What is Art Therapy?
What is art therapy anyhow? I have been asked this question many, many times and every single time I cringe a bit in anticipation that my answer will be inadequate to what I know is the truth of this question. And every single time I answer, it is different, based upon both my experience up to that point and the situation that calls for an answer. I know, no matter what I say in response to the question, I won’t be able to fully explain the incredible power I know exists in making art.
The conversations that lead to the question as to what art therapy is can sometimes be as varied (and usually amusing) as the guesses and assumptions that people make about it. Is it therapy for troubled artists? Is it only for children or people who are creative? Is it a way to make some ones art better? Is it therapy for the art? The conversation I cherish the most in regard to this question was with a gentleman who asked me this question while in a noisy airplane as it was taking off. As I went about explaining art therapy he looked more and more confused. Finally he said, “Wait a minute, I thought you said heart therapy not art therapy.” With that, I stopped my rhetoric, laughed and said, “yep, that’s it, art therapy is heart therapy.” Nuf said, right?
If I had the chance with this man I would have invited him to make something that symbolizes a thought or feeling he held inside, even if it was just making a simple mark on the page, because I know before fully understanding this question one has to have the experience of it.
“The task of [art] therapy is not to eliminate suffering but to give a voice to it, to find a form in which it can be expressed. Expression is itself transformation; this is the message that art brings. The therapist then would be an artist of the soul, working with sufferers to enable them to find the proper container for their pain, the form in which it would be embodied.”
– Stephen K. Levine
For me, making art is just as essential as physical exercise. When I have gone a few days without creating something (and it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece) I feel cranky and bound up inside. Confusion begins to set in and my heart starts to ache. With this awareness I know I need to get to the studio and lose myself for a bit in making art. The day-to-day tasks I busy myself with need to take a back seat to allow time for the creative process. Entering my studio with this intention is like entering a portal into another world that is deeply wise and incredibly healing. Once allowed to enter this space I come out feeling transformed every time, rather it be a brief visit or an all-day-long losing myself. Either way, I always feel better.
If you are reading this because you are wondering what art therapy is, and especially how it might transform you, I invite you to consider the following.
For just a moment, think of a time you felt “stuck” in some sort of situation. What quality of line, texture, color and shape does that take on? What images come to mind, both visually, and somatically? Once you have that, what art material would be best used to explain that feeling of “stuck?” Watercolor, clay, soft fabric or mixed media? If you could make the image of this word “stuck” based on your current life circumstances, what would you make? And…. stick figures are allowed. Now make it. After it is made, ask it, “So what makes you feel so stuck and what do you need to feel unstuck?” And then make that, staying with the image, and not necessarily the story. If you can share your art with someone you trust and the feelings associated with the image, allow someone to witness you. After all that, than see how you feel about this situation, and if anything has shifted for you.
Here’s an example of a couple of images I created to help me with some tough feelings.
I made this first piece because I was feeling closed off, constricted and bound up by a situation that felt stifling to my creativity. I could literally feel the sensation around my heart, and it hurt, both emotionally and physically. So, I took a malleable medium, polymer clay, and made a heart shape out of it. I wrapped it tightly with various types of threads and wire. Once complete, I simply just acknowledged, without judgment, the feeling this object reflected to me. With an open and curious mind and heart, I began to dialogue with this image so I could understand it better. (Yes, art therapists do talk to their art).
I asked, “What do you need?”
The answer was simple, “ To be unbound, and freed from the constriction around my heart.”
So, I then began to unwrap and loosen the threads until finally the heart, though impressed with the lines of the constricting threads, was free (second image). Once the last thread was taken away, I felt my heart and lungs expand with a deep breath. The threads that once constricted now formed a nest for the heart to rest in. And that was it. That was all I needed.
So, do I feel like I answered the question, “what is art therapy? No, not really, because once again I feel there is so much more to it and words will never quite capture it. And once again I am just able to give you one example of what it can be. Maybe I’ll just stop trying and make art instead.