The visual arts help people see their lives, their problems, and even their defenses from a different point of view.
The Healing Power of Art Therapy
by Ericha Scott, PhD, Board Certified Registered Art Therapist and Registered Expressive Arts Therapist
I am the daughter of a southern belle debutante who drank. The family secret is that I was born with multiple physical and developmental challenges due to an exposure to alcohol in utero. I had failed fourth grade and I was just about to fail it twice when I overheard my teacher whisper to my mother, “You know she really likes art, why don’t you give her art lessons?”
I can remember thinking that was a good idea. My mother hired a long-haired hippy who drank to teach me how to paint, and in doing so changed my life. By fifth grade I was reading college level. While I cannot make a claim that the two are directly related, after decades of study, I would say yes: art helped me to read, or at least to care enough to read.
As a child, art woke my sleeping heart and mind. As a professional, I have been blessed to witness how art has wrought miracles similar to mine in the lives of my clients for past 30 years.
Today, I am an artist, a certified art therapist, and a licensed professional clinical counselor who uses art with my clients inside the practice of psychotherapy. I would no longer have this tremendous passion for my work if I had not used art – all forms of art – as my co-therapist.
Personally, I use art for a myriad of reasons. There are times I am just a Sunday painter or photographer, and times that I am professional artist and teacher. Other times, art is my lifeline, a way to express the inexpressible, like the death of my beloved husband and my grief about violence in the world.
All of that to say, art is my medicine, my comfort, and my go-to for insight and meaning. Art facilitates my deepest and most accurate intuitions. It is for these reasons that art has become instrumental to my addiction and psychotherapy practice.
What is art therapy?
At the beginning of my career, a supervisor suggested that I incorporate art therapy into my practice. I am still slightly embarrassed to admit that I had to ask him, “What is art therapy?” Now, after five more years of college, numerous credentials and recognitions, and a few publications in peer review journals, I am still asking that that question. Although it may be difficult to quantify, I have found that the power behind art therapy is undeniable.
The International Expressive Arts Therapy Association offers the most comprehensive definition, “the expressive arts combine the visual arts, movement, drama, music, writing and other creative processes to foster deep personal growth and community development…. By integrating the arts processes and allowing one to flow into another, we gain access to our inner resources for healing, clarity, illumination and creativity.”
I liken the multimodal processes of the creative arts therapies to cross training your brain and psyche, in a similar fashion to how athletes cross train their bodies for a marathon race.
Why Art Therapy?
The visual arts help people see their lives, their problems, and even their defenses from a different point of view. I have often observed a client with a history of sexual abuse paint the abuse and a long history of gynecological problems on a life-sized body tracing before saying, “I never connected my sexual abuse to my health problems before”.
There are times that words are not enough. There are times that memory is encoded in image, not just language. There are times that an experience has only a few words attached to it and therefore cannot be adequately described without an image. For example, consider how much less this article would mean to you, without the visual images.
… Read the full story in the summer issue of Renew, available online.