Beauty / Wellbeing

The painter: finding therapy through the arts

Drawing is feeling. Colour is an act of reason. On creativity and finding therapy through the arts.

From the time we enter the world until the time we depart it, we are conditioned to believe that art is virtuous – a talent to be coveted and a craft to be dispatched to lofty heights: from the fridge doors of our youth to gallery walls and church ceilings. As a construct, art’s meaning is fairly ambiguous, and what makes it ‘good’ is just as contentious (a decision attributed to the all-knowing ‘they’). From a young age we are told that certain people ‘just get’ it, and others just don’t. It’s a trait you’re born with, tricky to develop from nothing. I was not the artistic child in my class – I showed promise at an early age with Faber-Castell watercolours but was soon outshone by a gifted peer named Taylor. So I moved on, like many others, to different pursuits, adding ‘artistic’ to a list of personal attributes I would no longer strive for.

Not long ago a friend convinced me to try a pottery class with her. My expectations weren’t high, though there was definitely a sense of achievement when our teacher handed over our bowls or plates or cups, glazed and fired and, though certainly imperfect, usable. I was proud of my efforts, and began to question whether the benefit of just creating for the hell of it was something I had been missing out on all this time.

The meditative effect that creating art has on the body has been examined for years, but what of the positive effect on the mind? How does art-making affect us on a neural level? In the 2014 study published by the Public Library of Science, How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity, researchers concluded through the analysis of two groups of retirees that creating visual art increased psychological resilience, as well as directly leading to a rise in brain activity. The experiment allowed one group to practise art-making over a period of 10 weeks while the other group participated in discussion-like classes. It was found that those who produced visual art had increased connectivity within the brain’s default mode network – an area that deals with memory, introspection and self-monitoring.

Perhaps my own perceived lack of artistic talent has fuelled my scepticism of using art as a means of therapeutic relief. Why would someone draw or paint for respite from their problems when they’ve long been conditioned to believe their attempts just don’t look good enough? Arts therapist and president of the Australian Creative Arts Therapies Association, Nyrelle Bade, says a large number of her clients also describe themselves as ‘un-artistic’. “It’s amazing for me because clients that come to me aren’t artistic people, and I’d say that 90 per cent of my clients would not consider themselves artistic,” she explains. “We have an image in our minds that art has to look good – it’s valued through that.”

She clarifies: “We are not making it to make a good piece of art. We are using art media to express things that are sometimes difficult to express through language.” Arts therapy is based on the use of the creative arts within a therapeutic relationship to “express, explore and make sense of experiences”, says Bade. “To derive healing – resolution through healing.”

Arts therapy in practice strives to create interconnectedness between all systems in the body, and the types of people who seek arts therapy “come for a range of things”, says Bade. “We might see children, people across [the] life span. People might come for anxiety and depression, behavioural issues, bullying. Also we can work [in] mental health, palliative care, cancer patients, aged care.”

Practices used by the arts therapist during a session include a variety of visual art tools such as pastels, clay and collage. The use of sound, gesture and movement may also be incorporated into the session. “It’s dependent on what the client comes with in how the art therapist is flexible in meeting the client’s needs,” says Bade. Drama therapy, dance, sound production and performance all also fall within the spectrum of artistic endeavours that might assist on a psychotherapeutic level.

It is a therapy that is often misunderstood or categorised as ‘alternative’, though in Australia it sits under the umbrella of allied health – a term used to describe healthcare professionals who prevent or treat a range of conditions and are not doctors, dentists or nurses. There are many ways in which arts therapy can assist a patient in a way that traditional therapy might not. We exist in a verbal world; communication is constant and vital for survival. However, in a community where there is increased anxiety and stress, the ‘living’ part of life is more frequently relegated to our minds, increasing the disconnect between our brains and our bodies. “People that are very intellectual sometimes [use] art-making to assist them to reconnect with their body,” explains Bade. “I think we all think too much these days, and we may not really be attuned to what is happening in our physiology and our body.”

Studies have also found that simply being in the presence of, and experiencing art, leads to a decrease in stress levels. Professor Angela Clow at the University of Westminster looked at the impact a lunchtime trip to an art gallery had on London City workers. Her study measured the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in participants before and after the gallery visit, and found they were significantly reduced by the experience.

Bade herself acknowledges that there are times when viewing art is a necessary step in the treatment process. “Arts therapists have to be ingenious, and sometimes a client comes to us and wants to see a practitioner but doesn’t actually want to make art.”

This practice is known as ‘art as therapy’ – a concept explored at length in the 2013 book of the same name, co-authored by philosophers and friends John Armstrong and Alain de Botton.

“[We] came to feel that there was a big, interesting argument to be made about what art is for and why it is valuable to us,” explains Armstrong of why they chose to explore the notion – one that has been a longstanding talking point for the pair.

Throughout the book, Armstrong and de Botton assert that art is a “therapeutic medium that can help guide, exhort, and console its viewers, enabling them to become better versions of themselves”. Armstrong says: “The key idea was to take this strange sounding notion of therapy and show how central it really is. Therapy just means emotional help. And the big notion is that art can offer us emotional help. In fact – at root – all ideas about art and its value imply this.”

Art as Therapy identifies seven different psychological functions of art: remembering, hope, sorrow, re-balancing, self-understanding, growth and appreciation. “We started by thinking about the kinds of needs we have … what our psychological frailties are. Things like: we tend to forget what’s important to us; we sometimes feel hopeless; we sometimes overlook things that offer us comfort,” he says.

The book asserts that a reason why many people find it difficult to frame art as a means of therapy is the nature of the galleries themselves. “Without explicitly saying so, galleries tend to give the powerful impression that to ‘get’ art you need to come armed with quite a lot of specialist knowledge,” Armstrong explains. “They hint that the proper response would be something like: ‘Ah yes, an interesting example of the early tendency to abstraction; you can see the influence of Braque here.’ And we feel slightly at a disadvantage if we can’t come up with such statements.”

Armstrong suggests galleries might have more success in allowing for deeper connections to the works by grouping them according to emotional logic, rather than historical chronology. For example, one room might be works that can explore the ideas of envy and regret, encouraging viewers to bring out their sorrows, hopes and fears. “Ideally, galleries would signal that it’s actually much deeper, more useful and more serious to say things like: ‘that makes me think of when I felt lonely when I was 17; the artist seems to have felt that kind of loneliness too’.”

The School of Life – an educational facility with programs in London, Paris, Antwerp, Sydney and Melbourne, founded by de Botton in 2008 and where Armstrong now resides as philosopher-in-chief – fosters this approach through its Art as Therapy guided tour, a concept developed by Armstrong.

Wellbeing consultant and The School of Life faculty member Nadine Cameron leads the Art as Therapy tour at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria. Cameron explains that the tour is a chance for “participants to forget everything they’ve formally learnt about art … to drop their anxieties about what they should or shouldn’t be noticing or thinking about certain works so they can relate to them in a very personal way”.

The tour visits artworks that audiences might normally pass by because they seem strange, alienating, antiquated or too simple. “The point is to show that, if we let them, any artwork can provide us with wonderful food for thought.”

Prior to entering the gallery, Cameron says tour-goers have ideally spent time ‘arriving’: ridding their minds of any lingering preoccupations. “When you walk around an exhibition in deep thought about other things you’ll likely only register ‘Oh, I like that work’ or ‘I don’t like that one’, which is quite a two-dimensional and often impoverished experience.”

Once inside the gallery, ‘students’ are encouraged to avoid reading the artwork’s labels, instead spending a moment in silence, absorbing the work from different angles and distances to see what “impressions, emotions, associations and memories come up for them … and use it as a springboard for richer consideration of their own lives”.

If time or place prevents you from experiencing the tour in person, there are other ways to find similar guidance. Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, who specialises in large-scale installation works, has developed a free app for such a purpose, Your Exhibition Guide. The app uses modern technology to open wide traditional museum and gallery spaces, asking audiences to “move through the exhibition as if you were an asteroid”, and can also be used outside of the museum – during your morning commute, wandering through a new city, taking in both art and everyday objects. A series of exercises encourages viewing from multiple perspectives: “Think about how it feels to encounter art with others. Look at art and imagine it isn’t art. Drift doubtfully through an exhibition. Explore the vital friendship between art and reality.”

If we are going to try to seek out the life in art, it is clear we must first reject assumptions that the ability to express, or fully appreciate, creativity is a sacred talent bestowed on a chosen few. Though it is true that some people more readily enjoy art and the process of making it, each individual has the capacity to be creative – in their thinking, in their doing, in the tiny idiosyncrasies that colour their days. Whether it is in the way they plate a meal, how they stack their bookcases or the succinct application of winged eyeliner, creativity should no longer be viewed as an unattainable state of mind. Next, it’s time for a little reckless self-expression – to make art like nobody’s judging. Rebel against the passing of time and the creativity that was ‘educated’ out of us, and listen to those who tell us it’s more important that art feels, rather than looks, good.

As Armstrong puts it: “Art is good for us as individuals when it corrects an imbalance in our souls.

“We almost all live with a powerful sense of our own failings and shortcomings – and therefore secretly sense already what’s missing in our lives, though we maybe don’t talk much about this to others. We carry with us a dim but important view of ourselves as the better people we would like to be. And art is good to the extent that it actually helps us get closer to becoming who we should ideally be.”