Art is my “thing.” I can spend entire days walking through galleries, discovering new artists, trying to figure out their techniques, what inspires them, what their lives are like, and the message they are trying to share with the world.
Its visual brilliance can evoke strong emotions and deep thoughts or simply bewilder us. It can bring us on a journey to remote places or into a distant past. Everyone’s reaction to art may be different, but art’s ability to impact us in one way or another is undisputed.
On a personal level, I experienced art’s restorative powers some years back when I was going through a challenging health issue and was housebound for months. I needed an outlet to express my angst, frustration, and uncertainty. I ordered several canvases, loads of oils and acrylic paints, spatulas and brushes, then delved into an art frenzy all on my own.
Mixing colors, blending textures, and creating thick bold strokes and messy splashes were all very satisfying and emotionally uplifting. The process allowed me to exchange my pain and anxiety for creativity and discovery. It made me think of Frida Khalo, Yayoi Kusama, and even Vincent Van Gogh, these famous artists who channeled trauma, fear, pain, and mental health issues through creative expression.
On a scientific level, studies show that each time we look at a piece of art, whether a portrait or an abstract piece, our brain is working to make sense of the visual information it’s receiving. But beyond that skill, according to The Telegraph, “Our brain goes through changes when we look at a beautiful art piece, increasing blood flow to our brain by as much as 10%, the equivalent of looking at someone you love.”
Today art is being used successfully to treat children, teenagers, and adults who have gone through traumatic life experiences. This type of therapy has become a disaster response in Southeast Asia in the last decades. The natural hazards in the region have become more frequent and increasingly severe. More than 200,000 persons perished in the 2004 tsunami from the 9.1 magnitude earthquake in Sumatra, Indonesia. Haiyan, a record-breaking typhoon (locally called Yolanda), ravaged Central Philippines in 2013.
I was surprised to learn that many trained art therapists from Singapore and the region were dispatched to different provinces in the Visayas to assist with the mental devastation left behind, using art as a form of healing.
For post-traumatic syndrome recovery, art helps process traumatic events in a new way, providing an outlet when words fail. Every step of this treatment involves communication using some type of art form. While traditional “talk” therapy has long been used for PTSD, often words can fail to do the job. Experts say that, conversely, art therapy works because it provides an effective alternative. “Art safely gives a voice and makes a survivor’s experience of emotions, thoughts, and memories visible when words are insufficient,” writes board-certified art therapist Gretchen Miller of the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children.
Expression through art engages the right hemisphere of the brain, which also stores traumatic memories. Children are especially receptive to this form of analysis and instinctively love to engage in this activity. By using colors and other art media, traumatic experiences surface and can be safely processed and channeled at a distance so healing can commence.
When people are in a calm state, they feel anchored while processing their fears and trauma. This empowers them to know they can make changes and are in control of their emotional reactions.
Fascinated by this concept, I was able to speak to Sivan Weinstein, a long-time friend and highly qualified art therapist with a BA in psychology and art, a master’s in art therapy, and a PsyD in psychology for family and couples therapy. She answered some of my questions.
What is the basic premise of art therapy?
SIVAN WEINSTEIN: Art Therapy is the deliberate use of art-making to address psychological and emotional needs. Art therapy uses art media and the creative process to help in areas such as, but not limited to, fostering self-expression, creating coping skills, managing stress, and strengthening a sense of self. Art therapy provides mental health treatment for clients who have experienced trauma, grief and loss, depression, chronic illness, substance abuse, and more.
How does it work?
Art has the potential to change lives in profound ways. When words are not enough, we turn to images and symbols to tell our stories. In telling our stories through art, we can find a path to health and wellness, emotional reparation, recovery, and transformation.
This form of therapy offers clients opportunities to communicate, understand and reflect on their responses to life experiences. The clients use both verbal and non-verbal ways to explore and express thoughts and feelings. This is especially helpful for people who find it difficult to put their thoughts and feelings into words, and can also be a useful support for highly verbal people.
Clients can use a range of art techniques and materials (drawing, painting, collage, clay, paints, etc.) to express and think about the feelings linked to the difficulties in their lives.
What is done with the artworks created during sessions?
The art materials are used for self-expression and deepening understanding and the emerging artworks are generally not suited to exhibit or display. They often reflect deep personal experiences that are communicated only within the confidentiality of the therapeutic relationship.
Does a client need any experience with art? What if they are not very good at drawing?
You do not need any art experience or drawing skills. The focus of art therapy is not on the quality or artistic values of the images you create, but rather on being able to freely express what you are feeling while using the art materials.
What happens during an art therapy session?
Although each session varies with the needs of the client, it usually involves making art followed by a verbal exploration of the image that was created. Afterward, you may choose to discuss the emotional connections that you have with the art and the experience of making it.
Does the therapist interpret my art?
Your art is an expression of your personal thoughts and feelings, therefore it is not interpreted. Guided by the therapist’s expertise and experience, together you can figure out what the image means to you. The therapist may also point out themes and patterns that emerge through your art. However, it may not be just the finished product that has therapeutic value, but also the process of making the art as well.
How long is a typical session?
Sessions are generally 50 minutes but may be extended with prior discussion with the therapist.
Who would benefit most from art therapy?
Everyone of any age, gender, or culture can benefit. Children, adults, seniors, couples, and families may achieve beneficial results from the therapeutic nature of making art.
Can couples address their marriage issues through this therapy?
Yes. The process helps couples use an additional language (art) and allows them to express their dynamics tangibly. It explores stress sources, mapping obstacles, understanding emotional conflicts, and increasing a sense of worth and self-esteem.
What are the common traumas that you usually treat?
I work with different cultures as I’m an expert in relocation and dealing with war traumas, abuse, social anxiety, OCD, depression, and family system dynamics.
Many therapists may advertise they practice art therapy. A trained art therapist is highly qualified and will have at least a master’s degree in psychotherapy with an additional AT credential. Only those with certified credentials can work as clinical art therapists. So do your research before moving forward.
Building a secure space and a trusted therapeutic relationship will take time. This is integral to achieving the best possible outcome for clients. At the end of the day, art therapy helps the body learn that the danger has passed and the individual can live and flourish in the reality of the present.