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The Great Healer
This past fall I experienced a succession of stressful events in my life. First I received a devastating, terminal diagnosis for my beloved dog. Not two weeks later, while still trying to cope with his illness and prognosis, I fell off a ladder and broke my wrist. Three weeks into my cast, my mother was hospitalized with a serious infection. Within a span of two months I was dealing with serious emotional and physical healing and the approaching holiday season and all of its stress and madness. For the first time that I could remember, I couldn’t reconcile the events in my life and I was having a hard time coping. One particularly difficult afternoon I walked into my art studio, took out some watercolors and acrylics and started to paint. With nothing in particular as the subject matter, I produced sheets of abstract images full of vibrant color and movement. It felt good to create. For the first time in weeks, I felt good.
I was lost in the process allowing the healing properties of of the creative process to work their magic. While cognizant of the healing attributes of the arts, I hadn’t quite experienced them to that degree personally. As an art educator I have witnessed the way the visual arts can calm, refresh, re-energize, diffuse, and comfort. It is the result of being lost in the magic of the creative process and allowing yourself to surrender to your soul. It is raw and authentic which is why the process of creating art is so wholly therapeutic.
“Art can express what words can’t, especially if there’s been trauma.’ says art therapist Cathy Malchiodi PhD. (The Art Therapy Sourcebook) She goes on to say that our brain stores memories as images which is why it is easier to tap into them visually. She cites artist Frida Kahlo who was severely injured in a bus accident when she was young. Many of Kahlo’s paintings were done while she was lying in bed recovering, and her later works often included imagery that relates back to her accident, pain and recovery periods. Painting is one of the most effective healing arts forms because of its color and fluidity. (“The DaVinci Mode” Energy Times magazine January 2009) There is an entire psychology of color regarding perception, emotional receptivity and color’s energy vibrations. Sound and colors vibrate on different energy wavelengths and we respond differently to each variance. Tibetan singing bowls are an example of how sound can help provide a meditative, calm state.
In addition to the process of painting and creating art, it has been documented that looking at art is beneficial and therapeutic as well. At Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, California a program called Arts for Healing brings healing visual art to patients facing an illness. At Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee the majority of patient rooms boast an original painting or print. This original art work not only beautifies the hospital but can aid in reducing blood pressure and pulse rates as well as provide an outlet for stress and anxiety reduction. Paintings can be transformative. In the introduction of his book “Lust for Life- a novel on the life of Vincent Van Gogh”, author Irving Stone cites his experience with fine art. Prior to ever viewing a Van Gogh painting, Stone had lived for a year in Paris and Italy and was unmoved by the paintings he had seen. “Painting may be a very fine medium but it has nothing to say to me, at least nothing I can understand.” (Stone, “Lust for Life”) After having been challenged to visit a Van Gogh exhibit, however, he writes that he was transfixed by the paintings, “unable to move or breathe or think”. Art is that powerful.
Using art as a tool to help heal is a form of expressive arts. Traditional art therapy utilizes art through trained psychotherapists. Expressive arts may involve a facilitator or trainer to help guide the work and assist in uncovering insights, but it is the creative process that becomes the vehicle for healing. Creativity is primal. On the most basic, cellular level, as humans we have a need to create. We return to this center repeatedly to heal, to find joy, to seek balance, to express in artistic language what we cannot or will not by other means. Skill level and ability is not a factor in expressive arts therapy, both the visual and performing arts only require a willingness to participate and surrender to the medium.
When we were children, creative play remained an outlet for releasing emotional stress and pain. As we age, unless we designate specific time for creative pursuits, we lose that outlet. Whether we actively pursue a creative endeavor in the visual or performing arts or just choose to appreciate one, we are giving ourselves the gift of divine healing. By allowing art into our lives, it can provide not only aesthetic pleasure, but a massage for our mind, spirit and soul.