Jessica Interior Heckwolf, ATR-BC
A wise client, all of age ten, once told me: “Art therapy is the time where I can draw what is on my mind.” This simple yet eloquent description of a complex process is one I often use to explain the function of art therapy, yet it only tells part of the story. While creating art provides a cathartic receptacle for all that can fill and overwhelm the mind (for example, creating a painting of a troubling experience can help externalize the event from the person so it becomes easier to examine and be worked with), its articulation in a therapeutic context serves also to:
- Communicate thoughts and memories stored nonverbally
- Support connectivity between so-called “right brain” and “left brain”
- Foster mind-body-connectivity
Art Making as a Bridge to Nonverbal Memories
We receive and store information using all of our senses, yet it is not until around age three that we begin to communicate needs and develop memories with language. Early life events, particularly those of trauma, can overwhelm present day relationships and decision-making. Talk therapy can then provide an effective method to explore and resolve these distressing patterns.
What if early events that contribute to present day disruptions in functioning occurred before one could speak? Or, what if endured events were so profound, so horrendous, that they can be dealt only on a more primitive, nonverbal level, making a verbal retelling of one’s story impossible? In situations such as these, expressing oneself graphically, through the art, becomes a method to safely acknowledge and share memories that have been unsafe to share verbally. Sometimes, memories (or feelings) that have proved too threatening for the client’s conscious awareness become encoded in the artwork. This can mean that a client, often times unintentionally, might reveal an important aspect of a troubling memory while simultaneously camouflaging the detail (Cohen & Cox, 1995). For one who has been taught expressing so-called negative emotions is wrong, for example, he or she might insist a raging, fire- like red sky as “just an average sunset.” In drawing about abuse, mountains can serve as stand ins for images that read also as body parts (Cohen, & Cox, 1995). It is this multilayered quality in the art that the art therapist is trained to detect. The art therapist becomes for the client a witness to and steward of internal and external connection
Art Making as a Bridge from Right to Left Brain
Most of us are familiar with being identified as “right brained” or “left brained” are familiar to most. These simplified monikers describe functions traditionally ascribed with the two spheres of the brain: the right brain of emotional intelligence vs. the left side of intellectual or verbal intelligence. Explains psychiatrist and writer Dan Siegel (1999):
The right side [of the brain] specializes in representations such as sensations, images, and the non-verbal polysemantic meaning of words…On the left side of the brain are the slowly acting, linear, sequentially active, temporal (time dependant) processes….The left hemisphere is thought to utilize monosemantic “packets” of information as basic representations…Our language-based communication is dominated by this linear mode of expression. (p.179).
External friction can develop in interpersonal and occupational areas of life when the space between brain functions remains disconnected. While identifications of being “right brained” or “left brained” can highlight individual strengths, communication between realms is important for sound decision-making. Since the process of art making is traditionally associated with the right brains areas of functioning, images become fertile ground to concretize emotional reactions related to the client’s experience.
In art therapy sessions, it is the art therapist who then encourages a client to put words to what is expressed graphically. The image is held as a compass of sorts in the verbal discussion. The converse function is equally helpful for one who may be more skilled in functions tied to verbal, linear thinking. Through this process one is engaging both spheres of functioning and thus creating a more global perspective on the situation at hand, which often leads to creative solutions that might not otherwise have been considered (Riley, 2004). Using the art in this manner illustrates that it is possible to simultaneously think and feel.
Art Making as a Bridge of Mind to Body
Just as the mind influences body state and vice versa, the physical act of art making contributes to one’s thoughts and mood. For example, a 2007 outcome study (Bell and Robbins) found participants who made their own art experienced a significantly greater reduction in negative mood and anxiety (compared to participants who did not make art). Art making can actualize into viewable form messages sent by the body (Riley, 2004) and this kinesthetic action elicits therapeutic properties associated with movement. An example of this dynamic relationship is a commonly used art therapy technique of “creating a safe place.” Here the client is encouraged to consider a time or place where they felt truly safe and secure, this can be a place that exists (or existed) in reality, or one that is imagined. Then, considering also information gleaned from the five senses (what scents would this place have, what sounds, etc.), the client creates a visual representation of this refuge. The process of drawing, painting, or sculpting this sacred environment can contribute to transformations in his or her internal experience. Clients regularly report to me a decrease in anxiety, intrusive thoughts and an increased sense of gratitude when participating in this exercise.
Art Therapy as an Internal and External Connector at The Retreat
At The Retreat, the art therapist embodies these functions through many art making opportunities which are individualized to each resident’s needs. These venues include: Group Art Therapy, Individual Art Therapy, Art Techniques Class, and a section of Mind Body Connections Group focused on the use of art to explore issues of body image.
Bell, C.E. & Robbins, S.J. (2007). Effect of art production on negative mood: a randomized, controlled trial. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 24(2)71-75.
Cohen, B. M. & Cox, C.T. (1995). Telling Without Talking: Art as a Window into the World of Multiple Personality. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Riley, S. (2004). The creative mind. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 21(4),184-190.
Siegle, D.J. (1999). The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience. New York:Guilford Press.