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Healing Power of Art Defined

Nexus Psychology Blog

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January 10, 2016

Article written by Sally Websiter

Art’s healing power is a popular subject these days. Most recently the astonishingly well received colouring book trend has brought attention to creating a calm mind through immersing oneself in a sea of meticulously penned colour.

On a teaching level, events like the first-time conference collaboration between The New Zealand and Australian Arts Therapy Association (ANZATA) and The Australian Creative Arts Therapy Association (ACATA) in Brisbane this October reveal that professional regard for art therapy is growing significantly.

But what does art therapy ‘proper’ look like for everyday people struggling with mental and emotional challenges? How does it differ from the general cathartic benefits that artists get from practising art for a living and where do the two overlap?

Auckland artist and social anxiety sufferer Laurence Couchman finds that art practice has gradually taught him to remain in the moment after years of palpitating, paralysing feelings. “My father started me painting to distract me [from anxiety]. I’m not conscious when I paint. It is my escape from everything” he says of his energetic Dada-esque work.

And he is certainly not alone in feeling this way.

Pablo Picasso said: ‘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.’

In a more clinical setting, the same pattern of legitimately artistic skill emerging from the comfort of practicing it can be seen in Auckland’s Toi Ora Live Arts Trust 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. At Toi Ora he discovered he could paint and has gradually gone on to find a sustainable mental balance and sell numerous works at supporting galleries.

Blythe suffered from extreme psychosis 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.

Glenda Needs, Head of the Creative Therapies School at the IKON Institute of Australia completed Post Graduate Arts Therapy training at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and has a background in multimodal Arts Therapy as well as an academic and practical background in drama, art, neuroscience, disability, counselling, clinical supervision, paediatric psycho-social palliative care and art therapy.

With this wealth of experience however, articles penned by Needs suggests there is still much understanding required before we can coin precisely how art heals, even though the teacher statesthat art making is not merely a distraction technique, but that it can be a significant mood regulator.’

Needs quotes two Boston College studies that go a long way in proving the positive effect of art therapy: in 2005, Petrillo and Winner’s work was published in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association. Using 42 participants they showed that freely drawing art to express feelings as a pose to copying shapes produced a very positive mood. Dalebroux, Goldstein and Winner published their work in Motivation and Emotion in 2008 and in Needs words demonstrated that ‘distraction alone is not as effective as directing positive imagery connected to, but moving away from, the precipitating factors for the negative mood…This process of drawing a positive picture as a sequel to the negative imagery fits well with Freud’s theory.’

Clearly not everyone seeking solace this way is going to produce work that will sell like Couchman, King and Blythe’s has. And neither should they try, for that is not the point of art therapy.

Multi-faceted Australian Educational Therapist Narelle Smith writes in her Critical Companions blog that, ‘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.’

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 no matter the result. She works with a range of children from those with learning disorders to victims of physical and sexual abuse.

“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.”

Stuart Shepherd lectures in the Bachelor of Creative Industries course at New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty Polytech and previously lectured in Art and Design at Massey University. He also co-founded the Outsider Art Show in Auckland last year. Outsider artists are those who are not trained in a fine arts discipline, but have a market following.

Shepherd 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.”

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.

“There are a lot of children out there who have not had the chance to play [with art] like this” says Pask. “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.”

As late 20th century American artist Edward Hopper put it: ‘If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.’

For more information on practising or experiencing all kinds of art therapy in New Zealand and Australia visit: Australian and New Zealand Arts Therapy Association at

Image courtesy of via Google Images

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