Art therapy has been used for years on patients who are dealing with trauma in all its forms, whether they are suffering from cancer, struggling to fit into a community that isolates women of a certain age or race, or rebuilding their lives following rape and domestic violence. A lot can be gained from this sort of psychological approach, as it allows patients to express themselves (which, in some cases, they have never done before). This therapy is not only a tool for coping, it’s also a source of great and deeply personal art.
[Crown by Meisie Lee and Something So Beautiful, Ruined by R. Austen, both from Art Not Violence].
How does art therapy work?
It can be a mixture of one-on-one and group work, but essentially art therapy involves creating work that explores what you’re going through—generally this means drawing or painting, but it can also include collage, sculpture, or photography. It was first used in the 1930s as a way of getting patients to open up, and it’s been growing ever since. The aim is to tackle the feelings and memories that are consuming you, and allow you to approach these when you may not be able to put things into words. As psychotherapist Eva-Marie Stern said, “Art therapy recognizes that not everything that needs to be said can be spoken.” She works with the Trauma Therapy Program at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, which not only encourages art as a strategy but also sells the work created as cards and exhibits it online, with the permission of the artists, in campaigns such as Art Not Violence. This ensures that the program can continue and it draws attention to the cause.
[EMS’ pieces, Blacks and Blues, from Art Not Violence].
England’s University of Sheffield recently commissioned an art therapy project that explores aging and the stigma felt by older women. They assembled a group who produced photographic responses to getting old, with some brilliant results. One lady, known as Barbara1, juxtaposed old photos from her childhood with an image of her dressed up in similar clothes, which now seem strange and awkward on her. The images express how much she has grown and developed into her own person over the years.
[L-R: Barbara1’s photograph and anonymous cast of Elbow Wrinkle from ‘Look at Me! Images of Women and Ageing’, 2011].
[Sandra’s photograph from ‘Look at Me! Images of Women and Ageing’, 2011].
Can it actually help?
There have definitely been some art therapy success stories, with participants finding that they can deal with their situation better and they don’t feel that everything has to be contained inside. Academic research by Brett and Ostroff found that “traumatic experiences are encoded in nonverbal imagery” (think flashbacks and mental pictures—when you can’t get a scenario or memory out of your head), and the point of art is to unlock those experiences and confront them in a safe environment. As one woman in the US-based Pandora’s Project for PTSD and Sexual Assault Survivors explained, “Making pictures gives me energy and joy even in the worst times… My abuser destroyed most of my life but he couldn’t destroy my creativity. And I am actually better than him in something.”
It can be especially difficult if group members have felt marginalized by their communities, but they can find a voice and not be judged when they’re attending therapy. Australia’s Art for Healing campaign, where indigenous Australian women are given support through art, is one example of this. One of the proposals for the country’s Burke Street Art Space is to create “care bags,” where mothers can make a calico bag and fill it with items to be passed onto their children within the care system. There’s also a lot of time for indigenous elders to engage with younger patients, keeping their cultural traditions alive and providing outreach. It is so much more than art, but the act of creating is a great way of opening up a dialogue between the participants and the therapists, as well as the group as a whole. Finding common ground is also massively helpful and it helps group members to realize that they’re not alone.
[L-R: ‘Pieces of a Woman’ collage by EMS, Untitled by Anonymous, both from Art Not Violence].
But is it really art?
Yes, this is art. Just because something isn’t designed for a gallery or made by someone who wants to be a professional artist, does not mean it doesn’t have creative merit. It’s also important to remember that most of the work produced in therapy will never be seen by anyone apart from the participants and project leaders and patients don’t have to display something publicly if they don’t want to (that would be counterproductive in terms of therapeutic benefits). But when the wider world does catch a glimpse of what goes on in these sessions, there’s a lot we can learn.
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