Guest post by Marliën Barnard
There is a lot of talk lately about art therapy. It’s an area filled with fuzzy thinking and unqualified practitioners. But if art therapy really is able to help the process of psychotherapy, how does it work? How can it give us greater insight into people?
And is it really effective in psychological healing?
To Go Beyond the Theory
As a psychotherapist, academically grounded in psychological theorems, my experiences with clients over the years have attuned me to a key factor. No single person can be fully understood by a theoretical perspective on behaviour or personality. The theories may help us along by indicating the parts that contribute to the whole, but the whole remains an elusive ever-shifting concept that we only glimpse in those moments when a person is fully present.
When Words are Not Enough
I’ve often experienced that using language to conduct therapy removes us from experience. Experience is first and foremost felt, and then it is judged by adding interpretation, which is already one level removed from the raw experience.
The second level of removal happens when we use words to interpret. Words that almost always lack the ability to express the depth of meaning we actually experience. This lack of proximity is compounded by language barriers, especially in a multicultural society like South Africa, where a myriad different languages and dialects complicates matters.
The gulf between what we’ve experienced and how we express it grows and grows, to the point where words can’t really be trusted. I’ve often felt like we’re conducting an exercise in translation, rather than communication!
Digging Deeper to Find the Real Story
In the non-verbal communication of my clients, I have often picked up more valuable, therapeutic information than in the ‘what is said’. Content clouds process. As a therapist, one is always digging underneath the content to unearth the processes and the patterns that tell the client’s real story.
In my own journey with the arts (music and visual art) I have experienced that when words fail, I can still express my emotions accurately through music and art. It is the crescendo or diminuendo in a Beethoven sonata, it is the hard, agitated brush stroke on a canvas versus the fluid ease of letting go with watercolours, gently merging as they dry. Therein lies true expression and, more importantly, healing.
The expression of an emotion becomes healing when we realize that we have allowed ourselves to externalize feelings of hurt, anger, sadness, frustration and disappointment.
Internationally-renowned artist and author, Shaun McNiff, once said:
“Art can heal wherever it is practiced, whereas art therapy is a more circumscribed experience that takes place within the context of a therapeutic relationship between qualified therapists and clients and with resources that do no exist when a person creates alone.”
Do What Works for the Client
Art also transcends the restrictions of working from a specific theoretical perspective. At a recent conference, Nancy McMillian, a US doctor of social sciences said that it has been proven that 10 psychotherapists who have been trained in the same paradigm would work more diversely than 10 psychotherapists trained in different paradigms, if the second group had been conducting therapy for at least 10 years.
This means that, as we gain experience as therapists, we do more and more of what works for the client, and not what makes us feel comfortable as therapists.
Art Becomes the Dialogue
In art therapy, the art becomes the framework we as therapists will work from. The artwork becomes the co-participant that has a life of its own and becomes the dialogue that serves the purpose of language in traditional therapy.
And in the group art therapy experience, that healing happens in reflection of the artwork, a meditative contemplation of the work, where the artwork speaks and enables the members of the group speaking to one another with complete acceptance and non-judgement. The role of the art therapist is to hold this safe, non-judgmental space and to facilitate the dialogue between client and image.
When the artwork speaks, it is:
Irrespective of the perspective on behaviour with which the therapist arrives, the art work will say what the client is ready to hear.
Healing With Group Art Therapy
My own focus is on group art therapy, to reach more clients with this dynamic process. In the safe slipstream of group participation, clients reach deep within themselves and create art in a collaborative space. They discover creative resources within themselves that they wouldn’t reach by themselves.
The creative energy generated when people meditate and reflect on art together far surpasses that from the individual. It is my challenge and privilege as a therapist to harness this energy and facilitate the process of helping clients to heal through art.