The heart of the matter: art as healing



At the heart of any artistic endeavor is just that – heart. As discussed in a previous issue of The Weekender, here at Berkeley, students are already using this form of personal expression as a means to manage their own mental health. But what does that all add up to in a more professional setting?

Helen B. Landgarten Art Therapy Clinic Director, associate professor of Marital and Family Therapy at Loyola Marymount University and American Art Therapy Association board member Paige Asawa explained how art therapy is intrinsically different from traditional forms of therapy, and how she has experienced its efficacy throughout her life and career.

“What makes it so poignant is that it is very clear to the client what is being discussed and it gives that ethereal experience a tangible form,” Asawa explained. “It creates a concrete record, a record of what is going on in the therapy, and what is transpired in the course of therapy.”

It is the manifestation of the heart of the issue, an expressive act. It is to make that which is so seemingly ugly and painful into something beautiful, to make something which is so often a source of fear and distress into something tangible and real and, in that way, less terrifying.

This method of self-expression and self-care is something that came naturally to Asawa and which, she stated, is natural to human beings as a whole. Art therapists are trained to teach clients how utilize this innate sense for creative expression.

“I think, first of all, art is a very therapeutic entity in its own right, so of course anyone can use art in their lives for whatever purpose they need it…. That’s why human beings are drawn to create art, because we inherently understand that it has therapeutic qualities,” Asawa explained. “However, art therapy is very different in that the art is used particularly as an intervention in a therapeutic psychotherapy context.”

The proof of this inborn tendency was seen and expressed through Asawa’s clinical experiences treating individuals in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She recalled how she spent long spans of time traveling to and from the locations struck by the hurricane.

“Without even asking, the children and the adults and the families and the other supportive people there, (when expressing feelings) about their experiences, they were able to express their experience through the art… without any guidance,” Asawa said. “And they were able to use the art to process this horrific, long-term, both natural and human-made disaster that had affected their lives, and… some of them for the rest of their lives.”

Her focus draws on the concept of self-care, a concept that is particularly relevant for college students.

While art therapy is not highly advertised nor incredibly well-known as a form of therapy, according to Asawa, it has been shown to be highly effective in the aforementioned sense.

“(Art therapy) reaches those nonverbal places where trauma is stored in the psyche and in the body. (It) can really release those traumatic events so that they are not detrimental to the person’s development and growth, and I think that that’s specifically one of many areas in which art therapy far surpasses other types of therapy,” Asawa explained.

She went on to explain exactly why art therapy, even in a less clinical sense, is so intrinsically compatible with both self-expression and self-care, for the causal and practiced artist alike.

“What we are doing when we are using art, any kind of art, even doodling, scribbling, any sort of thing, we are actually getting in touch with ourselves again. And I think that’s the big challenge. There’s so much in the world taking our attention away from ourselves that we lose track of ourselves, and that creates anxiety. And we lose track of our purpose, our meaning, and so by using the art material we are getting back in touch with ourselves, our feelings, our senses, etc. Even through the most seemingly useless doodling and coloring, we are actually connecting.”

Art, then, is an act of self-exploration and discovery in a manner which is natural and comfortable for the individual. Rather than attempting to find the words in a given vocabulary or dictionary, the individual is allowed their own form, their own diction, to express that which is unique to them alone. It seems, then, only logical that such methodology of self-care and therapy would be embraced.

Unfortunately, as Asawa explained, art therapy is still a little known and minimally accessible form of treatment for mental health challenges – an issue for which the American Association for Art Therapy was created. The Association aims “to advocate for expansion of access to professional art therapists and lead the nation in the advancement of art therapy as a regulated mental health and human services profession.”

Art therapy is a matter less of explanation than expression. It does not demand that one cultivates a true definition for their own state of mind because  so often, one simply cannot be formulated. So often words, even in all the shapes and forms in which they come, simply are not  enough to express the volumes of emotions and sensations faced by a single individual struggling to thrive in a chaotic world in which they feel utterly lost. The hope and the goal of this therapy is that in art, clients are given the opportunity they need to seek out, express and truly find themselves.