Drawing pictures is as old as mankind. Our ancestors drew on stone to record history and express themselves through art. It is one of the simplest forms of expression and according to many, the most healing.
In the early 20th century psychiatrists first began being interested in artwork by people with mental illness. Educators back then were also looking into art by children, finding that it revealed both development and emotions.
Since the 1940s art therapy has played an important role. It is used successfully to reduce pain, anxiety, depression and symptoms of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. It can also be used to enable adjustment to changes in health, body image, life events and transitions, behaviour, and to improve self-esteem and quality of life.
Helen Plesar is both an art therapy teacher and practitioner. She says,
An art therapist has the ability to guide creative expression towards deeper self-exploration. The aim is to open the door to new insights and 'meaning making' for a person. This new way of seeing the world has the potential to shift old patterns and beliefs and to awaken self-empowering qualities.
She stresses that art therapy is not about an expert analysing a client's image. In art therapy, the expert is the client and the role of the therapist is to listen to the story and relate the image from the client's perspective.
Only the client knows if the black dot is a speck of dirt, a fly, a bird in the distance. The black dot could also represent a black hole or the end of something, as in a full stop. The therapist then explores with the client what this means to them, what feelings are evoked, what it reminds them of. The art therapist will ask various questions, explore metaphors, look at colours, shapes, characteristics, forms, symbols, tone and mood.
Frank Butters is a retired teacher recovering from a stroke that left one side of his body paralysed.
At Royal Talbot in Melbourne, the art therapy I do gives me the chance to use my left hand and improve my motor skills. I am right handed and so art therapy means I have to problem-solve with the left hand. For example, holding a ruler in place so I can draw with my right hand. Or tile work for murals. But the social aspect is important too, he says.
The Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre caters to people aged from 18 who are recovering from severe physical injury to debilitating illnesses that may affect either or both their brain and body. Patients choose from materials that include paint and mosaics.
The centre has two qualified art therapists who use both
art in therapy which has a direct therapy focus and
art as therapy which is doing art, such as just creating a painting. It is also strengths-based, aiming to empower by focusing on abilities rather than the disability.
Patients report gaining insight, a new outlook on their changed circumstances, including processing grief. Others experience improved communication skills and motivation.
The Oakleigh Centre in Melbourne offers 10 different art activities to people with an intellectual disability. The centre does not call their art activities art therapy but rather, art expression. The emphasis is on being with other people to develop self-esteem.
Annette Eason suffered a crushed leg from a car accident. She says,
Art therapy made me feel more relaxed and made me forget my pain. Art is making me feel much happier.