Painting the colors of our soul: how art therapy helps us heal

Today I met with Denver art therapist Erin Brumleve, who shared with me how art can help clients express themselves, heal, and process difficult emotions in the therapeutic process.  I was fascinated by the parallels of our two practices, both of which have goals to help clients  initiate change and promote wellness, and I am struck by the ways these goals can be facilitated in diverse ways.  Erin works often with children and families who are going through transitions such as divorce, adoption, or processing trauma and through the use of her extensive art therapy room, offers clients an alternative to talk therapy for expressing their feelings (and sometimes using art can decrease anxiety and make it easier to talk as well).

I am writing about art therapy today as a sort of extension of the blog post I wrote a little while back about the effects of music therapy.  Both music and art (and dance, another form of healing expression) offer us modalities to express our feelings when sometimes words might be lost or too difficult to say.  By singing or playing an instrument, or by drawing the feelings that we have inside, we utilize different parts of our brain to release these buried feelings.  Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that uses art materials such as paint, chalk, clay, markers, and other forms of creativity to freely process feelings and emotions.  It is a combination of psychotherapy and artistic representation of the creative process — and it is amazing the affective power that certain types of art can have over our feelings.  Have you ever felt moved by a painting or sculpture that really spoke to an experience you have had or evoked a memory from long ago?  How about the way that we can seemingly leave our reality behind as we channel passion and discovery into an artistic creation?

There tend to be two ways of looking at the power of art therapy.  The first involves honoring the creative and healing process of creating a piece of art.  In this way, the actual process of creation and the thought and emotion that is put behind this process is therapeutic — an authentic representation of imagination.  The second form of art therapy believes in the powerful meaning that our artistic creations can hold for us.  This facet, known as artistic psychotherapy, emphasizes the drawings and products of our work as a means for communicating our feelings, conflicts, and issues in an alternative way.  Mandalas, colorful circles with symbolic meaning, have been referred to by Carl Jung as “a representation of the unconscious self”.  Art therapy offers numerous forms of transformation, whether it is through the process of creating art or through deconstructing the messages that our art tells us.

So what are the benefits of art therapy?  Art therapists believe that art is a form of entry into our lives in a way that lowers the barrier:  all of us can be creative in some sense or another, and this process of discovery is a easy way to open up.  Art therapy is especially helpful for children, as expressing feelings through drawing or creation is perhaps less daunting than trying to verbalize with words the things they feel (and this can also be the case for adults).  Just as a psychotherapist can help you uncover themes and patterns through interpretation of your story in talk therapy, art therapists are skilled at helping us depict the meaning of our art in a way that applies to our everyday reality.  Things about ourselves that we may not even notice can be easily pointed out through artistic expression, and this artistic expression can in turn help us communicate our needs and wants to other people in our lives.  Erin Brumleve talks in her latest blog post about the effective way that art therapy can help blended families understand that they are not “broken”, and can help normalize the process of divorce and remarriage.

Some of us profess to not “be artistic” (yes, myself included!), and might have anxiety about the thought of creating a piece of art.  Don’t let this anxiety place obstacles in your path.  Talk with your therapist or a loved one about this anxiety — picking apart the reasons for it can be an amazing entry into underlying concerns (“My art won’t be very good and that will make me feel not good enough”, might be one anxiety).  Then think about who you are comparing it to….and why?  Art is very personal and very unique.  Our art will be like no one else’s and in that sense there is no comparison.  I have a series of mandalas that I have drawn as a way to express my own artistic self.  I learned through creating them that the symbols and colors I chose are connected to meaningful aspects of my life and as the mandalas progress I can see them aligned with a life transition I am experiencing.

The beauty of art is that it is special, boundless, and our own.  It can open many doors for healing and growth.


One Response to “Painting the colors of our soul: how art therapy helps us heal”

  1. Wow, Kate, what a wonderful post! It was great to connect with you today as well! Thank you for educating me about narrative therapy. How funny that we both have our practices in old historic buildings. Your blog is a terrific resource for folks curious about working with a therapist/counselor!