My journey with visual art therapy began three years ago during a workshop when I first met Susan Bolluogh Khare, a strong advocate of person-centred art therapy. Her exhibition in Pune on The Therapeutic Value of Art showcases the role of creative art in the therapeutic process.
One’s expression through art is used to address both psychological and emotional needs of the person in visual art therapy. According to Khare, it is the artistic process that is more important than the final product. Visual art therapy uses art as a medium for expressing oneself through a creative process on the path toward self-awareness. According to Cathy A. Malchiodi in her book Expressive Therapies (2005), art therapy uses traditional psychotherapy and its techniques in union with the creative process to improve one’s psychological health and wellbeing.
During her workshops, Khare urges participants to explore the art medium slowly in the beginning, by letting them to express their feelings through lines and colours. Subsequently through active imagination or the introduction of themes, art therapists like Khare help clients explore emotions like fear, anger, and sadness to get in touch with their senses. Extending emotions to cognition, Lusebrink (2004) explored the relationship between art expression and functions of the brain. The sensory processes involved while making art activates different brain regions, and the expression of art stimulates the kinaesthetic and visual senses in the brain before processing the information through cognition. By letting clients evince themselves through art, they may come to terms with difficult thoughts or feelings that may be at the root of their problems and explore ways to cope with them.
As an art therapist, one is skilled to identify the nonverbal representations and analogies that are communicated through the art form, which might not be as easily expressed in words. Riley (2001) has also shown that many adolescents are more comfortable expressing themselves with visual art than talking about their feelings. Khare emphasizes on the interpretation of the art by the person, who gives it meaning, as opposed to the therapist explaining the piece as followed in traditional projective techniques.
Art as therapy can be employed as a clinical intervention and is effective in treating a variety of symptoms in diverse populations. Creating art as a process in the therapeutic environment offers opportunities for counsellors to build relationships with the client and explore areas that arise from the client’s artwork. The integration of art therapy and solution-focused treatment has proved effective for substance abuse as it blends cognitive and perceptual strategies (Matto, Corcoran & Fassler, 2003). Research by Northwestern Memorial Hospital (2006), found that art therapy allows cancer patients to focus on something positive and gives them something they can control. Thus the process involved in making art is not only therapeutic but helps improve their quality of life and boosts their abilities to cope with stress.
Chapman et al. (2001) found that children receiving art therapy treatment experienced a reduction in acute stress symptoms and Gussak (2009) showed that art therapy greatly improved the mood of inmates by helping them shift to an internal locus of control. Creating art together brings a different synergy to a group and provides the therapist with insight into group dynamics. As prolific as art therapy is in groups, it can also be effectively used in a one-on-one format for personal development, self-exploration, and an in-depth understanding of one’s persona.
Pablo Picasso once said that “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” According to Khare, only when we are comfortable working with art as a medium and have explored our personal issues through art, will we be able to effectively work with others. Art therapy is truly an opportunity to explore oneself and develop skills of acceptance and empathy for the people with whom we interact in our daily lives.