Art therapy for the soul

Visual art used for personal healing, treatment

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Art supplies

Art sounds like a strange way to address the complex problems plaguing today’s society. Yet many organizations are channeling the power of art to make a difference in the lives of those who are homeless, disabled or suffering from various illnesses.

“Art creates a starting point for talking about things that make you feel scared or helpless,” London-based art therapist Wanda Sawicki explains.

“It gives you the sense that you’re coping and dealing with it.”

Sawicki has been a practicing registered art therapist for over 15 years and has spent much of her time working at the Wellspring London and Region Centre since it opened in 2000.

The centre is a haven for cancer patients and their families. Its art therapy program allows those suffering from the disease to dabble in a variety of mediums, from watercolours to sculpting.

While art may not cure cancer, Sawicki says healing encompasses the whole person " not just their physical body but also someone’s approach to life, who they are and their life purpose.

“Cancer gives someone a feeling of dislocation from life and purpose and sense of self,” she says. “Art, being a language of the soul, can bring that back.”

This form of treatment is useful not only for cancer patients, but also their friends and families suffering from grief and stress.

“When you draw the feeling of being scared, it fits on an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven piece of paper " so it’s not so big anymore,” Sawicki says. “You can crumple it up and throw it away and you gain a sense of control.”

Those with eating disorders also benefit from art therapy, according to Gill Yealland. A registered art therapist as well, Yealland runs various sessions at London eating disorder support centre Hope’s Garden.

Each of her therapy groups focuses on a theme related to recovery, such as “exploring perfectionism,” “feeling through art” and “creating balance.”

“Part of the group time is dedicated to making the art and the second part involves participants sharing their art with the group, in which I help the participant to process through their feelings of both the process of creating the art, and also what their artwork means to them,” Yealland explains.

“It is not my role to interpret their art for them, as is often the misconception of art therapy.”

Yealland says for those struggling with an eating disorder, unhealthy behaviours are often used to numb one’s feelings or are an attempt to gain control.

The process of making and discussing art can help individuals connect with, and eventually share, their feelings. The art process can also help to challenge the perfectionist thinking that tends to accompany eating disorders.

“I encourage participants to make ‘mistakes’ in their art [and] get messy,” Lealland says.

By taking risks with artwork, individuals gain a sense of control and empowerment " something that benefits more people than just those suffering from illnesses.

Sketch, a Toronto-based organization, seeks to impact homeless and street-involved youth through working arts opportunities.

According to general manager Carly Dunster, Sketch operates differently than many other similar organizations by acknowledging that street-involved individuals have creativity and skills.

At Sketch, youth can try their hand at screen printing or visual arts, lay down some beats in the music recording studio, practice yoga and martial arts, or simply get together and jam.

“Last year in this space, we had 600 youth come through,” Dunster says.

The facility opened over a decade ago in a smaller space, but this need prompted an expansion to its current space at King and Bathurst.

“It works to have people explore themselves … and see what they can create,” Dunster says of Sketch’s success. “Once given the opportunity, it’s pretty hard to stop people.”

This may not equate to overnight personal turnarounds for those who drop in, however.

“Success isn’t like, oh, a youth comes in and starts using the facilities and then he’s back in school and got a PhD … it’s the small realizations people have, from realizing they can create a beautiful T-shirt, to wanting to sell their art.”

Clearly, art is a powerful force for personal healing and empowerment. Yet only a handful of universities across Canada offer art therapy programs.

Western’s part-time and continuing studies campus once offered a diploma in art therapy, but it closed in 2004. Sawicki says its complex subject matter " ranging from visual arts to psychology " meant it had outgrown its format.

Now an advisory committee " on which Sawicki is a member " is working on putting it into a masters program.

This is good news for those who see the deeper emotional, physical and spiritual benefits of " in the words of Sawicki " “art from the heart.”

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