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Healing life's wounds through artistic expression
 
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock
 

A porcelain baby is tossed into a wall, and shatters into a million pieces.

 

Keith’s drawings tell stories he can’t tell in words. Now in middle age, married and with children, Keith’s harrowing memories of childhood – as well as some things that happened when he was too young to remember clearly – no longer have the hold on him they once did.

 

Keith had been in 12-step programs and individual therapy for several years, dealing with the demons of growing up in a home with violent, alcoholic parents. A recovering drug addict himself, he knew that healing depended on his ability to be honest about his experiences and his actions. But around the time of the birth of his first daughter, puzzling images – half memories – from his past kept popping up.

 

Steps, a toy, a strange person. The meanings eluded him. But the visual images flooded his emotions. He’d known all along that he’d suffered some physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of his parents and their friends, “but the extremely abusive stuff, and the things that happened very early, were tucked away,” he says. “I had gaps in my memory as a child, and I thought they were the same kinds of gaps that everyone has.”

 

But when he became a parent himself, frightening emotions kept bubbling up to the surface, always sparked by visual images. “Once I was watching a TV show about a woman being raped, and I started bawling,” he says. “I realized I wasn’t just empathizing with her – I was identifying with her.”

 

Keith was a gifted artist, although his father – also an artist – had discouraged him. “My Dad was always hypercritical of my art,” he says. “He was emotionally toxic about it.” But Keith’s therapist encouraged him to draw his feelings and his memories. And after he drew the porcelain baby, one pivotal memory came to the surface. “My father was in a Master’s program and was hurrying to finish charcoal drawings for a class,” says Keith. “I climbed up on his drawing table with my crayons, to help him get finished. And my dad threw me across the room, and kicked and beat me. I was thrown into the wall and I couldn’t breathe.”

 

Keith was only 2 or 3 years old at the time. “I didn’t even have the words yet to articulate what had happened to me,” he says.

 

Keith’s therapist was so impressed by his drawings that she suggested they be exhibited publicly. To Keith’s great surprise, a local coffee house displayed his art, and later, his drawings were featured in the local Parade of Homes as well as the Art of Healing exhibit, featuring art by adult survivors of abuse. Through colors and symbolic images, Keith told the story of his childhood: a broken arm due to neglect at 3, a gang rape by older children on a playground at 4.

 

“Art is a way to use the hands and body to create something cathartic,” says Keith. “It provides a way to work through the issues, not just present the problem. It brings subconscious and symbolic images to mind. That’s true of all art, by the way – it brings things into fruition from the mind and spirit into the physical world.”

 

Therapists have always known that art can be a factor in healing, but art therapy has evolved into a unique method with specially trained practitioners. The American Art Therapy Association defines art therapy as “a human service profession that utilizes art media, images, the creative art process, and patient client responses to the created art productions as reflections of an individual’s development, abilities, personality, interests, concerns, and conflicts.” This rather verbose description suggests the point of art therapy – that a picture can be worth a thousand words!

 

Art therapy is used in a huge variety of settings and for many different types of clients. People with severe cognitive disabilities can learn to communicate through art. Patients undergoing treatment for cancer and other diseases can find pain relief and emotional release in artistic projects. Children who have been victimized and are unable to share their stories may do so through drawings or paintings. Art can be used to help manage stress and anxiety. Art therapists can work in individual, couples, family and group therapy formats. 

 

Music therapy meets similar needs in the same way. The American Music Therapy Association calls music therapy “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” Music therapy, like art therapy, can benefit children, adolescents, adults the elderly, and people with developmental and learning disabilities; Alzheimer’s disease and other aging-related conditions, substance abuse problems, brain injuries, physical disabilities, and acute and chronic pain.

 

Whether art or music therapy is being utilized, it is not necessary for the client to have any particular talent. And any style of music or any art form can be useful; it depends on the client. Art and music therapists must be highly trained, but work within a variety of theoretical frameworks. For example, art therapists might work from a Jungian, humanistic, behavioral, systemic, or integrative approach. An art therapist may have a master’s degree in art therapy but may come out of any field of study including alcohol and other drug addiction, mental health, child psychotherapy or marriage and family counseling.

 

As in any therapy, it’s important that the therapist be a professional and trained to help the client deal with any disturbing thoughts or feelings that might be released by the creative work involved. And the client must be led from inside herself. For example, Keith’s memories were clarified, and later confirmed, by a third party; they weren’t “false” memories that were developed at the suggestion of an unethical therapist. “I was very fortunate that someone could confirm my images as real,” says Keith.

 

Of course, the aim of any therapy – whether art, music, or traditional “talk” – isn’t just to dredge up old memories but to be healed from them. And in Keith’s case, his art provided tangible evidence of healing. His art became progressively more colorful and cheerful, and some of his figures began to include a bright light around them – “God saving me,” he says. “The process of creation has a cathartic effect.”

 

More information on art therapy, and a list of art therapists in Minnesota, is available on the website of The Minnesota Art Therapy Association, www.mnata.org.

 

 

Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in The Phoenix. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at words@chorus.net or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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