Art and Psychotherapy as Pathways to Healing

Another record hot day is likely today. It seems like this summer has had at least one record warm day each week, so last week’s fall preview was a welcome reprieve form the unrelenting heat.

The promised rains from Florence are going south, once again leaving us dry.

The maple tree down the street has turned even earlier than usual, its leaves a dry brick red. The tree is about sixty feet tall, sits directly beside the road, and is likely both under-watered and undernourished. We have been concerned about its health for a while now; this morning a neighbor told me that, as we feared, it is dying.

While there is still much green in the woodlands, more trees are showing early color. Once again we wonder whether the prolonged warm, dry weather will impact the autumn color. Ideally we would have rain and cool temperatures by now, and while temperatures are forecast to return to close to seasonal norms by Thursday, a soaking rain appears unlikely to arrive anytime soon.

This is the time when those who took the summer off from therapy begin to drift back in. Jennie and I often urge clients to delve deeply into their experience by making art. We assure them that they do not have to make accomplished works, that simply exploring life through art making is rewarding and healing in itself. We remind them that even the greatest artists play, and that for every finished work there are usually many “failed” experiments. Indeed, most photographers are thrilled if they get one good photograph in one hundred snaps; therapy is also based on play and experiment, offering clients the opportunity to explore many ways of being in route to discovering a preferred way of living.  No wonder we speak of art making and engaging in psychotherapy as “practice”!

I have always believed that the best art arises directly from life. Given this, I find the criticism of the arts in therapy, that art arising from the context of therapy is too much about lived experience, very odd. The implication is that such work is not really art, that art making is a heroic endeavor and therapy is not. The Abstract Expressionists, most notably Jackson Pollack, are frequently cited as makers of heroic art, ignoring the fact that a good deal of Pollack’s work arose from a therapeutic context. (The chief criticisms lodged against women Abstract Expressionists were that their work was too domestic and thus not adequately heroic. It remains true that the majority of people who seek out psychotherapy are women, and there is a persistent cultural bias, among those who have not experienced good psychotherapy, that therapy as somehow not masculine or adequately heroic.)

One can argue that much of the late work of the Post Expressionists, especially Matisse, Munch, and Bonnard, was also therapeutic, although not necessarily created in a therapeutic context. Clearly, visual artists, composers, and writers have always turned to making art as a way of addressing suffering, and many have spoken or written openly about this.

Art and therapy offer us ways to explore and understand our lives. Accepting the invitation to go on that journey is the difficult part. I suspect most of us are a lot like Bilbo and must be dragged, angry and scared, into the adventures that will forever transform our lives. The journey can be frightening, but it is also very often a blessing.

13 thoughts on “Art and Psychotherapy as Pathways to Healing

  1. I was dragged by my dear sister into doing art again after a very long absence. I agree that convincing one to do it is the hardest part! But wow am I grateful. Not only did it heal and release many wounds but I dare say it’s the best art I’ve ever created. (Also, what a beautiful tree and so sad that it is dying. May you get respite from the heat and drought soon.)

  2. What a nice post, Michael. It took me back to the joy of being a therapist – being amazed at the trust and courage that people would demonstrate as I invited them to explore the dark interiors that they seemed to believe (or I believed) blocked their path to a fullness of life. You also got me thinking about the amount of courage it took for me to face my own demons in therapy – probably the scariest thing I’ve ever faced. And the joy of experiencing the mystery of healing. Second line of thought – I’m having a hard time, along with you, getting my mind around how art should be heroic when it doesn’t include human existence. I’m sure there are threads connecting it to men, objective science, paid work, mental as good and completely split off from women, subjective thought, unpaid work, and emotional as bad.

    1. Pat, I’m sure you are right, that the heroic weaves together lots of diverse threads. Yet heroes are defined by the cultures that make them. Sadly, our vision of heroism seems to have spread around the word.

  3. Was just discussing this morning how Richard Strauss (who wrote more than a dozen operas) thought that marriage was the greatest adventure one could have. To listen to his music, especially his Symphonic Poem on marriage, you would not dismiss it as prosaic. What is “heroic” art

  4. Art is such a crucial tool for healing, Michael. I’m not sure if I shared this link with you before, but I think David Feinberg’s work in his “Voice to Vision” project might be of special interest to you: Feinberg uses art to help survivors of genocides and holocausts to unlock their stories. (I had an opportunity to see the healing impacts for a group of faculty when we attended a series of workshops he facilitated.)

    It seems in every field that the illusion of “objectivity” rules, negating the reality that emotions are where our problems and our resources for healing reside.

    Sending my best wishes and hopes that our rains will head your way soon. ❤

    1. Hi Carol, It is raining today!
      Thank you for the link. I will spend more time wit it as the project has deep resonance for me.
      I have, of course, been thinking a good deal about trauma and voice. The problem with objectivity is that we are seldom truly objective, and the stance behind objectivity acts as a great silencer of experience and voice. There is a terrible fear of emotion in mass culture, even as emotion would seem to rule most of our actions and decision making. (Of course, emotion is viewed as belonging to the realm of women and Nature, and is thus suspect….. That in itself is a place where ideology and emotion govern.)
      I am also aware that for so long your work has been about unlocking stories.

      1. You have astutely described one of the major challenges of coming from an indigenous perspective, Michael. But the notion that one can be objective, of course, reflects an emotional connection to something that cannot be achieved. We can strive for emotional detachment but that state, too, is an ideal we may never achieve.

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