Monday, December 1, 2008

Expressive Art Meets Turkey Day

As Janet Whitehead wrote in her post on November 26th (thanks Janet!), we creative types need to stick together. We can feel very vulnerable and shy about making and especially showing our art. In fact, I have a tough time showing my work to others. That’s why it was so interesting to participate in an expressive art session this past weekend.

My sister’s friend Anne-Marie asked if I would be a guinea pig for a class she wants to teach in expressive art therapy. I said yes and brought along my friend Connie. We weren’t quite sure what we were getting into, but we knew it had something to do with making collages to decorate a box.

Anne-Marie began the session by leading us in a group relaxation exercise as we listened to soothing Asian-inspired music. Both were designed to help us shift into a creative frame of mind and home in on a theme for our art that day. Then she asked us each to take a box and create a collage with it, using whatever materials struck our fancy from a buffet of options she’d laid out for us: photographs and words from magazines, beads, buttons, ribbons, stickers, feathers, glitter…whatever we wanted. There were no rules.

And so the crafting began! We all dug into our projects with enthusiasm. Connie discarded her box top and made a kind of diorama out of the inside of her box—a lush tropical scene. Linda, my sister, went conceptual and cerebral, focusing on words like “unconventional” and using images (an owl flying) sparingly. As the box was opened, new meanings of words and phrases were revealed. She said she viewed the box as a portal to a new, big-picture perspective on her life. Anne-Marie used the top of a rectangular cardboard necklace box and dropped down one long side to create an ethereal, almost 3-dimensional scene of a woman lying in a field, dreaming. As for me, I spent the allotted time decorating the top of my chosen box in greens and blues, centering around a photo of a sandy beach path leading out into the ocean and the words “the simple life,” “create,” and “love.” I dotted it with some of the products I’ve been experimenting with such as Angelina fibers, clay embellishments, and painted and ironed Tyvek paper. (You can see my creation in the photo).

After we finished our boxes, Anne-Marie asked us to pair up and have our boxes “talk” to us about what they were saying.

We tried, really we tried to go with the flow, but at this point, Linda, Connie and I looked at one another crazily, desperately searching for a way to circumvent this part of the program. Unable to contain ourselves, we burst out laughing. That step was just one expressive, touchy-feely step too far for us cynics. We hadn’t realized we were signing up for a class where inanimate objects talk about our deepest feelings! Anne-Marie, in her gentle, sweet way took no offence, but instead laughed along with us—and then magically reined us in. Eventually, she got us to pair off and speak about what our boxes were trying to say.

My box spoke of the life I am trying to create—a simple life filled with love and creative expression. Connie’s box focused on the lush success she hopes to make of her year-old coaching business for high school and college graduates, Six Figure Start ( Linda’s talked about the way her perception of her world is opening up to encompass parallel universes and its infinite possibilities, while Anne-Marie’s focused on dreaming and believing in yourself to become who you really want to be.

Beyond that, as soon as I saw everyone elses’ boxes I was immediately struck with feelings of (A) jealousy and (B) inadequacy. I know, I know…I’m not supposed to compare my work to others. I’m not supposed to put myself down or judge my work. But I do. I guess that’s part of my artistic struggle. But I was so floored by what the other three had created. It never even OCCURRED to me to work inside the box lid or the box itself. It’s not that I didn’t like what I did, I just didn’t think it was as special as everyone else’s creation. (This is a same-old, same-old reaction for me.) Ironically, while I was flagellating myself for taking a conventional tactic, my sister thought my approach showed I was actually thinking outside the box.

It was a fascinating exercise—both for what we learned about ourselves, and what we learned about how others perceived us. In fact, days later we’re still analyzing the process and the products!

Want to know more about expressive art therapy? Here’s an excerpt about it from my book, Craft to Heal: Soothing Your Soul with Sewing, Painting, and Other Pastimes

(available for $12.95 from Wheatmark Publishing at

In the beginning, there was art therapy. Along with dance, music, poem, writing and drama therapies, the process of making art has been used for years to reach those who can't articulate what they're feeling—from autistic and abused children to the mentally disturbed. More recently, expressive art therapy has emerged. Whereas traditional art therapy focuses on the product and an art therapist's interpretation of that product, expressive art therapy targets the process of creating art as a cathartic and healing experience, and the interpretation of the product by the creator, not the therapist (the thinking being that while others may express opinions about your art, only you can know what your creation truly and personally says.)

Today, it has been established that the expressive art therapy process also has benefits for psychologically healthy people, helping them to achieve their potential as individuals, to grow and change, and to live life to the fullest.

Expressive art therapists believe that negative thoughts and painful or fearful feelings take up actual physical residence in the body. Traditionally, talk therapy—psychotherapy—has been used to release and resolve such feelings, but simply talking about your feelings may not release them, and may actually lead you to relive them. "Griping and moaning about your feelings won't make you feel better," says expressive art therapist Barbara Ganim. "It just reactivates the stress response." A more effective way to approach their release may be through expressive art therapy. Because imagery is the inner language of the mind-body—it reacts to images of a thought before it recognizes the words that describe that thought, according to the split-brain research of Dr. Roger Sperry—drawing and visually expressing what you are feeling is often cathartic in a way that just talking isn't.

In working with cancer patients for the past decade, Ganim has found that "as soon as a patient expresses a painful emotion through color, shape, and form, it energetically releases blocked energy and stops the stress response. Art moves stress-producing emotions and blockages out of the body using the body's own language of imagery," she says.

The Expressive Art Process
In her book Visual Journaling: Going Deeper Than Words, Ganim describes a process she has developed for helping patients go deeper with their creative work, to tap into the healing benefits. Here's the technique in brief:
Step 1: Set an intention. "Real healing comes through intention and expression," says Ganim. "While a mindless activity such as knitting can create a relaxing and meditative state, its effects are only temporary." To truly access your body's deeper innate ability to both heal itself and even prevent illness and stabilize itself, you have to approach your craft with a mission. Your intention can take any number of forms…you might wish to gain insight into why the prospect of seeing your family makes you feel anxious, release anger against your boss, examine the knot of tension in your head that is causing pain or heal a chronic physical illness such as arthritis. Try to be very specific in your intention.

Step 2: Quiet your mind. To access your feelings and their associated images, to quiet the left brain and give the right brain wider reign, Ganim says you need to disconnect from the distracting thoughts in your mind. You do this by sitting in a comfortable position in a quiet room, closing your eyes and breathing deeply and slowly. Focus on your breath, the exhale and the inhale. Now, breathing normally, allow your attention to drift to any part of your body where you're feeling tension, discomfort or pain, and focus on the sensation you feel there.

Step 3: Keeping your eyes closed, imagine what the sensation (or feeling) you've identified in your body would look like if it were an image. What colors, shapes and forms would that sensation have? The image might be realistic—a mountain, a house, a chair—or abstract, such as a series of squiggly lines. Only you need to know what the image is meant to convey.

Step 4: Create your image. Open your eyes and draw your image with any medium you like—colored pencils, paints, pastels or even create a free-form image on the sewing machine.

Step 5: Transform the negative image into a positive image—one that takes your stress-producing emotion and represents it in a more constructive way of reacting to the situation or issue causing you distress. This is the true key to healing with expressive arts and crafts of any kind, says Ganim. "Transformation occurs when you replace an image representing a negative thought or an angry or destructive emotion with a new image that is positive, peaceful and loving," she explains, "which releases its psychological hold on you." When you change the image in your mind, your body and your spirit respond in kind. She calls this "re-envisioning." The specific technique involves looking at a work you've made about a stressful emotion, having a dialogue with it about what it is saying and trying to get a new, more positive perspective on it by imagining how the image needs to be changed so that it feels less stressful, and then drawing or painting over the old, negative image or making a new piece of artwork that feels more positive.

Copyright Nancy Monson
All rights reserved.

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