Making the unspeakable visible

Inner experiences are outwardly expressed, creating a visual story or reflection of what is going on inside of us.

22 September 2020 | Health

Henriette Lamprecht – It can be in any shape or form. Whether it is drawing squiggles and lines, painting a picture or splashing paint on a canvas.

It is our inner experiences that we outwardly express, explains art therapist Regine Gillman. A form of language making the unspeakable visible.

“The artwork that is created, functions as a message and provides a visual story or reflection of what is going on inside of us,” says Regine.

It provides distance on challenging situations and helps to view the situations from a distance, presenting an alternative or a new perspective.

We are integrally and internally connected to creative expression. It is part of who we are and how we function and through which we connect with each other, says Regine.

“In art therapy we ask what does the person need in their situation to help them grow,” she explains.

During the therapy the person, together with Regine, works through emotional and psychological experiences by engaging with and making art.

“It builds on the person’s personal resources for them to deal with their situation in a more effective way.”

As the client works through difficult experiences, feelings and emotions, art acts as a language or tool of expression and a form of catharsis.

No need to be a budding Van Gogh, all sorts of creative work is supported, says Regine.

The art therapist always carefully assesses what circumstances and experiences the client comes to therapy for and what art materials would be best to engage with. Not all art materials and exercises are beneficial or enjoyable by all clients, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ situation, says Regine.

Creative expression can either be through drawing, painting, clay or collage work and strongly depends on the unique situation of the client.

“Sometimes we just do not have the vocabulary or means to say what we really feel or have experienced. Art-making is a welcoming help to express these emotions and experiences in a safe, contained and non-judgemental space.”

The art making process and the artwork itself is seen as a very important aspect in the therapy session, explains Regine. It helps the person to manage their emotions, obtain distance and gain unique insight to their habits or no-longer functioning problem solving techniques which they then actively can make changes to.

Different methods are used by art therapists, depending on the therapeutic approach and situation.

The main aim is to support a balance of physical, mental and psychological state of well-being and to strengthen these in times when a person feels stuck or finds it difficult to function well.

Regine admits many adults feel they are not creative enough, but the opposite is true.

“As children we all delightfully embraced our creativity, drawing and painting freely and with a lot of joy. What changed during these years?”

No need for any previous experience or knowledge in art to benefit from art therapy. Of importance is the creative expression, says Regine.

“In art therapy we underline the belief the end product, the picture or painting, is not important, but rather the process and experience of the art making itself. It is the latter that we focus on and work with.”

Persons of all ages can benefit and the therapy is adapted to the unique individual, their age, experiences, capabilities, situation and requirements.

With adolescents and adults it takes a slightly different stance in that the creative process is discussed and reflected upon in more detail. It is also very effective for the elderly and those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's disease as the creative activity engages their tactile senses, feeling joy in creating something aesthetically stimulating and feeling more calm as they are engaged in their artwork.

Art therapists generally do not interpret or analyse artwork, says Regine.

“When someone paints a picture using a lot of red, it could mean their expression of love to someone but to someone else it could mean anger. Making interpretations from images or the use of specific colour leads to very subjective conclusions, which would often be an inaccurate reading of someone.”

Images produced in art therapy are very unique and cannot be interpreted in a set standard way, she explains.

“The artwork is always seen as something much more than it presents. Through reflection on the art making process and discussing the artwork, the person will find their own meaning in their creation, what certain aspects of their drawing could mean, what insights came up, what forms or images reminded them of something or what they really wanted to portray.”

The therapy aims to activate and support the person’s creative potential and their sense of control, especially in times of illnesses and situations in which the person feels powerless and out of control.

“It provides the opportunity for the person to actively experience their personal capacity to build on their emotional and psychological resilience.”

As a teenager Regine always felt she could express herself easier and more freely through art. She had an “easier channel” of release, making more sense than trying to verbally describing them.

Always interested in people and figuring out how they function mentally, Regine’s desire was to understand herself through her art. She first studied graphic art and animation, working in advertising for some years. After obtaining her Bachelor and Honours degree in Psychology, she graduated with her Master of Arts degree in Art Therapy in 2016.

“I have always used my art as an additional language, as a tool and method to express myself with. It definitely is not art to hang up in the living room or to sell – in the same way as I would not sell my daily journal entries or put them up for display.”

The art she makes on a daily basis function in so many ways, she explains, as method for personal reflection for the day, a way to unwind, to clear her head and to let it all out.

“I see it as my personal superpower!”

If someone wants to incorporate art in their daily life, she would advise them to firstly let go of their critical-self, be open to explore, experiment, and to allow themselves to let go and have fun with art materials.

It is however important to know that art therapy is not possible to do on your own or through filling in colouring books. “It is the same way as psychotherapy cannot be replaced through reading self-help books. If someone struggles with difficult life situations, it is best to seek professional help.”

Create a space where you feel comfortable with no need for fancy art supplies – colouring pencils, markers, or any type of crayons would do. Old magazines or cut-outs work well to make collages too. Alternatively, taking photos – even with your phone, will switch your brain to creative mode.

“Set yourself some quiet time to get creative. Make a point of being self-compassionate and allowing yourself to make free art, to scribble, to make a mess, and be totally at ease with that, to feel comfortable and curious with whatever develops and to observe what is created. Become immersed in your artwork and see how it develops.”

Once you feel the picture is done, breathe in and out deeply and observe your artwork with interest and wonder, says Regine. “You have just created something that was not there before, something uniquely yours. Sometimes writing a few words or a poem in conjunction with the artwork helps to sum up the creative experience, and for the brain to incorporate this into one’s understanding.” – [email protected]

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