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A Helper in Times of Trouble

by Janette Delgado

Art serves as a helper in times of trouble.

-Rudolph Arnheim

Vincent Van Gogh, The Garden at Saint Paul's Hospital (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

Art has always had a connection to psychology, both reflecting it in its expressions and affecting it in its reception by audiences. Some movements make this connection clearer than others — Surrealism showing the heavy influence of Freud and dream interpretation, and Expressionism emphasizing the inner world of the artist. Certain artists, regardless of school, also show the link of the psychological, such as the inner, often tortured worlds of the artist so evident in Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh’s work with its emotionally charged colors and brush strokes. Given this deep connection with the psychological, it only seems natural that art might also be an effective “helper in times of trouble.” Arnheim’s observation encapsulates the essence of art therapy. The practice of using art as both a tool in the healing and a means of communication is becoming an increasingly relevant option in therapies for those in healing professions.

As someone going into the mental health field I can’t help but think of the vast array of concerns clients have and how one method of treatment is not ideal for everyone. As a counselor one must be open to the idea of using multiple techniques in helping clients reach a state of well-being. Using art as a form of therapy helps to create a connection between the inner world and the outer world, which in turn cultivates greater self-understanding. In creating this connection, people may find themselves releasing pent-up emotions and therefore feeling a sense of catharsis after creating something. Whether it is painting, drawing, collaging, or sculpting, making something out of nothing is an emboldening experience. It can help a patient gain a sense of accomplishment during a time when that may not be possible in other areas of their life.

Paul Gauguin, Self Portrait (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

Art therapy allows for the opportunity to heal from very difficult experiences that leave one without words. Loss, trauma, and illness leave people feeling numb – and sometimes without the capacity to express their inner unrest. Using art as another medium for communication facilitates the healing process. Art therapy is among the few forms of treatment that allows for the creation of a tangible product. This process, unlike traditional therapy, enables them to feel as if they are making progress in therapy and helps them feel as though they are finally getting the words out.

The process of creating a piece of work is more important than the end product. The act of crafting something with our own hands is an exhilarating feeling that often allows us to escape the moment and be entranced in what we’re working on. Letting go of inhibitions and being lost in a moment often leads to a product that speaks to a feeling or thought that one was not even conscious of.

What I hope to provide my clients with art therapy is another outlet for self-expression and self-exploration. I want to kindle a love for art that might have been lost long ago, or which may have never existed, and open them up to a form of expression that will forever be available to them – even long after therapy sessions have ended. In using art therapy I hope to help people explore solutions to their issues instead of looking for reasons as to why these troubles have transpired. I want people to feel engaged in the process of their own healing versus feeling incapable of creating change in their lives. Using art in therapy empowers clients to see things in a new light and to move towards resolution.

By bringing out what is part of the inner world out, an individual can externalize an issue, and a therapist can help to make something visible and tangible, something that might be confronted. At the end of the day, I think it’s as the American Art Therapy Association’s mission statement says, “The creative process involved in the making of art is healing and life enhancing.”

Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From, What Are We, Where Are We Going (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Janette Delgado is pursuing a Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling at Boston College.


Related articles of interest:

Jessica Ryan, “Hospital Design: What Difference Does it Make

Jessica Ryan, “Healing Art: One Part Imitation, One Part Imagination“

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