Art therapy provides the opportunity for insight, self-expression and communication, within a safe therapeutic relationship between client and therapist. It can take place in one-to-one settings, or in groups.
It is frequently used in educational settings, in psychiatric wards, in art psychotherapy, in self-development groups, in nursing homes, in rehabilitation programs, in prisons, and in many other settings. Art therapy can provide a fascinating pathway to the unconscious world of every person. This world is a source of creativity, uniqueness and energy, but also of repressed emotions, impulses and conflicts. Art therapy uses many forms of art, therapeutically, as a way of releasing repressed emotions and experiences, communicating symbolically with the unconscious mind, and exploring one’s development and growth.
What happens during an art therapy session?
The therapist usually provides a range of materials that the client can use. These materials include paper, cardboard, paints, crayons, chalks, pen and pencils, clay, textiles, old magazines (for collage), wood, or any other type of medium that the therapist feels may interest and inspire the client. The client is either asked to create a picture or object with a specific theme in mind, or is allowed to choose his or her own theme. Some people find it difficult to be spontaneous, and so may prefer to be given a theme with which to work. Others may want to create something that is uniquely their own idea. The therapist gently encourages the client to experiment with different materials and themes during the therapy process.
It is important that clients feel in control of their work. Art therapy can be a very satisfying experience when the client views the images on paper which he or she has solely created. The client has given birth to images that were previously locked in his or her internal world. This can be a true art, and a very healing, experience. The therapist facilitates the client to explore the meaning of what has been created, as well as exploring the feelings experienced before, during and after the creation of the work. The task of the art-therapist is to help people find ways to relate to the images they have created, to make sense of their creation, and in so doing to apply any insights gained to their day-to-day lives. The meaning of the work is explored by discussing the atmosphere or mood of the work, for example, whether it is peaceful, intense, or violent. The relationship between different elements in the work is also explored, for example, whether balanced, in conflict or in harmony. The colours chosen, the size and thickness of brush-strokes, are also significant. Sometimes clients discharge a lot of emotion through their images; for example anger may be represented by fire, hurricanes or explosions, while control may be represented by a closed gate or a dammed-up river. It can also happen that clients may create only ‘happy’ pictures. This can be a form of either conscious or unconscious denial; a way of keeping their rage or sadness private, and of giving the impression to the outside world that everything is wonderful.
All human experiences can be represented in symbolic form: loss and separation, abuse, rage, isolation, love, trust, hopelessness, fear, anxiety, self-hatred, shame, guilt, sadness, joy, healing etc. The client always holds the key to the meaning of the images and the artwork. While much imagery has a universal significance, the images a person makes have a meaning that is personal, and particular to him or her. An interpretation made too readily by a therapist might well say more about the therapist’s problem with transference, than about the client’s work. The images have been created entirely out of the client’s imagination. In choosing from an infinite number of lines, shapes, tones, textures, and colours, the client has imprinted his or her own personality on the work. A client may be asked to draw a life map, a geographical view of the highlights, the valleys, the landmarks and watersheds of life to-date. This life map can then be discussed with the client, if he or she wishes to share it with the therapist. The therapist may ask the client what feelings, and thoughts occur as a result of the artwork. For some, the process of creating the artwork is therapeutic enough and they may not need to discuss anything more, while for others the artwork may be just the beginning of the therapy process.
In a group situation it can be interesting to see how members work together on shared art projects, such as a giant mural. In the process of making art, several relationships occur. Firstly, there is the artist’s relationship with the chosen medium, the structure, the order and the time of the activity. Then there is the artist’s relationship with the therapist (and peers, if in a group situation). Finally there is the artist’s relationship with the self. The person’s style of working is a good indicator of an habitual approach to dealing with activities and people. Artists who flaunt their work in front of peers, or who hide or destroy their work may exhibit similar behaviours in their relationships. These patterns of behaving and the underlying feelings, which may have been previously unconscious, can be explored with the help of the therapist. The group process can provide a means of connecting with others, through having to share art materials, and space, and time. It can also be a fun and a healing experience to create a work of art with other people who have the same goal as oneself. It can create a feeling of camaraderie and togetherness.
What are the benefits of art therapy?
Art therapy is a visual language, and a very effective mode of communicating. For some people who find it difficult to talk about a traumatic experience (particularly in the case of sexual abuse), it can feel much safer to begin to put down their memories and feelings on paper, in their own time, and in their own way. It is a good way for adults and children who have speech difficulties, limited vocabulary or who have learning disabilities, to enable them to communicate. Art therapy can also be effective for people who are highly articulate, who may tend to talk about feelings rather than fully experience them.
Art therapy provides a record of the therapy process, while the spoken word is transitory and easily forgotten. Art, like a diary, provides a tangible record of the therapeutic process. By putting images on paper, the feelings and thoughts behind them are made more concrete and real. The art works can be viewed objectively, shared with others, or saved for later review. As a tool for self-exploration, it combines a deep journey into the person’s psyche, with a deep sense of fun and awe at one’s own inherent creativity and self-expression. When we engage in any form of self-expression – art, writing, music, drama, dance, and voice work – we are unlocking the doors to our deepest form of self-healing.
Extract from “Irish Guide to Complementary and Alternative Therapies” by Lucy Costigan, published by Wolfhound Press, 1997
Lucy Costigan’s career has been quite eclectic. She has worked as a magazine editor with Wexford Life, a technical writer, an analyst-programmer, a counsellor and therapist, and a programmes’ facilitator. Lucy holds Masters Degrees in Equality Studies (UCD, Ireland), and in Research (NCI, Ireland). From an early age Lucy has been on a quest to discover the ultimate meaning of life. Lucy’s books have been reviewed on RTE (Ireland’s National Television and Radio stations), on BBC radio, and in various international publications. RTE’s popular Sunday Show dedicated a full-length program to her book Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace (Columba Press, 1998). Lucy’s books include: Irish Guide to Complementary and Alternative Therapies (Wolfhound Press) Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace (Columba Press) Winter Solstice: A Novel (iUniverse) Social Awareness in Counselling (iUniverse) What is the Meaning of Your Life (iUniverse) Course in Consciousness (iUniverse) Women and Healing (iUniverse) The Transformation of Yvette (iUniverse).
Lucy lives in her native town of Wexford, Ireland.