The healing power of art
Fixing your soul with the aid of art is an increasingly popular therapy, which comes as no surprise to Kathryn Webster.
What good does art do? As well as educate, entertain and pave the way, art can transform lives. That’s the premise of Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, which elegantly describes the positive power of art as a tool to extend, guide and enable. Approached with an open mind and heart, they say, art can rebalance and complete us.
Through a logical structure supported with illustrations from art history, the book illuminates how art aids memory, demands focus in the midst of chaos, helps us grow stronger and wiser and be more receptive to change.
“We need help in finding honour in some of our worst experiences, and art is there to lend them a social expression,” writes de Botton in a section on the impact of art on sorrow.
The book talks of finding inner wholeness; it’s not an irrational claim, as anyone who spends time with art will appreciate. The vast majority of readers of this magazine will, of course, already recognize the power of art to improve life; they know that time spent at a gallery will do them good. How much good depends on the level of need and on the relationship being experienced – whether it’s a heart-lifting dose of positivity delivered by an exhilarating abstract canvas, or the calming effects of a quietly encompassing installation.
But art can, and does, do more than reflect the human condition; it can impact directly on the human condition. Discovering creativity can literally, and without wanting to be too dramatic, save your life.
“I started coming here to get out of the house, initially. To get respite from the voices. I hear voices,” says James King. “I recognized a need to get out and connect with people. Otherwise I was at home in bed. So I started coming here. I’ve never thought about suicide while I’ve been here.”
‘Here’ is Toi Ora Live Art Trust, a centre in Auckland’s Arch Hill which welcomes and nurtures people who are struggling. One such man is currently-exhibiting artist James King, who talks openly about his mental illness and the role making art has played in his recovery.
King was, luckily, introduced to Toi Ora by his key support worker after an episode in hospital. “I started making paintings and I think it worked because it kept me ‘in the here and now’, it stopped me ruminating. It was stimulating thought that wasn’t toxic. “It turned me from a patient to an artist.”
Which all makes complete sense to Amanda Levey, who heads New Zealand’s only arts therapy course, at Auckland’s Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design. “Art can be powerful because of the very act of making it,” says Levey. “One of the things that happens when you have experienced trauma or anxiety or you’re depressed is that you narrow down your life because new things, as they’re unpredictable, are inherently stressful. Expressive therapies can help you experiment with new and stimulating experiences again in a safe environment and gradually to generalise that confidence to improvise in life.”
There is an assumption that verbal psychotherapy helps clarify and provide insight but therapy that encourages alternative ways of expression can be more effective, she explains, especially in cultures, such as ours, which are less comfortable with openly talking about personal difficulties. Visual culture, on the other hand, is part of the fabric of life in Pacific and Asian societies. It makes more sense to rely on visual and other creative tools to express ourselves.
While art therapy can involve assessment and analyzing data within a scientific research paradigm, that’s not the focus of the Whitecliffe programme. “That is quite an old-fashioned approach,” Levey says. “We are more interested in being alongside the client while they make their own meaning from the experience, and the research methodologies that we are moving towards are more from the arts-based point of view. It is difficult to quantify creativity and well-being.
“Of course there is room for both,” she adds. “There is a growing range of solid qualitative evidence supporting the efficacy of using the arts for therapeutic outcomes in many areas of general health and mental health. We often talk about arts therapy as being on a spectrum – from arts as therapy (i.e. the very act of being creative is therapeutic) to art in therapy (psychotherapy using the arts as a medium of expression). It’s a spectrum rather than a dichotomy.”
The Whitecliffe course focuses on ways to give people a place to explore and expand.
“Given who you are now, how would you like to make your life more fulfilled?” Levey posits, as a typical starting point for therapy clients. “In therapy, you can explore the reasons why you are the way you are, but that’s not going to be a ‘cure’. Creative therapies can assist in identifying issues as they can help you to access material that is below consciousness. And then, we also need to develop new effective responses and behaviour, and, in this as well, creativity is such a good tool.”
Being given the freedom to express is at the core of Cloud Workshop, a creative programme for grieving children founded by Auckland photographer Deborah Smith and painter Melissa Anderson Scott. Having experienced the death of her father when she was young, Smith was acutely aware of the need for children to be assisted with the business of grieving. She was shocked when, 30 years later, the death of a friend’s husband revealed children still did not have easy access to effective help, so she set about filling the gap.
“People often say children are resilient and of course they can be but you have to give them the skills for this,” she says.
Smith and a team of volunteers host art workshops for children aged five to 18; it is run through Auckland’s Mercy Hospice with occasional sessions at the Auckland Art Gallery. High-calibre guest artists help out (including John Reynolds, Bronwynne Cornish, Xin Cheng, hopefully Dane Mitchell, and others in the pipeline) and Smith ensures the best-possible materials and equipment are used. “I want the things they make to last!”
“A lot of the projects are to make a protective item; it’s all about empowerment. They’re victims through no fault of their own and they need strength and power. And creativity is a tool that can help with this.”
One boy who was unable to talk about the death of his father took home from Cloud Workshop an assemblage work he had made based on Joseph Cornell’s memory boxes. When visitors asked questions about about his art project, he was able to discuss it and through those exchanges, was eventually able to talk about this father.
Not a lot of talking about loss goes on at the workshops; it tends to be flat-out, non-stop art making. “If someone wants to talk, that’s cool – we’re geared up for that – but younger children often don’t want to talk.
“From my observation, these children need a holiday from the burden of their grief. They take comfort from being in a group of young people who are sharing similar emotions,” Smith says.
“We’re not therapists but I like to hope that we can provide some comfort and strength.” They are also, crucially, being encouraged to externalize difficult emotions.
Which is what saved James King. It was the ability to express his anger and frustration with the world that helped him move from destructive ‘mental health patient’ to constructive artist. His early paintings were of angry dogs; now they might be about the relationship between textures and forms, with a message about creativity or a statement about life. “I get the same thing out of making art as some people get from going for a jog,” King says. “But it’s better because even though art making is individual, it’s also collegial – at least, it is here.”
Toi Ora Live Art Trust Managing Director Erwin van Asbeck explains the trust, established to inspire well-being through creativity, provides studio spaces and workshops on art making, music and writing to anyone who feels to need.
“Flexibility is one of our strengths – it’s about being able to accommodate all sorts. Sometimes a person will be out of work for a while, for example, and come here in their mission to get well.
“People have different hopes and aspirations, of course, but broadly – they love to do the art, it’s rewarding, it’s valued, there’s no judgement or critique. They have the freedom to express themselves, to externalize things that have been internalized. After all, art is often about story telling.”
Toi Ora ran the successful Outsider Art Fair two years ago and plans are underway for another event this year. Such initiatives, supporting shifts into exhibiting to wider audiences, are part of the empowering process.
“We also reach young people who are out of the system,” says van Asbeck. “We do preventative work, trying to build resilience, by looking at well-being rather than ‘mental health issues’.
“A young person might be struggling with mental health but if they get support and find their way through, they can be OK. If they are well, that’s better for the whole community isn’t it? And art is part of that. This is a healthy alternative.”
Healthy, cost-effective, positive, compassionate, enlightened. What good does art do? A lot.