Why do people make art? Does an artist create a painting simply to provide an aesthetically pleasing picture? Or is there an underlying meaning that the artist is trying to convey?
Throughout history, civilizations have used images to communicate. Communication through art can be achieved in a variety of ways, some are more obvious than others. What do Van Gogh’s brushstrokes in Starry Night express? Why does Monet’s water lilies elicit a sense of calm in the viewer? What is Mona Lisa’s smile trying to tell us?
For some, art is a more effective form of communication. The creative process involved in expressing one’s self artistically can help people to communicate and resolve issues. This process is facilitated by the assistance of art therapists. One of the major differences between art therapy and other forms of communication is that most avenues of communication rely predominately on the use of words or language. However, most people have a difficult time expressing themselves in this manner. It’s difficult to verbalize your feelings to your friends and family, let alone a therapist!
As an alternative form of communication, art therapy has proven to be an effective means of breaking through the barriers in counseling. It provides the opportunity for people to solve problems visually allowing them to be less literal and concrete in self-expression in a non-threatening manner. As with most forms of therapy, art therapy is incorporated into treatment as a way to improve one’s emotional state or mental well-being. Under the guidance of art therapists, clients learn to use art to process emotions, people can:
Increase awareness of self and others
Help clients cope with symptoms, stress and traumatic experiences
Enhance one’s cognitive abilities
Provide an opportunity for personal development
Process thoughts, feelings, and emotions
Learn to heal
Benefit from support while maintaining and improving their psychosocial, physical, cognitive, and spiritual health
Allow clients to enjoy the life-affirming pleasures of making art
Art therapy doesn’t have to be used only as a treatment though. It can be used to relieve stress or tension, or it can be used as a mode of self-discovery. Most people would benefit from a creative outlet! For example, portrait drawing is a great way to get to know yourself and your relationships with others. Often, I’ll ask clients to create a self-portrait of their future self as a reminder of who you want to be. This activity provides an opportunity for inner reflection and self-discovery while instilling hope and practicing a variety of skills. For some of my younger clients, I ask them to draw themselves as a superhero to promote feelings of empowerment and resiliency. It’s so fun to think of superpowers that can help you with everyday life! The ability to repel any anxious thoughts or the power of super speed to finish your homework faster? Yes, please! But more importantly, we talk about how these skills can be transferred to everyday life.
Art therapy has so much potential. It presents multiple opportunities, my favorite being the ability to personalize your therapeutic experience. This makes it easier to generalize outside of the safety of therapy.
Written by Chelsea Harris, MS, ATR-BC