The Healing Power of Art

The Healing Power of Art Therapy Samantha Davis

Written by Samantha Davis

How does Art Therapy actually ‘work’ you may wonder? “Does the client arrive and just you tell them what to draw?” is a question that I often get asked. Well actually, quite the opposite! I provide a safe space whereby clients can use the room and art materials in whatever way they want. In psychodynamic terms, I work ‘non-directively’ with adults and children, meaning that I allow and encourage people to work at their own pace on their own ideas and personal themes that organically emerge. I find from experience that whatever is on a person’s mind will come out when it feels safe enough, without having to tell a person what to draw. This approach provides an opportunity for self-express and exploration of thoughts and feelings in a safe, non-intrusive and non-judgmental manner.

The Healing Power of Art - Art Therapy

To illustrate this I would like to give you an example of an Art Therapy process with a woman in her late-30’s who attended individual Art Therapy sessions. One day she brought in a poem that she had written during the week when she felt “angry, battered and bruised”. She spoke of a visual image she had in her mind (from a dream or meditation) of an upside-down long pyramid-like shape filled with ‘gunk’. Having worked with her for some months already, I wondered out loud whether the gunk could be years of pain in the form of thoughts, experiences, feelings and perceptions. I asked her whether she would like to create an image of the shape. She chose charcoal, chalk and a thick brown sheet of paper and began to draw the outline of the shape, pressing hard with the black charcoal over and over to get the desired strength and thickness of the lines in the pyramid like shape. She remained silent throughout the process – very absorbed and zoned in on her image.

When she indicated that she was complete we discussed her experience, reflecting on the process and symbolism that emerged. She said that whilst she was pressing hard there were memories floating through her mind but she was on a mission to continue until she felt complete and had filled the page.

Clients organically choose mediums that best convey whatever they need to explore and work through at the time. Chalk and charcoal can have quite a soft quiet calming effect when pressed lightly. However pressing hard, actual physical exertion is required to make a stronger louder mark. She reflected how the black charcoal represented her pain, the darkness and difficulties that she had experienced. The blue chalk represented the mean people, the bullies.

The Healing Power of Art - Art Therapy

There seemed to be an actual physical relief after she had completed the initial drawing, plus that of feeling ‘spent’ from the exertion. Each piece of charcoal and chalk literally disintegrated and crumbled into a short fat stub from the distinctively hard pressure onto the page. This seemed to symbolize the clients experience in her poem of having to speak really loudly in order to be seen, heard and acknowledged, but that she crumbled from the exertion and was left feeling battered and bruised. The brown paper was thick and strong and felt like a solid container for the clients intolerable and difficult feelings, in that the paper could survive the pressure of the chosen art mediums. The yellow chalk that arose at the end was her ‘playing with the potential of the light’… ‘What would happen if there was light?’ She mused…

She then mentioned that she didn’t like, need or want the image… It felt as though she was simultaneously (although unconsciously) saying that she didn’t know what to do with these difficult feelings. This uncertainty indicated to me that perhaps there was still something that needed doing… that the process was not yet complete…

The Healing Power of Art - Art TherapyI asked if she there was anything she still needed to do with or to the image and if so what that might be. She thought about it and smiling, somewhat rebelliously, said she would actually like to tear it up into little pieces.  She then began to tear the image up into small pieces, carefully and methodically bit by bit. It didn’t seem to matter what size or shape each piece was, but more that each piece got torn again and again. She ended up with a mound of torn pieces which lay in a heap at her feet. She then selected a fresh piece of thick brown paper and wood glue. She poured the thick white glue into squirly shapes onto the brown paper.

She then began to stick every single piece of paper down. It didn’t seem to matter what went where. Pieces were overlapping, layered and jutting out. It was as though each piece were a piece of a puzzle that didn’t need to fit perfectly but just needed to be included. Each piece was like a thought, feeling, person or experience that was being seen, heard and acknowledged by its mere existence and inclusion in being stuck down. Each experience had played an important role in her journey thus far.

The glue was like the binding medium. It has potential for connection, meaning and holding things together. She squeezed out more glue as she went along, as though she needing further support to bind, hold and herself and her experiences.

The Healing Power of Art - Art TherapyWhen she returned the next session she said that the colours reminded her of army clothing. We explored how people in the army are strong, are fighters and survivors as well as being very loyal to their country and their people. Picking up her image, I acknowledged the weight of it, and how strong and solid it felt in my hands. She identified the strength within herself, that she too was a fighter. We explored her image rotating it 90 degrees at a time. At one point she noted that she could see the sun coming out from the bottom left corner. From that angle she pointed out the bits of yellow rays seeping through. She then spontaneously collected another sheet of brown paper, yellow and orange paint, saying she wanted to add the sun. She then poured yellow paint directly onto the page, smudging some areas in with a brush and water. She used words such as ‘shining, glowing, light and bright’ to describe the effect of the sun shining through the image.

She later commented on how the collage behind the sun seemed so much darker and faded. It was as though the difficult feelings prior had faded into layers of the past and the shreds of a raging angry fire had faded into the background, that which she was leaving behind. Emerging from this process were the brighter colours of the yellow sun that felt lighter, more freeing and joyful.

This case illustration depicts the healing power of art on many levels. It shows how providing a safe therapeutic space for whatever the client needs to bring is beneficial in giving the client the freedom to make his/her own choices. It shows how the specific mediums chosen are so poignant in that a client organically chooses what he/she needs to express without even knowing it at the time.  Both the physical exertion of using these mediums and thereafter the tearing provided a therapeutic relief and outlets for the working through of strong difficult feelings.

The process of tearing had the effect of a type of deconstruction and breaking down of painful feelings into more manageable bite size pieces. There was no judgment of either the feelings not the image but rather allowing for a process of letting it all come tumbling out (unconsciously of course) and then selecting each piece, one by one, with a new sense of choice and control. The re-construction of a new image out of the pain, felt more contained, manageable and lighter, thus enabling reparation and the processing of difficulties on a profoundly deep and transformative level.

Please note that one can only legitimately use ‘Art Therapy’ with clients once you have undergone a registered Art Therapy training (which is only available internationally) and are then registered with the HPCSA. For more info on an international Masters in Art Therapy, go here.

Art Therapy Workshops in South Africa

Art Therapy 1-Day Intro Course (Cape Town)

1-Day Intro Course (CT)

Tues 14 May 2019

This one-day course is aimed at introducing you to the dynamic and exciting process of Art Therapy and how it can be applied to adults and children of all ages. An exciting combination of learning, experiential art-making and questions and answers in a group environment. No art experience required!

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Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar Cape Town

3-Day Seminar (CT)

17-19 Jun 2019

An introduction to the process of Art Therapy including theory, case studies, experiential art making, exploration, sharing daily plus journaling. Less intense, lighter, shorter and cheaper than the 5-Day Intensive Course.

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Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar (Johannesburg)

3-Day Seminar (JHB)

Dates TBC

An introduction to the process of Art Therapy including theory, case studies, experiential art making, exploration, sharing daily plus journaling. Less intense, lighter, shorter and cheaper than the 5-Day Intensive Course.

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Art Therapy 5-Day Intensive Course (Cape Town)

5-Day Intensive Course (CT)

6-12 November 2019

5 consecutive weekdays excluding the weekend

A dynamic combination of psychodynamic and Art Therapy theory, case studies, experiential art making, journaling and reflection within a psychodynamic group environment. Beneficial for both personal and professional growth. Includes comprehensive course manual and journal.

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Art Therapy 5 Day Intensive Course Johannesburg

5-Day Intensive Course (JHB)

28 August - 3 September 2019

5 consecutive weekdays excluding the weekend

A dynamic combination of psychodynamic and Art Therapy theory, case studies, experiential art making, journaling and reflection within a psychodynamic group environment. Beneficial for both personal and professional growth. Includes comprehensive course manual and journal.

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Advanced Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar (Cape Town)

Advanced Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar (CT)

23-25 July or 30 July - 1 Aug 2019

*NEW* Advanced Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar – after completion of the Art Therapy 3-Day Seminar or the Art Therapy 5-Day Intensive course – this ADVANCED or TOP-UP Seminar is built on previously explored concepts and group experiences.

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Mandala Workshop

Mandala Workshop (CT)

Friday 9 August 2019 (National Women's Day)

A Mandala is a Sanskrit word for a ‘sacred’ or ‘magic circle’. Mandalas have been used for centuries in meditative and creative practices. This half day workshop is designed to help you relax and unwind and get into a space of being in the present moment through art, visualization, letting go in order to access a spontaneous, innate creative place within yourself. A real treat!

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Art as Communication 8 Week Course

Art as Communication (CT)

August/Sept 2019

(This course runs for 8 consecutive weeks on a Monday evening.)

A hands-on experiential art making workshop and exploring of images within a group format, whilst introducing basic Art Therapy theoretical ''concepts''. Various art materials are used as a means of self-expression and communication.

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Art Therapy Vision Board Workshop - Cape Town

Vision Board Workshop (CT)

Fri 25 Jan / Sun 27 Jan / Mon 28 Jan 2019

A combination of colour, pictures, words and Art Therapy techniques to identify, explore and creatively set goals for 2018. Lay the foundations for the New Year! No art experience required.

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Art Therapy and Mindfulness Workshop (Cape Town)

Art Therapy & Mindfulness Workshop (CT)

Wed 10 April 2019

Join the 1-Day Art Therapy & Mindfulness Workshop to explore and experience the art of being present! Tap into your innate creativity, with a focus on being in the moment, accessing joy, insight, wellness, gratitude, playfulness and having fun through art. No art experience required.

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Art Therapy Creative Year-End Workshops

Creative Year-End Functions (CT)

November / December 2018

Wondering what to do for your end-of-year function in Cape Town? Try something different - choose creativity and finish 2018 with an Art Therapy Creative Year-End Workshop. Funky, unique, innovative, relaxing and fun - no art skill required. Book yours today!

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Art Therapy for Corporates

Creative Workshops for Corporates

Upon request

Tailor-made for organisations and corporate settings! Various creative interventions available, which encompass a uniquely developed and researched methodology utilizing practical, creative and experiential learning rather than the traditional 'learning from lecture and notes' approach.

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Art Therapy in Education

Art Therapy Workshops for Educators

Upon request

Tailor-made Art Therapy workshops for groups of educators, art teachers and councillors working in school settings. Choose from a 2 hour mini-workshop or a 1-Day Art Therapy workshop...

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