Tina Bexson explores the use of ‘Art Therapy’

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ART THERAPY by Tina Bexson

I’m quizzing Art Therapist Vicky Barber in her living room before I enter her studio and take the plunge with a spot of art therapy.

I want to know how it works but most of all I want to know what I can gain from it.

She tells me that the act of creating an image will allow me to visualise then express emotion, which needs releasing. Any blocked energy, especially of the creative kind, can also be released. Most importantly, she says ‘it provides a safe place to explore your emotions and behaviour with a view to finding new ways forward. It can actually be used to promote life-enhancing change.’

Vicky’s clients have found relief from stress, anxiety, communication problems (both written and verbal) and they have even used art therapy as another way of addressing non-psychological issues. One woman had big financial problems. ‘She earned lots of money but she was always spending. She painted and created and it was like looking at the problem from a different perspective, she came up with a solution herself and went back to see her bank manager.’
A team from a leading advertising agency also used her services to help them work more effectively together especially in terms of how they communicated with each other. ‘When they had meeting to help launch a product they would rely on words as a means of explanation. I helped them devise a way of being as fluid with imaging as they were with words.’
‘Looking at things from a different angle means you can often come up with very different and quite unique solutions’, she says.

Then she asks me what I hope I will gain from the session. I say that I hope it will be relaxing, and bring about some release of emotion without me having to talk about it. My ‘problem’ you could say, is that I find talking about my feelings self-indulgent and wimpy!

Vicky says that the strength of art therapy is that you don’t need language at all. ‘You can be as articulate as you like but there are times when we lose the ability to talk, and that’s when art therapy can come into its own. You are ‘talking’ in a different way. It’s very spontaneous, you can never predict what will happen.’

Okay, but what if you’re no good at art? “That’s irrelevant. The Art is just a tool, a means to an end to externalise what is internal. You’re not being judged by what you might create.”

Remembering the mess I used to make at school in art classes, I’m very glad about that.

We climb the stairs to her studio. It’s a treasure trove filled with watercolours, crayons, poster paints, sequins, clay, felt, beads, beans, leaves, and little plastic toys. ‘I need a variety of materials, to go with peoples changing moods’, says Vicky.

For their first session she always begins in a directive way by giving her clients a focus. She asks me to think about my name. What does it mean? Do I like it? What memories do I have of it? Do people change my name at different times? What would I like to be called? ‘Think about it and get into that space so its with you when you create an image’, she instructs.

Umm. I stand poised with a paintbrush in front of an enormous piece of blank paper and think – a lot. A few minutes later Vicky encourages me to use anything I like in the room. ‘Choose your materials, there are no restrictions and you can make as much mess as you like. This is the place to let your feelings go’, she explains from her stool in the corner. Then she sits back and observes my actions throughout the session.

First off I reach for the paints and decide to paint a thick black border. Good that feels better. Then I draw the cross section of a human head and divide it into four sections. I’ll paint four different things associated with my name in each I think. But what? I think of my name, I was christened Christina, which I believe means daughter of Christ. I’m atheist and anyway I’ve always called myself Tina.

But for some reason I begin by painting Joan of Arc burning on a massive bonfire that I make from crushing up bits of twig and leaves. I love primary colours and opt for deep reds, greens, blue and black. She has great flames of fire coming out of her eyes and is shredding black tears onto a white face. I stick down two plastic flying dinosaur things in the sky.

In the square above Joan I paint a long flowing river which ends up cutting through the middle of the page into the bottom right hand corner. I think of childhood days riding in the country and surround it with fields of horses. Then it gets a bit gloomy again and I attempt to paint a winding staircase spiralling upwards towards a triangular room – it’s a recurring dream and I haven’t a clue what its got to do with my name. But it goes a bit wrong so I turn it into a bright multi-coloured snake, my biggest fear in childhood! The triangle at the top becomes its face and a forked tongue flicks out from the mouth. Facing the tongue and on either side of it I place a plastic Ninja child wielding a sword. And then drag a plane horizontally through the wet paint in the middle of it.

I’m starting to feel quite childlike myself and can’t help grinning at the image in front of me. Art Therapy is all about getting back to how we were as children, when there was no division between images and words.

The forty minutes is up. Almost every available space is covered with paint, sequins, material or plastic animals and people. I’ve painted all the gaps between the black border and the head with deep green. I’m very relieved. The overall feeling is definitely one of catharsis. Vicky gets up from her stool and comes over to have a closer look. ‘A lot has happened here, much more than you expected it to.’ That’s true. ‘I noticed you filled up all the space quite animatedly.’

I didn’t start off that way, for the first ten minutes or so I didn’t think I’d have enough ideas to create much at all. Vicky explains that most people are like that when they come to art therapy. ‘When you began the task the logical side of you linked with the left side of your brain was saying ‘oh this is just a silly exercise’. But once you got into the process the right side of the brain took over and your creative juices flowed out. When you allow that to happen it can be wonderful.’

It did feel good to rely on visual expression rather than words. In fact art therapy can be very good for people less skilled in image making than they are in language since worlds can be used to mask true feelings rather than express them. I’ve always remembered the playwright Harold Pinter saying that the most significant things about us can be found in what we don’t say rather than in what we do say.

Vicky asks me to try and explain what emotions came up whilst I painted what I did. I relay some of the reasoning behind the things I painted, and she reflects and makes some interesting comments, though she is careful not to make too meaningful an interpretation, as this is not part of art therapy. However I found her observations useful in that they illuminated some fears and things I perhaps didn’t want to admit to.

‘It’s very profound’, she says of the image. ‘you cut the neck off the head, and painted in the dripping blood, its scary.’
‘And all the different things you painted were contained in someway: first the black border, the cross section of the head, then the way you divided the head into compartments.’ I think it could be an indication that I’m a control freak but Vicky goes further, ‘It’s as though you didn’t want anything ‘spilling’ out unnecessarily. You want to keep it all contained and you don’t want to give too much away.’
True, but who does?!

I tell her that I’m sure I only painted Joan of Arc because I had seen the Luc Besson film a few weeks previously, but she says ‘why choose the image of her burning?’

‘You may be dismissive, but look at what’s come out. Things that were fearful and meaningful to you as a child. But what’s positive is that you do acknowledge the nice things, the river, the horses, and they are important to hold onto.’ I make a mental note to do so.

She asks if I ever climbed the ‘winding staircase’ in my dreams (I did) and when I describe the dream, she says ‘so beautiful, but so totally dangerous.’

‘If you want to you can explore more, you can explore why you keep having a recurring dream, or why you feel in a certain way. Exploring will never erase your memories but it will lessen the blows. Though you may never be ready to explore things because going to some places within ourselves is too much.’
She also says that when people work in this way, ‘lots of things come out, you can’t stop it, you paint the stuff you don’t want to look at consciously, that’s the magic of art therapy’.

I don’t think I want to look too deeply at anything at the moment consciously or unconsciously, but I’m sure I will do some art therapy of one form or another again soon. It was hardly relaxing but it was certainly inspirational.

© Tina Bexson

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