Although I had often heard the term art therapy and had some idea of the process, my first real introduction to this branch of psychology came when I joined a regional art club that held its meetings in the office of a professional art therapist. At the first meeting I attended, there’d been a change in the program. The artist scheduled to make a presentation was unable to be there that day, and so the therapist — who just happened to have a bit of “open time” — stepped in and talked to us for over an hour about her work. It was fascinating.
I had a sketchbook with me, so I quickly began taking notes, trying to put down as much information as possible. Art therapy, she explained, allows an individual to contain emotions safely. Through the therapeutic process we are able to see the art we create from our personal perspective using our own internal symbolism.
I was very intrigued. In college I studied both psychology and music therapy. As a writer, I’ve long been familiar with the journaling process and how it can be used in psychology. Yet using art — visual images — was new to me, and when I began exploring mixed media projects and working with art journaling concepts, I was lost. I really had no idea how to “tap into” my thoughts and feelings, other than in the most elemental way. I didn’t know how to express myself visually, and my limited drawing abilities held me back from going too far with art journaling.
Maybe the problem was that I jumped in to art journaling too quickly, before I fully understood the transformative power it presented. I wasn’t ready to approach all the thoughts and feelings inside. I didn’t know a lot of “techniques” and most of all was caught in this trap between self-expression and “creating art.” I wanted to do both, but didn’t know how. As a result I actually did neither. I created meaningless art journal pages, shrugged, and set my journals aside as I filled them. After a few months, it seemed pointless. I stopped trying to do any art journaling.
That was when I came across Sketchbook Revival, a program of more than a dozen free art workshops, all designed to increase creativity and self-expression. I immediately signed up, plunged in, and found myself crashing and burning after only a few days.
Many of the programs were very simple and child-like in nature. While this approach was meant to be fun, for me it unleashed a lot of painful feelings. Working through the Sketchbook Revival classes took me back to childhood, back to memories of failure and frustration, back to a lot of anger and tears. You can read more about the program and my personal experience here.
What Sketchbook Revival did for me was to shake me up — mentally and emotionally. It truly broke me down into pieces, and I don’t deny going through a lot of rough times. In the end, however, it was a positive experience. It led me to more fully explore the idea of art as a therapeutic process, and it made it possible for me to pick up the pieces and put them back together in different and more productive ways.
Once I realized how much my “inner art child” needed healing, I began looking at different possibilities. I explored art journaling again and came away with some good ideas, yet ultimately turned away from the journal process, choosing to work instead in a more free-style method, not in a journal format. I considered actually signing up for a few counseling sessions online, but then opted to simply continue therapy on my own, using the knowledge and ideas I had gathered through my research and previous studies.
The most important thing I learned, I think, is that art therapy doesn’t mean creating brilliant, beautiful works of art. It means using the elements of art — lines, forms, shapes, colors, various visual media — as a means of self-expression. That’s a simple enough definition, I suppose, yet what does it really mean and how do we apply this definition?
For me, it meant giving myself permission to create really, really, truly awful images — in the guise not of “art” but “art therapy”. It meant allowing myself to vent a lot of anger and frustration in ugly ways. Here, as an example, is one “abstract” I created. Well, actually, this is only one part of the abstract. It is actually quite large.
Hmmm… I’d say a bit of my “inner Jackson Pollock” was coming out when I did this. Like my recent wildly colored lady inspired by Henri Matisse, this abstract was cathartic. I felt a lot of anger and frustration while “creating” this, and I say “creating” a bit facetiously. Images like this tend to create themselves, I think. I just grab whatever calls to me and dab it on in whatever way feels comforting.
For me, art therapy has been all about finding comfort, about exorcising the painful emotions, getting the negative energies out through the action of creating visual art — not as something beautiful, but as a process using art tools. Paints, inks, acrylics, charcoal, crayons. Use whatever you have. Brushes, toothbrushes, spray bottles, twigs, fingers, old rags. Apply your media any way you want, and don’t hesitate to combine various media. Cut. Paste. Add ribbons, strings, buttons, fabric. Whatever makes you feel comfortable… that’s what you should do.
At least, that’s what works for me.
Color plays a key role here, I think, and as I approach a “therapy project”, I do choose colors that feel right at both an emotional level and a mental level. As for choosing a medium — or several — I tend to go with whatever is close at hand. I don’t put a lot of planning and preparation into my art therapy sessions, nor do I do sessions on a regular basis. I just let things happen spontaneously. If I feel a need to let go of a lot of energy or emotions, I’ll head to the easel and just, truly, let myself go with lines, shapes, colors, images — whatever “floats my boat” as the expression goes.
I do this on my easel, or at other times, I visit FreeMix and create a digital collage. This allows me to play with not only lines, shapes, and colors, but a wide variety of images. The “featured image” for this post is one quick “digital collage” I created to express the idea of seeing the world through our individual web of experience. Maybe it only means that to me, but that’s enough. I created it for me, not for anyone else to understand or analyze.
This “personalization” — the concept or our unique individual symbolism — is at the heart of art therapy. My notes from the art club lecture contains this list of benefits that we can gain through therapeutic art expression:
- Stress reduction
- Conflict resolution
- Increased coping abilities
- Meaningful awareness
- A sense of control over experience
- Improved mood
These are all tremendous benefits, but… wait! There’s more. Through this process we are increasing our creativity, and that in itself leads to greater self-awareness, self-discovery, better problem-solving abilities, and better relationships. We become better “integrated” — a nice psycho-babble term meaning better able to adapt to new experiences and environments, better able to “fit in” comfortably with our surroundings.
So, once again, we’re back to the concept of comfort. I think, in many respects, that’s the ultimate goal of any sort of therapy — to help us feel comfortable with who we are, to feel comfortable with what we’re doing.
I’ve been fortunate, I think, in finding these new attitudes about “comfort” carrying over to my real art, as opposed to my art therapy projects. I’m much more willing now to play with ideas, more willing to make mistakes, more willing to shrug off disappointments when things don’t turn out the way I’d hoped. I’m far more experimental in my approach now, and I take a lot more risks. I’ve started looking beyond the ideas of success or failure with an art project, seeing it now as a process of creation, not as an attempt at creating something “good”.
What is good, I’ve learned, is artistic honesty, being who we are, and using art as a form of expression. In that sense, I guess every piece of art I do is a form of art therapy because every piece of art does express who I am. Even so, it’s also good to sometimes put myself back into pure therapy mode and do an exercise designed to highlight self-awareness and foster a more intuitive approach to art.
Because many of you have mentioned art therapy in your comments and personal messages to me, I’ll be sharing ideas and art therapy projects from time to time. Together we can work through many emotions, explore our thoughts and feelings, and in the process become better-integrated individuals and more creative artists.
So, be watching for a new “Art Therapy” feature coming up from time to time on the blog. I’m looking forward to sharing my projects with you, and hopefully you’ll share your projects and experiences with me.