Written by Helen Field
The concept of “art” has always been prevalent in our history – from the early stone carvings and cave paintings of the Upper Paleolithic people to the mesmerizing sculptures and portraits that grace homes, museums, galleries, parks, and streets today. Art as a medium is intrinsic to our existence – we use it to tell a story, record an event, give reverence to our beliefs, express ourselves and ultimately connect with what we hold closest to our hearts and minds. All artists are explorers of a kind, and those of us who turn to art because of a need to communicate understand just how powerful it can be as a way for us to put our feelings into something tangible. And this is partly why art is such a poignant catharsis for so many, and a wonderful healing technique as well.
A Window to the Mind and Soul
Art as therapy is something of which we have always held a profound awareness. Like music therapy, it is a device which reaches into our inner minds and souls. In the past few decades, art therapy as a discipline has been on the rise, proven to deliver substantial results for its multitude of holistic and psychological properties. Art therapy is transcendental as a treatment because it encompasses an almost spiritual resonance as well as a scientific one. It is where we begin to become more intricately connected with ourselves as individuals as well as the direct biological effects we experience.
The American Art Therapy Association describes art therapy as “a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem. A goal in art therapy is to improve or restore a client’s functioning and his or her sense of personal well-being.” The methods adopted by art therapists can include a variety of mediums, including painting, sculpting, drawing, and other pursuits.
One of the most dramatic effects which art conduces is on the brain. It is particularly effective in enhancing cognitive ability, practical thinking, problem solving, and coordination. This is initiated by increased movement of mirror neurons in the brain which kick-start embodied cognition. Additionally, the act of producing art itself releases endorphins – creating a relaxed state of mind, and even achieving a kind of natural “high” for enthusiastic artists who get into a creative “zone”. Like physical exercise, it engages beneficial reactions in the brain which is one of the reasons it is such an effective therapeutic technique.
Healing Shapes and Colors
Art isn’t all about chemical processes, of course. For many individuals suffering from trauma such as recovering from addiction or PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other challenges, art therapy is a powerful holistic tool. Art therapy gives us the capacity to put into expression what cannot be described in words, giving us a new “voice” for our emotions, convictions, and beliefs. Through the act of creating art itself, and in reflecting on the finished work, individuals are able to communicate their experiences and help therapists to gain a better understanding of their trauma and help them to work through it. This can become a cathartic, revelatory experience for individuals, and working out personal struggle through art in a safe, inclusive, and non-judgmental space also helps to redefine oneself and rediscover one’s identity. It also introduces a healthy coping mechanism and even potential hobby and/or passion which can be pursued even after therapy is completed – although like much therapy, there is never a limit to how long it can take for one to heal.
Now, we are seeing art therapy taking place in hospitals, schools, nursing homes, prisons, and other institutions as well as on a private basis. Art as therapy is also raising fascinating discussion in contemporary art circles, leading to worldwide exhibits which examine its function in a variety of contexts.
There are many of us passionate art lovers who will argue that art itself – whether the making of or the admiring a finished work – has a therapeutic purpose. It engages discussion, provokes ideas, and even inspires – or forces us – to take a look at ourselves and the world we live in. We are hardly surprised that art therapy is taking off. Perhaps it is because for all our faults and flaws, art is the greatest gift in and of itself that we can give to one another and celebrate – as well as reveal – who we are.