Ambiguity, metaphor and process
Beyond creating the art, simply looking at the work offers insights. Again, the imagery often provokes curiosity and a new awareness. Seeing that I've drawn myself with no mouth or huge hands can call forth ideas and feelings about myself that may not be easily defined. In abstract art, forms and colours can quickly become invested with emotional content. Suddenly it might feel important that two shapes are kept apart, or that they are connected. What meaning do we make of that? This act of letting the art grow organically, without pre-conception, can be freeing.
Within the play of making art, often a metaphor holds several layers of meaning at one time. The artwork may concretely express ambiguous feelings or seemingly unrelated experiences in surprising and poetic ways. A client's small clay umbrella, created to ward off a father's criticisms, may also become the gear on a shaft that brings power where it is needed. In the art, there is no need to decide it is one thing or the other.
Staying within a metaphor that emerges in the art, clients can respond to their imagery directly. The artist can create a support for the wobbly, grieving, clay woman, or find a restful position for her. This kind of response can both prompt deep feelings and give those feelings concrete expression.
Difficult issues often seem more approachable when they are embodied in an image. The image as expression does not necessarily need description or explaining, but because its "out there" it may be easier to talk about and look at. As the art becomes a container for overwhelming feelings, it is sometimes a safe place for catharsis. It can be an important learning seeing our anger asserted visually, and having those feelings witnessed and accepted. A powerful catharsis may also be at a deep, imagic level of the psyche, and may not include a change in affect.
Beyond the session
Another aspect of art therapy is that the paintings and sculptures remain beyond the session. Private rituals can evolve around the art; a clay piece connected to grieving can be placed by the sea to dissolve with the tide. An angry image can be burned or smashed. An enigmatic or cherished piece can be framed and kept for further reflection. Looking back at work months or years later, we often see themes that become richer with a broader context.
Creativity and beginning points
Art therapy is more concerned with creativity, the process and the experience, than with making a beautiful product. Drawing an ugly picture can be an important expression. For some people, simply being creative, picking up a crayon and making a mark, is powerful. As many people have not done any art since elementary school, engaging in working with images can evoke feelings and memories from that age.
Play and safety
In the right setting, making art can be a significant kind of play. Play does not happen unless there is safety, including safety from interpretation and judgment. The therapist has ideas, questions about and responses to the pictures and sculptures, but ultimately does not know the meaning of the work beyond what the client confirms. Another aspect of that safety may be respect for the art work, and for the autonomy of the image itself. Even in silence the art stands as an expression, a concrete yet mysterious statement that may or may not be understood.
The regaining of one's own permission to be creative can be empowering, as well as an intense pleasure. The obstacles encountered in this exploration may echo hindrances we bring to our everyday lives. Connecting with our creativity, and having this witnessed and supported, can be a concrete beginning to challenging those hindrances. There are many possible inspirations to starting therapeutic art; dreams, memories, feelings, body sensations, doodles, or attraction to a specific colour or gesture, to name a few.
Within this safety, art making is a serious, open-ended type of play. As trust develops, this healing activity becomes a source of nourishment and strength, as well as the framework for risk taking. As we work, our hands sometimes seem to have something to say. This curiosity opens the door to insightful surprises as we engage the psyche in a new way. As we attend to the art making, perhaps we also shift into a fresh way of listening to ourselves.