Art ther­apy

Road to re­cov­ery How ef­fec­tive is art as a heal­ing tech­nique for artists? Ju­lia Sa­gar speaks to artists, gets ex­pert opin­ion and ex­am­ines the ev­i­dence…

ImagineFX - - Contents - Read­ers – what do you think about this topic? How ef­fec­tive is art as a tool for heal­ing, and what ex­pe­ri­ences have you had? Email with your thoughts.

How ef­fec­tive is art at heal­ing? We get ex­pert opin­ions and ex­am­ine the ev­i­dence…

If you’ve bought any­thing from Ama­zon in the past three years, you’ll have prob­a­bly no­ticed a sur­pris­ing num­ber of adult colour­ing books topping the best-seller lists.

Once a niche, colour­ing books for adults are now big busi­ness, with users ex­tolling their calm­ing virtues. But why? How ef­fec­tive is art as a ther­a­peu­tic tech­nique? And does that mean artists are the most well-ad­justed peo­ple on the planet?

Scot­tish il­lus­tra­tor Jo­hanna Bas­ford, whose colour­ing books for grown-ups have sold over 16 mil­lion copies world­wide, at­tributes their pop­u­lar­ity to two as­pects: ac­ces­si­bil­ity, and a nos­tal­gic crav­ing for non-dig­i­tal ac­tiv­i­ties. “I get so many emails from peo­ple in all walks of life to say the books have helped them through a tough patch,” says Jo­hanna. “From stressed-out 911 call op­er­a­tors in the US, to teens re­cu­per­at­ing at eat­ing dis­or­der cen­tres, el­derly folks strug­gling with Alzheimer’s or new mums with post-natal de­pres­sion.”

The ther­a­peu­tic ben­e­fits of art have long been doc­u­mented. And while psy­chother­a­pists point out that colour­ing isn’t an au­to­matic ticket to mind­ful­ness, they do agree that the process of art-mak­ing can be a health-en­hanc­ing prac­tice, which pos­i­tively im­pacts the qual­ity of life.

Cathy Mal­chiodi is an in­ter­na­tional ex­pert, writer and ed­u­ca­tor in the fields of art ther­apy and art in health­care. She be­lieves that while there are of course times when we need some pro­fes­sional sup­port – whether that be from a ther­a­pist, doc­tor, men­tor, friend or a com­mu­nity as a whole – art ex­ists as a nat­u­ral rem­edy for many of life’s chal­lenges, loss and trauma in par­tic­u­lar.

“There isn’t any one par­tic­u­lar way that this oc­curs,” Cathy says, “but many artists have used their cre­ative process to cope with their de­pres­sion or other is­sues. Each per­son has his or her own path to repa­ra­tion and re­cov­ery.”

A quick look at the rich heritage of fa­mous artists who have ex­plored in­tense psy­cho­log­i­cal themes in their work proves Cathy right: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ed­vard Munch, Vin­cent van Gogh… the list goes on. Whether the process is a vent, time out or some­thing more com­plex al­to­gether, it’s clear that peo­ple have long sought ther­a­peu­tic par­tic­i­pa­tion in art.

One strat­egy among many

For con­cept artist Dar­ren Yeow, it’s proven use­ful as one of myr­iad men­tal health­care strate­gies he’s un­der­taken over the years. How­ever, he points out that art didn’t cover up some se­ri­ous as­pects of men­tal health, which needed the guid­ance and feed­back of a pro­fes­sional coun­sel­lor.

Dar­ren was a vic­tim of sex­ual abuse when he was young and says that he strug­gled with the fall­out for many years. As a child, he drew lots of mon­sters and “an­gry, scary-look­ing things”. He ex­plains: “That’s prob­a­bly why I liked to draw Venom, Wolver­ine and Bat­man: tor­ment was al­most a su­per­power for those guys. When I drew them, I felt like I chan­nelled some of that hurt out on to the pa­per. It was just an un­con­scious act of self-sooth­ing.”

In his teens, Dar­ren turned to mar­tial arts as a way of reg­u­lat­ing his feelings of shame and hurt, pre­vent­ing them from mor­ph­ing into phys­i­cal vi­o­lence. Every­thing was

I liked to draw Venom, Wolver­ine and Bat­man – tor­ment was al­most a su­per­power for those guys

fine un­til a few years ago when, work­ing as a pro­fes­sional artist, a pe­riod of sig­nif­i­cant busi­ness and per­sonal stress brought up a torrent of la­tent anger.

“I found that I hadn’t re­ally tack­led the un­der­ly­ing is­sues,” Dar­ren ad­mits. “When a par­tic­u­larly stress­ful in­ci­dent oc­curred and I couldn’t re­call that I had punched a hole in the wall as a re­sult, I felt it was time I needed to seek out pro­fes­sional help in deal­ing with my emo­tions, be­fore things spi­ralled out of con­trol.”

There’s an­other an­gle, too. As ev­ery artist knows, the process of mak­ing art isn’t al­ways re­lax­ing. For free­lancers it can be lonely stuck at home in front of a screen all day, and for all cre­atives it can be frus­trat­ing – as Toronto-based il­lus­tra­tor Re­becca Yanovskaya knows only too well. “As much as I love art-mak­ing, it brings me a cer­tain amount of anx­i­ety as well,” she says, “be­cause of the need to cre­ate great pieces and live up to my ex­pec­ta­tions.”

So what about pro­fes­sional art ther­apy? Do artists have any­thing to gain in a pro­fes­sional fo­rum? Re­becca has vis­ited an art ther­a­pist be­fore. She re­mains un­con­vinced as to how ef­fec­tive art can be as a ther­a­peu­tic tech­nique for work­ing artists. “We’re immersed in art in a money- mak­ing ca­pac­ity,” she ar­gues. “Ther­apy for us might work bet­ter if it’s some­thing far re­moved from what we do ev­ery day.”

No n-artists can still ben­e­fit

How­ever, Cathy thinks there can be as much value for artists as for non-artists, as long as par­tic­i­pants are com­mit­ted to the process. “If one wants an­other per­spec­tive, and to ex­pe­ri­ence art-mak­ing in a dif­fer­ent way, then art ther­apy might be help­ful,” she says, “es­pe­cially since one of its goals is to guide the in­di­vid­ual to­ward new in­sights and ex­pe­ri­ences that sup­port a sense of well­be­ing through art.”

For any­one think­ing about get­ting in­volved, there are plenty of op­tions. “On­line art-mak­ing com­mu­ni­ties of­fer art-mak­ing ex­pe­ri­ences for self-ex­plo­ration and self­care, rather than ther­apy per se,” she says. “Artists who are new to the idea of mak­ing art as self-care or as self-ex­plo­ration may find this ap­proach un­com­fort­able at first, but give it a shot; it some­times even pro­vides a new di­rec­tion for your own artis­tic style and in­ten­tions.”

Just re­mem­ber to leave your ego well out of it, warns Re­becca – and Dar­ren agrees: “Don’t turn it into a study ses­sion or illustration as­sign­ment,” the artist ad­vises. “There’s no need to im­press other peo­ple. Just let the sty­lus flow.”

We’re immersed in art… ther­apy for us might work bet­ter if it’s some­thing far re­moved from what we do

Tran­sient, by Allen Wil­liams, who sketched many pieces through his treat­ment and re­cov­ery from can­cer. Dar­ren Yeow says art – like this piece, Astro – can help as an out­let for cer­tain feelings.

The cre­ative process can ac­tu­ally in­duce feelings of anx­i­ety, as Re­becca Yanovskaya points out. In his younger years, Dar­ren drew char­ac­ters like Venom, Wolver­ine and Bat­man a lot.

An illustration from Jo­hanna Bas­ford’s adult colour­ing book, Lost Ocean.

For Rev­e­la­tion #1, Re­becca used ball­point pen with 22k old leaf ap­plique. Moun­tains is a client piece by Dar­ren, but land­scapes have also fea­tured in his self-ad­min­is­tered ther­a­putic art­work.

Dar­ren saw tor­ment as al­most a su­per­power for char­ac­ters like Wolver­ine. Jo­hanna’s cus­tomers find so­lace in her adult colour­ing books – in the sim­ple plea­sure of putting pen to pa­per.

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