I recently went to an expressive art therapy training for social workers and counsellors. I used to always say that I was terrible at art. I remember my art teacher spending an entire lesson 'fixing' a painting I had made because I somehow could not manage it myself.
This training, however, taught me that art has nothing to do with taste or perfect aesthetics. Art is the process of creating something from yourself. Art cannot even be judged. Many of us in North America were taught that art was the ability to reproduce something specific. This workshop allowed me to let go of those expectations and fears surrounding creation and let myself make. And let me tell you, MAKING is awesome, especially when there is no right or wrong.
Our teacher, Michelle April, was very influenced by M.C. Richards's philosophy on art. You can learn more about her inspirational perspective in the video below.
I want to share with you what I learned concerning the use of art for healing. I have created my own how-to guide to creating therapeutic art which you are invited to adapt for yourself. If you have any other advice, please share it in the comments below! I know many of you are more experienced at art-making so any tips are very appreciated!
I also want to mention that using art to prepare for birth during pregnancy is a useful way of uncovering fears and expectations you may have. The book Birthing From Within by Pam England has more information on that.
1. Pick a material that suits you.
By experimenting with different materials, you will find whatever ones work best for you depending on your current state and needs. These are guidelines below based on what I learned at the workshop and from my limited experience with them, but you may have a different experience than described with the materials.
A note on cost: The great thing about art is that you can do it for cheap. I do not personally have the means to purchase a canvas and multi-coloured paints but I can use clay or play-doh, found objects in nature, and other materials from the dollar store. You can be creative. Everyone can create, some of us just have to be more creative about how we do it.
is inexpensive and you can get self-drying clay that does not require burning. Clay is fantastic if you feel you need to ground yourself, if you have experienced trauma, or if you are like me and you feel hopeless at other art. It is easy to get into the right mind with clay as it is tactile and brings us into our body almost immediately. There is something youthful about clay that can bring us back to childhood as well.
is fluid, buttery, velvety and colourful. The colours add emotion to our creations. Paint on a smaller canvas if you feel ungrounded and paint on a large canvas if you feel like you need to expand yourself somehow.
I find the limitlessness of paint intimidating and overwhelming but it is a great exercise if you tend to get stuck in "shoulds" or if you have trouble taking chances, making mistakes, and getting messy (quoting Ms.Frizzle here... My hero!)
Crayons, pencils, markers...
There is less fluidity in these materials but they are also more precise. Remember that you do not need to have a specific portrait or image in mind. Even drawing scribbles, doodles and lines is therapeutic. Do any of you have more to add to this material? If so, please share in comments!
Using a blend of techniques and materials such as collage, fabric, tissue, and the above materials can be fun. It adds texture to your art, but decision making could possibly get overwhelming. That being said, when we did mixed-media in the workshop, I found it easier to get lost in creation because I made small decisions one at a time rather than having a free for all on a blank paper with paint and a brush.
2. Find an open and comfortable space in the world where you can create.
This can be your home, the park, on a canoe..whatever inspires you! I would advise to find a place that you won't be disturbed because it seems like something people would say, but that is a ridiculous expectation for mothers. I think we can absolutely be creative in the chaos that is parenthood!
3. Begin using your material(s)
a) Let the material tell you where it wants to go. Don't have a clearly laid out plan for your art. You need an open mind for this process. We are not inviting our heads in, we are inviting another part of ourselves to speak out here. That way, we get to find out what we need to know rather than what we think we need to know.
Your mind will get intuitive nudges that you should mold the clay this way, squirt that golden yellow out, use a fine brush, or draw a thick line there. GO WITH YOUR GUT. You may have no clue where it will take you, but your intuition knows and it will uncover deep knowledge that you have within your most wise mind.
b) If judgments, shoulds, and criticisms pop into your head, don't brush them off or repress them. Instead, notice them and welcome them into your process. You could say, "Thank you for trying to protect me. I am okay, though," and invite it to stick around as you continue following your intuition.
4. Continue until you feel you are done
This may take only a few minutes or you may find yourself coming back to the same piece for many days to come. You will know when you are finished your process. Remember not to fall into the trap of perfectionism. This is about the process, not the finished product. Many people even toss their finished product after they are done reflecting on its meaning.
5. Observe, reflect, write.
The last step is the most important for healing. Observe your finished product, look at it from different angles. You may wish to leave it and come back to it later. Write about your experience working with the material, why you chose to make certain decisions, what you think your art means. What messages come out of the art for you? What does your art tell you?
If possible and desired, you can share your reflections with someone you trust.
6. Keep or discard your art.
You may wish to smash your clay back into a ball, or recycle that painting your spent hours on. On the other hand, you may choose to display it proudly above your bed. Sometimes a piece acts as a landmark for important events in our lives, so we want to celebrate them or remember them. Other times, art represents a fleeting perspective we hold on a situation and we don't feel the need to keep it. It is totally up to you.
Here is a picture of the clay figurine I made in the workshop. It helped me process my difficult birth. I call it:
Did you find this helpful? What would you add to this guide? What is your favourite material to work with?
Thank you everyone! Happy art-making!