Healing power of art defined
When is art not art therapy?
Art’s healing power is an increasingly popular subject these days.
Last week the fatal shooting of U.S prison escapee and celebrity painter Richard W. Matt uncovered the lucrative culture of learning art in prison and its therapeutic value. The theme follows others in mainstream press recently, particularly the swathe of colouring books being sold as mindful, even healing tools.
But the healing power of art is nothing new; Auckland based Toi Ora Live Arts Trust is one of umpteen organisations that are testament to this value. The Trust teaches art to a regular intake of District Health Board mental health clients, some of whom even discover a dormant, saleable talent.
Given we widely accept that artists find losing themselves in their work cathartic, and that art therapy helps people overcome emotional and mental crises by creating images rather than words, how do we define these two concepts and where do they overlap?
Auckland artist Laurence Couchman (pictured) finds that art practice has gradually taught him to remain in the moment after years of palpitating, paralysing social anxiety – he told the Women’s Weekly in 2003 that apart from covert trips to the supermarket, he had remained indoors for nearly ten years in his 30’s. It is clear that art became a form of therapy.
His anxiety began as he sailed with his parents and brothers from England to New Zealand nearly 50 years ago.
“I know I was traumatised coming out here…I was scared all the time. On the ship you didn’t eat with the adults – it was in a separate area. I felt an overwhelming sense of abandonment even though my parents were actually always there for me.
“So when we arrived here, I was still scared and went through a late bed wetting stage. Thinking back, this was the beginnings of my social anxiety. It was then that my father started me painting to distract me.
“I’m not conscious when I paint. It is my escape from everything” he says of his energetic large scale work. And he is certainly not alone in feeling this way.
Pablo Picasso defined this process succinctly with: ‘Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life’; renowned New York dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp stated, ‘Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.’; Mexican poet and artist Cesar Cruz claimed that, ‘Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.’
After a successful first public show in Mount Eden Village 2013, Couchman was noticed by national art critic and author Warwick Brown. He suggested Laurence steer away from painting and into what he perceived to be a unique style of collage and found object arrangement he was dabbling in.
Laurence is now preparing for the Mount Albert Grammar show; the works certainly take on board Brown’s advice, but has the meticulous placement of broken glass and other objects served its therapeutic purpose in the same way the free flow of painting did?
“With these new works I don’t escape as much but it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I feel I’ve now overcome the anxiety enough to deal with it in other ways as well as through art.”
The same patterns of skill mixed with comfort can be seen in Toi Ora clients James King and Andrew Blythe. King went from being a radio host in his 20’s to multiple hospitalisations for psychosis and clinical depression in his 30’s. But at Toi Ora he discovered he could paint and has gradually gone on to find more mental balance and sell numerous works at supporting galleries. Blythe was a dishevelled paranoid schizophrenic when he arrived at Toi Ora’s Grey Lynn gallery nearly ten years ago. He now functions far better, sells work at the Outsider Art Fair in New York and is represented by art dealer Tim Melville in New Zealand.
Clearly not everyone seeking solace this way is going to have talent, but British trained and qualified New Zealand child art therapist Lydia Pask offers some clues as to why loosening up with creativity may benefit everyone’s psyche. She works with a range of children from those with learning disorders to victims of physical and sexual abuse. Sometimes clients need help warming up to the task in hand, which is pretty much just making a mess.
“I first suggest that they might want to do something creative. I might say ‘let’s try the paints!’ I find that when children can start making a mess with materials like paint that they are becoming comfortable. This is when they start expressing the yucky-ness.”
It is also the point at which many children start articulating their feelings or experiences in words while they concentrate on producing a piece of art.
Stuart Shepherd lectures in the Bachelor of Creative Industries course at Bay of Plenty Polytech and previously lectured in Art and Design at Massey University. He also co-founded the Outsider Art Show in Auckland, New Zealand last year.
He sees a clear definition between the above concepts, but downplays the therapy that general art might offer.
“I find having a beer therapeutic, the same goes for watching a movie. All these things are self-medicating in some way and art can certainly play that role.
“However art therapy [proper] is making art to maybe facilitate unconscious ‘stuff’, used for a specifically therapeutic or even diagnostic purpose. You’ll find it is common in instances such as children traumatised by an earthquake – they might use materials like clay to make little houses which externalise the trauma. It is almost like an occupational therapy practice.”
He is supported in this approach by Lifespan Psychiatrist, Geoff Richards: “Using creativity and internal resources in a non-threatening space or environment is very positive; it allows the person to develop and recover in a low-stress way.”
Like Shepherd, he sees art practice as a good habit that, like many others, takes one out of oneself.
“It is a common approach we use in life: things like being engaged in employment, having an interest in working on cars, building relationships with people we care about, are examples I often use to show that distraction and motivation to do something else really aides in recovery.”
This tactic used by the late Richard Matt’s prison mate Anthony Papa certainly seems to prove its success. Artnet.com reported last week that Papa was serving 15 years to life when he was taught how to paint. Art is “a very powerful rehabilitating tool…not only for the prisoner, but for the institution” says the now ex-convict who has gone on to sell work for four-figure sums.
One of the most famous advocates of art therapy was twentieth century German Gestalt psychiatrist and psychotherapist Fritz Perls. He said art is in fact the healthiest form of projection and wrote several books on the subject. Pask and modern day art therapists base their work on this thinking and claim projection through art works especially well for people who are not linear thinkers. She feels there are plenty of children like this, and not enough of them get the chance to express themselves with the messiness of art.
“There are a lot of children out there who have not had the chance to play like this. Through art therapy they can really be a child and fill in those lost creative gaps. Consequently there are also a lot of adults out there who did not get chance to express themselves in any creative way who benefit from working through trauma or emotion using art.”
Late 20th century American artist Edward Hopper captured the theme succinctly saying, ‘If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.’
The most distinct division between art and art therapy is made by multi-faceted Australian Educational Therapist Narelle Smith in her Critical Companions blog.
She states that the process and the product are the keys to a definition: ‘The finished product of the [art therapy] client is the expression of his or her self, and is not meant to appeal to or draw praise from others.’ Smith says that trained artists have an opposing approach: ‘they have a tendency to want to create work that is aesthetically pleasing, which can stunt or repress the flow of unconscious thoughts and feelings’.
U.S counsellor and award winning art therapist Shelley Klammer has developed the latter skill set so specifically that she in now teaching an online at expressiveartworkshops.com. This platform offers an art e-course with phone and skype back-up plus a plethora of free resources. The mantra is that creating unplanned work and spontaneous imagery allows us to access intuitive wisdom as well as clear out unconscious psychological patterns.
Increasingly New Zealand psychotherapists are offering online therapy, but its artistic branch is not that sophisticated here yet. Although formal recognition and qualification for art therapy began in America, UK and Europe in the 1940’s, New Zealand did not open its arms to qualifying it until 2006. Qualifications such as post graduate diplomas and Master’s Degrees are now offered at a number of institutions and the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) recognises it as a viable therapy for dealing with trauma.
For more information on practicing or experiencing art therapy in New Zealand visit: