Emotional Art & Stealth Healing

At one time or another we all have experienced the creative and personally enriching potential of art. As a child, you probably found enjoyment in making crayon drawings, cut-paper collages, sand castles, or handprints in clay.

As an adult, you may not consider yourself to be “creative” or an “artist” but still may have experienced some therapeutic aspects of art in your daily life. You may paint or take photographs as a hobby, enjoying the process of creation and recognising that creative activities help relieve stress.

You may keep a drawing diary, sketching your dreams, noting symbols, and thinking about their meanings. You may scribble lines on the corner of your notepad on your desk, finding that it helps you think more clearly and relaxed.

 All of these simple activities are ways to soothe yourself, release stress and tension, give enjoyment and pleasure, and transcend troubling feelings. They are methods of self-expression that change your state of being and tap your intuitive and creative powers.

Although you have experienced some of art making therapeutic powers, you still may not think of art as related to therapy.

Depending on your personal definition of art, you may think of it as something used as decoration, entertainment, or novelty, or only as those paintings and sculptures that are exhibited in museums and galleries.

You may see art as only child’s play, or perhaps as a diversion or hobby. While art is sometimes difficult to define, you would probably agree that art enhances your existence, but you may not be fully aware of all the ways that art can be life enhancing.

While art can serve as decoration or hang in a museum, there are other purposes for art, ones that are connected to self-understanding, a search for meaning, personal growth, self -empowerment, and healing.

Many of us have lost contact with these purposes or have not realised that art is more than novelty or ornamentation. Drawing, painting, sculpture, and other art forms are powerful and effective forms of communication, and cultures through the ages have been defined and understood through their art.

While art has been used to record human history, it has also incorporated our ideas, feelings, dreams, and aspirations. Art chronicles and conveys a wide range of emotions, from profound joy to the deepest sorrow, from triumph to trauma.

In this sense, art has served as a way of understanding, making sense, and clarifying inner experiences without words.

Art therapy has grown from this concept that art images can help us to understand who we are, to express feelings and ideas that words cannot, and to enhance life through self-expression.

Despite its acceptance as a viable treatment method and a modality for self-understanding, emotional change, and personal growth, art therapy is not widely recognised and is often misunderstood.

People are often confused about just what the term art therapy means. While it was coined to describe the use of art expression in therapy, it frequently generated some unusual assumptions.

Over the years, I have heard many interesting impressions of what art therapy might be, some of which are quite humorous. I once was asked if art therapy was only for “sick” or “disturbed” artists, providing a special treatment for curing their depressions, anxieties, or creative blocks. I was recently asked if art therapy could help improve one’s drawing and painting abilities.

Another person inquired if I worked with paintings and sculptures that had “problems.” Apparently, he imagined that art therapy could make “bad” paintings and sculptures look better! It is easy to understand that the term art therapy can be confusing when first encountered and especially if one has not had any personal experience with it.

There are several reasons art therapy is not easily understood. First, art therapy is practised with a wide range of people.

The use of art therapy has been documented with a variety of populations including children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly; people with addictions; individuals with serious and sometimes terminal illness; war veterans; people with disabilities; families experiencing difficulties; prisoners; and individuals experiencing a wide spectrum of emotional disorders.

You may have heard of art therapy being used with children who have been traumatised by abuse, with troubled families to explore their problems, or with disabled older adults in nursing homes.

You may know of a psychologist who asks his or her patients to make drawings as part of their therapy or an expressive therapist who uses art to help people deal with chronic pain or other symptoms.

You may have read in the newspaper about an artist who works with paraplegics, helping them paint, or about a therapist who has created an art studio for disabled adults.

There may be an art therapist who works in your local school system with children with learning or developmental problems, or one who works at the medical centre in your community with children and adults with cancer.

These are all common examples of where Emotional Art Therapy is used, demonstrating the vast diversity of the field. Another reason many people are confused about art therapy comes from the experiential nature of art itself.

 Art therapy is a dynamic therapy, requiring one to participate in one’s own treatment, in this case through art making. Therefore, truly understanding art therapy requires first-hand experience.

…to be continued

Robert Grimmond-Thompson

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