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Mending the Heart--Calming the Mind With Art Therapy

Mending the Heart--Calming the Mind  With Art Therapy

Victoria Van Zandt, MA

When asked to explain art therapy, I usually begin by saying that art, as therapy, goes way back. I say that before there were anti-depressants there was poetry and, before there was language, there were cave drawings. A person with the blues was given a poem to read to help lift their spirit. Using art to express yourself has its roots in the theories of Freud and Jung, who both believed in the power of imagery to tap into the thoughts, memories and feelings of a person. They used the symbolism in dreams to help clients uncover their unconscious thoughts and feelings. In the early 1900s, Margaret Naumburg, an educator, and one who believed that the symbolic communication of art would access feelings quicker than language and she helped move art therapy into a recognized profession. As an educator, she believed in the power of creative expression to aid in the emotional development of children. Both she and her sister, Florence Cane, played a significant role in the development of art therapy and helped form the profession that it is today. Many more clinicians followed in their footsteps to continue to establish the field of art therapy and to bring it into the public eye and, in 1969, the American Association of Art Therapy was formed.

There continues to be a dialogue about art being therapy and art in therapy. I believe it is a little of both. Whether the art-making acts as a bridge to discuss one’s thoughts and feelings and reactions to the art or as a means to get feelings out and provide a release when words are difficult to find, the practice of art therapy is proven to be healing. Art therapy is not concerned with how artistic or how well a person can draw, paint or work with clay. It is about the process of self-expression, not the product. It is about getting feelings out in a creative manner without the filter of words. Art therapy provides a safe place to explore feelings such as anger, fear, sadness that in the past might have been viewed as not ok to talk about or feel. When working with imagery, the client is tapping into their right brain, the part of the brain where emotions reside—not the analytical left brain. Though clients are welcome and encouraged to talk about the art and any reactions they experience, as an art therapist, I do not assume to know what a client’s art means nor do I interpret their work. I do maintain a sense of curiosity about their art and might ask a question such as, “Tell me about this drawing?,” or “What might this image be feeling?” I leave interpretation up to the client.

Art therapy is used in hospitals, clinics, rehab facilitites, schools, private practice and in senior centers. It is used with children, teens and adults, older adults and with families and couples. It is used to promote and enhance physical, emotional and mental health by using creative expression as a tool to communicate feelings. Taking part in art-making helps decrease anxiety, stress and depression and increase self-awareness, self-esteem and promote insight into one’s life. Clients will may times tell me that they experience a calming effect while taking part in the art-making process and that the images they create are less worrisome than the actual thought attached to them. I explain that art therapy is not an art class though the process might inspire a person to pick up pastels and draw on their own.

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