The Art of Healing

How a picture can be worth a thousand thoughts.

April 8, 2011  | 4 min read

“Kaya” was just 8 years old when recurrent domestic violence forced her from home in Bangkok, Thailand, into a nongovernmental children’s agency nearby. Craving the bond between parent and child, she formed atypical attachments to adults there and exhibited aggressive and confrontational behavior to those her own age.

When Celine Crespi-Hunt, Kaya’s art therapist and a doctoral student at the Pepperdine Graduate School of Education and Psychology (GSEP), asked the youngster and her peers to create self-representational flowers for their community garden, Kaya made a lotus flower, which only blooms in water. Her unique creation could not be “planted” in dirt alongside the other children’s, so the group came together to build a small pond next to the garden where Kaya’s lotus could be displayed.

The process of creating the lotus and watching it buoy in the pond helped Kaya connect with the other children and experience the sense of community that she lacked in her home life. More importantly, it paved the way for a meaningful breakthrough. Today art therapists worldwide, including Crespi-Hunt and other GSEP students and alumni, are using such creative activity to foster self-expression, open communication, and confidence in their clients. Their combination of traditional psychotherapy techniques with art creation helps open a variety of individuals through alternative means of expression.

“The idea of art therapy is for a client to express themselves in a way that is different than just talking about things and answering questions,” explains Crespi-Hunt. “They can look at their artwork and gain insight through what they created, talk about the image that they made, and the process of making art and what that felt like. Even materials can evoke different emotions and can mean a lot to people.”

In a typical session, an art therapist provides the materials and therapeutic space to encourage the art-making process and determines the appropriate materials for each individual client. Using art as therapy not only allows patients to create something that is unique to themselves, but also provides tangible evidence of the healing process. “This type of therapy provides a record or visual narrative of a person's experience and shows the progress and legacy of the therapeutic work,” adds Crespi-Hunt.

Often utilized to treat existing conditions, as in Kaya’s case, art therapy also nurtures avenues of expression in typically developing children. In his private practice as a marriage and family therapist, alumnus Peter Tulaney (MA '05) uses art in classic projective identification techniques that allow clients to access subconscious thoughts and feelings through guided illustrations.

The approach can be applied in a nonclinical setting as well, like at the Malibu Art Barn, Tulaney’s therapeutic art workshop, where art is used to promote healthy social and emotional development. “We practice under the theory that creativity is one of the paramount features of early childhood development,” he explains. “Without creative outlets, the kids are stifled in how they become free and creative thinkers.” Tulaney’s workshop also features the “Artworking” program for younger children, which is designed to facilitate socialization and collaborative problem solving through creative media. “We use art because young children lack the language development to express themselves in meaningful or satisfactory ways.”

Peter Tulaney

Peter Tulaney (MA '05)

Although art therapy can prove to be a highly effective process, the approach still has its own challenges to overcome and skeptics to convince. Some of the biggest skeptics are patients and clients themselves, who feel reluctance rooted in self-consciousness. “A lot of people, and especially children, view art as wall-hangings or images they see in books,” says Tulaney. “It’s rare that you see a young person willing to create something and not feel that they’re going to be judged or critiqued on what they’re doing.” The problem is the assumption that the practice is meant to encourage both cognitive and artistic proficiency. “Whether they become artists is not my concern. The time that we spend is about the process of creating art, not the final product.”

Art therapy suffers as well from the common misconception that it is generally geared towards non- or preverbal children and adolescents. In fact, the approach can offer a powerful alternative to traditional therapy in adults who have trouble communicating or have encountered difficulty with talk therapy.

That’s something that doctoral candidate Jennifer Brown learned while working with an elderly, former drug addict afflicted with terminal HIV at the Robert Mapplethorpe Residential Treatment Facility in New York. “He didn’t want any part of it. He would only comply for a couple of weeks and only write poetry,” says Brown. “I would encourage him that it’s not about what you can draw or what you can’t draw. It’s about getting it out in an artistic way.”

After a few weeks, the patient eventually picked up a pencil. “You could see the fear of selling into art therapy and what that would expose, whether it was a lack of talent or an unwillingness to break down his barriers.” What began as basic black-and-white sketches of animal faces he had found in National Geographic magazines developed into impressive full-color paintings. “His mode of expression increased, which led to improved communication. He was never overly talkative, but I noticed his evolution through art, and it created a new space for him to express himself and relieve his stress.”

The adaptability of art therapy is precisely what intrigued Kimberly Smith (MA ‘08), a doctoral candidate who recently cofacilitated the eight-week Express Yourself Group program led by Thema Bryant-Davis, art and expressive therapy expert and associate professor of psychology at GSEP. The program provided therapy to children of severely underserved populations at a domestic violence shelter in Los Angeles and encouraged the creation of art through reading poetry, making music, building collages, and exploring other creative modes. “Even though these kids were getting talk therapy and had multiple social workers, they didn’t really have an outlet for themselves,” explains Smith.

While treating the children of afflicted parents, Smith also found art therapy able to meet the needs of diverse age groups. She modified the foundation of what she learned as part of the Express Yourself Group and utilized similar techniques in treating the patients of the adult rehabilitative psychology unit at the Long Beach VA hospital, where she currently works. “Many adults are disabled in capacities where they have functional impairments or limited mobility. We have adapted the equipment and techniques used with the children so that adults may also express themselves through art.”

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of art therapy is its opportunity to extend far past the time frame of treatment and continue throughout the patient’s life. “Treatment does not simply end with the creation of a picture,” Smith notes. “The beauty of art therapy is in a patient’s ability to go back and reexamine their work to evoke different thoughts, memories, and emotions that will help them develop long-term coping skills.”