correctly asserted, any action can be creatively accomplished in the framework of art if it follows and interprets the aforementioned types of artful thinking.

In this post, we will be applying the habits of mind to the act of walking, to show how the oldest and most conventional form of transportation has become an art form through artistic innovation. Historically and presently, walking has been a means of asserting ourselves. This type of walking (ex. protests and marches for civil rights and social justice) has both aesthetic and conceptual connotations that signify power and unity. Marches communicate profound visual and physical messages, which are expressed by throngs of people walking in unison through public spaces. The sheer number of participants who are brought together by common goals often exhibit artistic habits of mind such as being resilient, persistent, flexible, culturally aware and empathetic. Furthermore many protests/marches involve creative signs, insignia and even costumes or fashion statements.

In addition to its expressiveness, walking is akin to many traditional art making techniques, because the conscious, subconscious and physical ways that we move through a space align with the somatic and intellectual process of drawing, painting and sculpting. Artist Paul Klee would famously describe his explorations in drawing as, “an active line on a walk, moving freely, without goal. A walk for a walk’s sake. The mobility agent is a point, shifting its position forward” (quoted in Greenhalgh, 2020).

Before I continue with some examples of walking as art, I highly recommend that anyone reading this post, also reads the book How to Walk by the late Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh. How to Walk is a concise book with pragmatic and innovative meditations on how walking can be a major key to living a more fulfilling life. Nhat Hanh provides short anecdotes and prompts for walking with a purpose. In other words, he suggests how we can turn ordinary walks into profound experiences that lead to good mental, physical and creative well-being.

Nhat Hanh’s lessons on walking highlight the effect that “being in the moment” has on feeling joyful, enlightened and inspired. He tells us to concentrate on breathing (in-and-out breathes) and not being concerned with a destination. Aside from the breathing exercises, the only thing to be aware of is the process of taking each step forward. This will subsequently lead the walker to have a greater sense of spatial awareness and a realization of how the environment and body works in tandem. Nhat Hanh (2015) notes that, “when your foot touches the Earth with awareness, you make yourself alive and the Earth real, and you forget for one minute the searching, rushing and longing that rob our daily lives of awareness and cause us to ‘sleepwalk’ through life.”

The same principles of awareness are evident in Hamish Fulton, Ellen Mueller, Sari Carel and Alisa Oleva’s use of walking as an artistic process that leads to more mindful understandings of ourselves, others and the spaces we occupy.

Hamish Fulton

Fulton is a self-described “walking artist.” In the 1960s, he emerged as an artist part of the conceptual art zeitgeist of challenging the boundaries and possibilities for sculpture, performance and landscape art. After his studies at St. Martin’s College of Art in London, he spent time traveling the vast and remote terrain of South Dakota and Montana. These experiences influenced his artistic goals and led to inquiries into how art can be a reflection of physical, mental and emotional journeys rather than a production of objects. Fulton’s documentation of each walk communicates the social, emotional and cognitive experience of walking.

Hamish Fulton, Seven Paces, 2003, cast iron installation.
Photograph by Hans Weingartz, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1973, Fulton decided that the only art he would make would be based upon his experiences going on individual walks. The artwork resulting from the experiences of these walks includes text, photographs and installations. The impetus behind this revelation was a forty-seven day trip where he walked 1,022 miles from Duncansby Head to Lands End, United Kingdom. His first public artwork, Seven Paces is a cast iron floor installation that represents the longest walk he ever took; a sixty-three day trek from the town of Bilbao in Spain to the mouth of the Rhine in the North Sea. The walk took him through Spain, France, Germany and the Netherlands. He averaged about twenty-nine miles (forty-seven kilometers) every day and kept a journal along with photographs and sketches that serve as the memories from his walking excursion.

Fulton notes that “if I do not walk, I cannot make a work of art.”

Ellen Mueller

Artist and educator Ellen Mueller incorporates many different performative and sensory specific actions in her artistic practice, and is one of the foremost practitioners and scholars of walking as a form of art. Her highly anticipated book, Walking as Artistic Practice (available in October 2023) will explain how walking is associated with making and experiencing art.

The book follows the curriculum Mueller developed for a class she teaches at The Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD). Based on the course syllabus, we can see that Mueller focuses on walking as a type of social sculpture. The themes and topics that are addressed in the class will also be covered in the book. They include: “observational and sensory experience, leading versus following, who walks where (identity and positionality), rituals, place, activism, connections to drawing and embodiment.” Mueller will explain how these concepts are embodied in acts of civic engagement and works of art. I am especially excited for the more than 300 examples and seventy-five exercises Mueller has compiled, which will inspire mindful and practical ways to walk.

Ellen Mueller, still from Crunching, 2018. Watch the full video.

Mueller has created several works of art that involve walking. One such work is Crunching (2018), in which Mueller walked across the edge of a dried up lake in Oregon, which faces a period of drought every summer as a result of commercial agriculture irrigation. As Mueller walks across the depleted lake, loud crunching sounds create an organic soundtrack, which draws our attention to the work’s ecological message. Mueller explains, “this work is a juxtaposition of appealing textures, versus a strained relationship due to human interference via commercial-scale agriculture nearby.”

Sari Carel

In 2018, Carel conceived a temporary public art project in New York City’s City Hall Park, called Out of Thin Air. The overarching concept behind the project reflects the mindful nature of walking and breathing that are described in Nhat Hanh’s How to Walk. Carel’s main medium is sound, and she is well known for incorporating ethereal sounds within both natural and human-made environments. Out of Thin Air continued her exploration into how sound shapes our sense of self and our acute awareness of both temporal and continuous moments. The recording Carel made for the project was a cacophonous composition featuring rustles, crackles, beats, huffs and various sounds of labored breathing. These sounds are all relative to the experiential symphony created everyday by the people and places within New York City.

Artist and educator Zoey Hart leads a guided walk through Sari Carel’s soundscape Out of Thin Air at City Hall Park. Photo by Vanessa Teran, image courtesy More Art

During the duration of the artwork, art educators such as Zoey Hart led sixteen minute walking tours around City Hall Park. Participants were blindfolded so that their auditory senses were heightened. This enabled them to actively listen to the soundscape of various breathing and environmental noises within Carel’s piece, the extraneous noises from the surrounding urban setting and their own deep breathing. In addition to helping walkers get in tune with the immediacy of their walking experience, the sounds were intended to make participants really conscious of all the juxtaposing sounds that exist at once in a particular space. This mashup of soundscapes is indicative of both noise and environmental pollution.

Arts writer and critic Jessica Holmes (2018) describes the socially engaged message behind Out of Thin Air as pinpointing “the reality of breathing difficulties—which are often overlooked as a critical health issue—with a sincere desire to improve what is unwell….a listener cannot help but be moved by the breaths Carel has gathered, and stirred by the reaction they garner from passersby. The listener is able to feel almost tangibly this anonymous person’s struggle simply to draw air into his or her lungs. Carel’s project not only asks the audience to consider breath as that most basic unit of life, but also what power it has for change when united for shared goals.” 

Alisa Oleva

Street art is often associated with tangible interactions and interventions with the physical elements of the urban environment. Oleva could be called a street artist, but not the kind who wields a can of spray paint or physically alters/manipulates the landscape. Instead, Oleva interacts with the city by walking, running and jumping on its structures and engaging in conversations with its residents. In her own words she “treats the city as her studio and urban life as material, considering issues of urban choreography and urban archeology, traces and surfaces, borders and inventories, intervals and silences, passages and cracks.”

Oleva’s walks often have a collaborative element and are centered on socialization and both self and communal care. The various topics that are explored on walks include sharing memories about prior walks that had significant personal meaning and philosophical musings on measuring distance. She documents a lot of the experiences and insights from her walks on social media. Her artful walks are also hybrid in nature, connecting us in person and remotely. This is important because as we should have learned in 2020, there are times when social distancing is needed. Throughout the pandemic, Oleva has held socially distant walks where participants from all over the world could join in via their phones. In addition to the pandemic, geopolitical turmoil can require that we are apart from those friends we wish we could walk and spend time with in-person.

Documentation from Alisa Oleva’s Listening to Where You Are Not. All photos by Alisa Oleva except for the bottom right image by Olia Fedorova.

Listening to Where You Are Not (2022) is an example of one of Oleva’s walks that transcends geographical boundaries. It provides people who are miles away from one another with a means to learn about their daily experiences by sharing information during walks. In this case, participants in Listening to Where You Are Not received first-hand insight into life on the streets during the Russo-Ukrainian War. Oleva and a group of participants gathered together in-person in Brussels, Belgium where they connected on a conference call with Oleva’s friend and fellow artist Olia Fedorova, who lives in Kharkiv, Ukraine. As the group in Brussels walked through the city, they listened to Fedorova describing what she heard and experienced while walking through Kharkiv. Oleva asked participants to consider what type of connection they have for a place where they are not physically present, but perhaps emotionally at hand.

The next time you take a walk, whether it is two blocks to the grocery store or two miles through the woods, try to employ one or more of the aforementioned artistic habits of mind. Walk with the purpose of being present and noticing the sights, sounds, smells and feelings. Treat walking as a special and transcendent practice. And keep these words from Thich Nhat Hahn (2008) in mind, “spiritual practice is not just sitting and meditating. Practice is looking, thinking, touching, drinking, eating and talking. Every act, every breath, and every step can be practice and can help us to become more ourselves.”

If you need additional prompts to get you started or to expand your artful walks, you can refer to Ellen Mueller’s extensive list of exercises for walking as an artistic practice.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Greenhalgh, Neil. “Moving freely, Passing the Time: Paul Klee and Imaginary Walks,” Medium, 12 May 2020.

Holmes, Jessica. “Why This NYC Park Is Filled With the Sound of Loud Breathing,” Observer, 7 June 2018.

Mueller, Ellen. 2023. Walking as Artistic Practice, New York: SUNY Press.

Nhat Hanh, Thich. 2015. How to Walk, Berkeley: Parallax Press.

Nhat Hanh, Thich. “This Moment is Perfect,” Lion’s Roar, May 2008.


1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed this post, for I am a walker, and have been all my life. I can’t live without a daily walk, where my mind is refreshed. Whether working on a sketch or a chapter in a novel, I need that space and time to reflect on my creative processes. I stop, look around, notice the changes in the weather, clouds forming. Spot birds. The sea. Feel the breeze. It is magical. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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