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Biology 103
2003 Third Paper
On Serendip

Painting What We See Within: A Look at the Insides of Art Therapy

Lindsay Updegrove

One of the most memorable experiences I had last summer was visiting the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. (3)At this museum, professional artists had created none of the works hanging on the walls. Visionary art is an individualized expression by people with little or no formal training; the rules of art as a school did not apply here. While I was there, I learned that for many years, the artwork created by patients of mental institutions, hospitals, and nursing homes were disregarded and destroyed by their caretakers. After seeing what powerful and telling work came from many people in these situations, I found this information to be very distressing. Fortunately, the development of art as a form of therapy has changed the medical attitude toward art created by the healing in the past fifty years. While the work created through this therapy is rarely showcased as at the American Visionary, it is aiding therapists and their clients in reaching a new awareness.

Art therapy uses media and the creative process in healing, the key word here being process. We all know how revealing the artwork of children can be of their emotions. Art therapy applies this concept across the spectrum in a multitude of situations. It functions in many of the same settings as conversational therapy: mental health or rehabilitation facilities, wellness centers, educational institutions, nursing homes, in private practices or in a client's home. An art therapist may work with an individual or group, in families or couples. While most therapy is based on conversation between the therapist and his or here client/s, art therapy integrates visual communication into the experience through painting, sculpting, drawing or other media. (1)

What occurs during an art therapy session depends mainly on the client. The theory behind it is that visualizing his or her feelings will help him or her to get beyond masking them through language. Imagine describing a dream. It is never quite possible to communicate effectively the images we are left by our subconscious. Art therapy allows the client or patient to relay these images in a raw and powerful way. (1) During the therapy, a client's artistic ability is irrelevant. While the session is not just a relaxing diversionary activity, it is also not an art class. Most sessions are structured to help get the client started on a project, and oriented toward helping him or her reach specific goals. The idea is for the patient to be able to work at his or here own pace as the therapist helps them to explore the work's significance. The therapist is not an interpreter of the client's art but rather a facilitator to his or her inner discovery. (5)

Many art therapy practitioners agree that it is a good alternative to verbal therapy if the client does not speak English or is shy or frightened about verbalizing his or her feelings and experiences. If the latter is the case, it is often easier or less painful for the client to discuss the image, rather than to discuss him or her self directly. In this way, art therapy is at once both therapeutic and diagnostic. The act of creating helps the client to heal and allows the therapist to perceive implications from the process. As the therapist learns about the individual, he or she is able to help the client further in exploring the work's significance. (4)

First and foremost, art therapy is in the process, not the finished painting or sculpture. Therapy and art are both processes in and of themselves that require deep introspection and a commitment to learn at one's own pace. Art therapy shares all of these attributes. A remarkable example of how art therapy works as a process is Silence Speaks. (2) Digital storytelling is a form of art therapy that uses filmmaking to help clients make sense of and share their experiences. Silence Speaks is a program that lets those who are in therapy for violence-related concerns to learn a new skill while sharing their stories through an art medium. This form of therapy not only benefits the individual or group that makes the film, but also those who watch the finished product, by hearing and seeing the stories of their peers. Digital storytelling combines art therapy with narratives one might hear in traditional verbal therapy. Music is also sometimes incorporated. This integration creates a process of therapeutic communication on multiple levels. At the same time, the films provide an alternative to representations of violence and the self in popular media. (2)

I believe creative art therapy helps to remedy some of the main problems that many people have with traditional emotional therapy. One of my friends was telling me that when her therapist asked her how she was doing, she would normally answer "fine." I think many people might react in the same way even when everything is not "fine" because we condition ourselves to speak and look to everyone else like we've got everything under control. Although journal keeping is a widely established therapeutic exercise, it is possible that we are just as skilled at not being completely honest in writing as we are in conversation. It seems like the use of painting, drawing or other creative arts like dance and music would make for a less inhibited representation of our feelings. Artistic expression is something that many people practice on their own in order to make sense of their thoughts. By sharing these expressions with another person, we have an alternate angle as to what is going on in our heads.

Most "grown-ups" don't take the time to practice creative art in a casual setting. Art therapy brings opportunities to do so to people who normally feel they too busy or it isn't serious enough for them. Art therapy brings creativity into places like hospitals and nursing homes, places that could use other forms of healing rather than just the medical or psychiatric. Personally, I don't see why the developments in the study of art therapy shouldn't change our attitudes toward creative arts in general. When was the last time you sat down with crayons and drew a picture, or put on your favorite song and danced just for the heck of it? Sure, if you are creatively talented you might study art or music, but through as we get older we take even our most creative work too seriously. We try to make it good according to external standards rather than doing it for our own good. In the broader sense of things, I don't think art therapy is just for the healing. I believe our lives would be brighter and less stressful if we got into the habit of being just a little creative every day.


1)The American Art Therapy Association, organization dedicated to the research, practice and education in art therapy.
2)Silence Speaks, information about the digital storytelling program.
3)The American Visionary Art Museum, website for one of the most innovative creative spaces on the East Coast.
4)Arts in Therapy, organization mostly for the collaboration of students and practitioners of art therapy, with useful information.
5)Creative Response, information about art therapy programs for patients of AIDS and cancer.

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