Why The Arts Matter: Art As Therapy

Joanne Savage found solace in creativity during a troubled childhood

When I was 11 by father died of a brain haemorrhage. When I was 13 my mother was killed in a car accident. I was sent to a psychotherapist, a wonderful, kindly lady who lit incense and encouraged me to draw when I couldn’t find the words to express my feelings. My therapist would analyse the drawings: too much black or blue in a picture had obviously gloomy connotations, while yellow might symbolise hope, the beginnings of a smile.

On other occasions she invited me to arrange objects in a sandpit. Tight rows and grids of plastic soldiers and toy cars suggested a need for order and control; a melee of marbles and assorted figurines half buried in the sand said turmoil, a knotted psyche.

This may sound to cynics like ridiculous psycho-play, a post-Jungian regime of circular navel-gazing. But it helped. Where it was too difficult to find the precise words to express my inner feelings, I drew and I painted it all out (the sandpit thing wasn’t as cathartic for me as making marks on paper).

Now, I'm highly unlikely to ever set the artworld alight (not unless a market for third-rate Picasso-esque pastiche develops), but when I fall into a bout of doom-mongering to this day I draw or paint and feel the benefit of it. Paint on canvas becomes a release of haywire tensions.

'Art and therapy can flow together,' Dr Caryl Sibbet tells the group gathered to discuss the issue at the PS2 gallery and project space in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter. Sibbet is a practising art therapist. 'When people are going through emotional experiences like grief, loss or illness, that often stimulates creativity. Art therapy is expanding as a discipline, but there are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about it. It is really about personal expression, developing a relationship with the self that can restore wellbeing.'

On the walls of the gallery are photographs from an immensely personal exhibition by artist Beth Frazer, entitled Drawing on Illness. This is a fine example of art-as-therapy, albeit with a level of sophistication in technique and execution denied to the non-artist.

Drawing on Illness documents Frazer's suffering and recuperation from endometriosis. There are pictures of her torso wound tightly with thread or marked with black wiry shapes symbolic of pain. Her medical files are on display, some negatives from ultrasound scans hang on the wall.

Frazer talks about how artmaking aided her recovery and helped her to come to terms with her bewildering physical and psychological experiences - the waiting for two years for a correct diagnosis, going in and out of hospital, finally getting a name for the mystery agony and receiving treatment.

Former probation officer Eileen McCourt worked for many years as an art therapist with inmates at Crumlin Road Jail. She shows the group slides of drawings and clay models made during therapy sessions with men and women at the prison. They are, for the most part, rudimentary drawings, fireworks alongside stick men, sad faces, doorways, Christmas scenes, some striking circular shapes in thick black crayon, a clay model of a face screaming desperately. These are not exercises in technique, but snapshots of raw emotion, brief exposures of self.

'Art therapy is about entering into a potentially risky process of expression,' McCourt remarks. 'It can be frightening because you don’t know how creative play will end, what kind of emotions it might bring out. Some of these men and women have been dealing with feelings of abandonment and loss. I provide them with the materials to express those feelings and I let them know that I am not there to judge. What is fascinating is how the images change as the person changes, how you can see a shift in feelings through the marks made.'

The Northern Ireland Group for Art as Therapy (NIGAT), formed in 1976, co-ordinates provision throughout the province, also facilitating research into art psychotherapy, which puts greater emphasis on decoding feelings by interpretation of artworks. The latter discipline uses the art produced as a stimulus for talking therapy - straight art therapy involves a wordless catharsis in the simple act of creativity itself.

What the charity centrally recognises is that art as a mode of personal expression can have immensely positive curative powers, helping to uncloud the mind, unlock the riddles of the subconscious, and bring troubled or physically unwell individuals towards a renewed understanding of themselves, or a renewed acceptance of their condition. Imagery, somehow, can bring into consciousness previously inaccessible feelings or thoughts, healing the self as it does so.

One case that substantiates this is that of London-based performance artist Bobby Baker, whose Diary Drawings really give a sense of the power of art therapy in unlocking the truth of psyche. Baker had a breakdown, was overcome with grief and sadness, and couldn't make sense of it. She made a picture everyday that she was unwell, hundreds of pages of imagery stretching back over years.

Over time Baker discovered a connection between her breakdown and the death of her father, who drowned when she was a girl. With hindsight the reasoning was clear in her pictures, where there are dozens of images of water, the sea, endless tears. Art therapy thus helped her to understand the roots of her psychological unrest, unravelling the riddle of her trauma and allowing her to move forwards.

Better provision of art therapy sessions in Ulster could mean, for many, better mental health and a measure of release from all kinds of stubborn psychological demons. For more information on NIGAT visit www.nigat.org/. Beth Frazer’s exhibition Drawing on Illness runs at the PS2 Project Space, Donegall Street until November 27.