Art Therapy: The Power of Creative Engagement

Published for INSPADES MagazineIssue Sei, August 2017




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Creative expression takes the form of infinite outlets, with innumerable intentions and purpose placed on the act. Applied at times for professional purposes, or at other times for the mere pleasure of creating, artistic engagement can also be used for personal resolution or illumination, either on an individual basis or with the involvement of a therapist.

Yet while many argue that expression through art is therapeutic in itself, others find the involvement of a therapist helpful in navigating the inarticulate depths of their emotion.

“Some phrase the arts as the ‘language of the soul’ and so, in that retrospect, it gives voice and expression to something inside us that we cannot always connect to on a daily occurrence,”  says seasoned Expressive Art Therapist (EXAT) and author, Leesa Landry. “What I love about art-based therapies is that they allow us to get beyond the ego, to go deeper within the psyche,” she shares.

For those who think “artistic inclinations” are necessary for benefitting from a session, Landry observes that in fact, such individuals “tend to have a harder time in the beginning because they are focused on the destination.” Less fixated on the finished product than on the effort spent getting there, art therapies can guide a person through the journey of artistic conception as the individual interprets their own work, analyzing their internal response while creating.

“Having an art therapist there in the room as a witness to your work is one of the key differences between sketching your own thoughts on paper versus having a healing experience,” explains art therapist and private practitioner Debbie Anderson, “The art therapist is a receptive, unbiased and non-judgmental presence that has experience helping you hold the energies of what is depicted and creating a safe space for you.”

Self-Discovery Through Creative Experimentation

Just as there are many mediums for creative expression, the array of art therapies is quite versatile. Through visual art, writing, improvised storytelling, music, dance and much more, art therapies extract implicit experiences and convert them into palpable presentations that are more accessible for personal observation and investigation.

“It’s very cathartic, as well as an eye opener, to have something tangible to express that ‘something’ inside us that there are no words for,” explains Landry, asserting that the “tangible piece” can become “a catalyst to go even deeper into the situation or emotion, in order to gain new insights and release emotional pain.” 

For Anderson, whose clients often struggle with persistent depression, manic depression or anxiety, separating oneself from pain by channeling creative expression can lead to a healthy and positive resolution.

“The visual dialogue you have with yourself can feel very healing. The images depicting your reaction or memories can hold the emotion and allow you to be an observer rather than the victim,” she explains, in reference to trauma-related effects.

Visual artist Joseph Lewis, sought EXAT as a “creative, therapeutic outlet” to explore his body image and weight issues, along with his depression.

Having worked through talk-based therapies in the past—and since—Lewis found that through EXAT, “using art in the healing process allowed for a strong relational connection with the therapist”; however, while EXAT lead to “a huge shift” in mood and energy for Lewis, he wasn’t always aware of what, in particular, had shifted.

“No-one but the artist truly knows what the images may mean,” Anderson remarks of the visual arts created in therapy sessions:

“They each have stories that go with them, some known, some not expressed. An art therapist does not interpret art for a client. What can help in the healing process is to very objectively ask questions about the piece, without judgment or bias.” 

In his sessions, Lewis experimented with writing, painting, spoken-word and movement. “Looking back, the body-based work was most helpful as a lot of the depression was stemming from an unhealthy body image,” Lewis reflects, “I was able to get in touch with my body and learned to be more comfortable with my weight, which also assisted in abating some of the depression.”

While he is no longer a client of EXAT, Lewis continues to source therapeutic benefits from creative outlets.

A Look Down the Line

While many, like Lewis, have grown as a result of art therapy methods, the psychology and science communities have also given a thumbs-up by recognizing the healthy influence of creativity.

In “Everyday Creative Activity as a Path to Flourishing”, a study published by The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers found that pursuing “creative goals” during a day resulted in a person’s “positive psychological functioning” for that day. Essentially, creativity stimulates well-being during the days that it is practiced.

Another report, The Arts and Human Development: Learning Across the Lifespan, published in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, observed that, “Children attending a preschool that used an arts integration model made greater developmental strides in multiple domains, including initiative and social relations.”

The report also referenced a 2009 study by Helga and Tony Noice, which discovered that older adults engaging in a controlled amount of theatrical activity for over a month’s time “significantly improved” in four cognitive areas, including “immediate word recall, problem-solving, verbal fluency and delayed recall.”

Although research is still a far cry from definitively declaring a link between the arts and development, such interesting findings suggest the power of creativity to nourish the human mind and have a positive effect on cognition and social interactions.

A ‘Note’worthy Approach

In addition to EXAT, music therapy forms its own pillar beneath the roof of art therapy methods, providing sonic communication for those who may find language or words inaccessible.

Working with children with special cognitive and developmental needs, music therapist and founder of Note by Note Music Therapy (NNMT), Katherine Graff, focuses on cultivating abilities in socializing, communication and cognition.

Improving or even developing basic communication skills will affect the client’s life the most positively, so this is usually the number one goal,” she explains.

Working with the “universal language” of music, Graff requests that clients select a song or instrument, while also incorporating singing into her methods, “to practice vowel sounds and improve articulation.” She also uses rhythm to imitate syllables and melody for intonation—both of which provide the basic “practice tools for speech”.

By exploring music and instruments in a safe space, clients gain a confidence that extends beyond their “preconceived limits of personal skill”, according to NNMT subcontractor and music therapist, Gordon Clark.

“The fundamental goal is to harness the power of what happens in the musical experience to effect change in other areas of a person’s life,” he elaborates, “Increasing their ability to use words in communication, or becoming more aware of others in their social surroundings.”

While Graff mostly works with children, Clark works with teens, adults and seniors in care. With a history of playing music professionally, Clark now uses his bass and guitar to support clients with musical backdrops as they test various instruments for optimal expression.

“I encourage clients to sing, to achieve expression with the most personal of instruments—the voice,” he adds.

Having wrestled with recurrent depression throughout his life, Clark’s relationship with music has been an asset to his career; “I have been using music as a therapeutic outlet in my own life for years.”

In an example of how music therapy can aid in addressing internalized tension, Graff describes a young man she worked with who was “very emotionally labile.” Graff would facilitate songwriting with him, listen as he sang his experience, and ensure that he felt supported in the session. “It is a very cathartic experience. After the song is ‘out’, he is able to move on,” she reflects.

Through NNMT, Graff also offers a musical theatre program which enables group interaction and collaboration towards a common goal, an activity that also allows individuals to take each other’s perspectives and opinions into account. “These are all skills that are sometimes quite difficult for participants in ‘real life’,” Graff says.

“Being in a therapeutic group experience emphasizes the understanding that we are all one. What you do or say, or how you feel in a group affects the others,” adds Anderson, who also mediates group art therapy sessions.

Further emphasizing Graff and Clark’s practice, a study in 2014 found a strong correlation between the effects of music therapy and improved “social interaction, verbal communication, initiating behaviour and social-emotional reciprocity” with children on the autism spectrum.

Whether through writing, visual arts, music, drama or other forms of art therapy, Anderson asserts that simply “being ‘heard’” can have a calming effect. In building a relationship through facilitated creation, individuals participating in art therapy receive companionship and guidance from their therapists during sessions, enabling the externalization of internal struggles and, ultimately, personal resolution.

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