Hand-crafted Healing: Art Therapists Create Change

Vanessa de Bruijn

A thin metal rod skewering a small, round mass slowly rotates over red, glowing embers. With each turn, the embers glow a bit brighter, the perpetual movements of the crank ensuring that each side of the object is equally exposed to the glow. The heating is gradual, starting at the surface and slowly penetrating until no part of the sizzling object is left untouched.

Upon closer inspection, the object left casually suspended to cook over a red-hot inferno is revealed to be not a delicious marshmallow, but rather a paper-mâché model of our very own earth. The fire is made of plastic, and the bizarre object lays on a table in the atrium of the Science Center art gallery at Edgewood College in Madison. The slowly rotating skewered earth is dazzlingly decorated with colorful, multi-faceted jewels and has been left carelessly to cook over a fire that represents our blazing ozone.

art therapy image
Vanessa de Bruijn/Curb
Click on the image to view a photo gallery. This sculpture titled “You Have the Power to Stop This” by Heidi Endres is part of an art therapy exhibit called “Artistic expressions on Global Warming” and symbolizes the adverse effects “humanity’s consuming nature” has on “our earth gone awry.”

The installation is a piece in an exhibit called “Artistic expressions on Global Warming: Recognizing the problem, Evoking response, Envisioning solutions,” sponsored by the Wisconsin Art Therapy Association. Wisconsin art therapists conceived, organized and created this exhibit as a tool to translate the processes involved in art therapy into a socially and politically conscious message about the earth. For the group that put the exhibit in motion, art therapy is not merely a process that takes place behind closed doors between a therapist and a patient, but one that is integral in creating a larger understanding.

Although art therapists are usually trained to use art as a catalyst to delve into the minds and hearts of their patients, this exhibit encouraged artists to flip the tables and explore their own feelings about the state of the earth and what it means to take responsibility for a planet that may be on a rocky road. Although this exhibit may be an innovative application of art therapy practices, the occupation itself is nothing new. According to the American Art Therapy Association, the idea of art therapy developed into a distinct profession in the 1940s. Around that time, psychiatrists became intrigued with exploring and following the creative expression of those with mental disabilities. Eventually, the interest spread to educators who realized that the artwork of their students was surprisingly indicative of their emotional, developmental and cognitive states.

Art therapy offers a solution to traditional “talk therapy” and allows participants to engage in a creative process that integrates various art forms with principles of psychology. Those taking part in art therapy can have any kind of artistic skill range, and the cathartic practices benefit both the young and old. Sometimes engaging in art therapy is a silent practice, and other times it encourages dialogue that explores the inner feelings and thoughts of the patient.

Patients of art therapy experiment with a wide variety of media and create expressions that can be anything from a decorated box to a group painting to the creation of a mask. Some therapists work with depicting dreams through art, and others incorporate dance or movement into projects with patients. Working with art allows patients to stimulate the visual, artistic parts of the brain, and therapists believe it releases thoughts and feelings that simply cannot be expressed in words.

Today, art therapy is a widely recognized healing tool and is used in an array of facilities that include hospitals, schools, treatment centers, halfway houses and private therapy studios.

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