In my senior year of college, we hosted a prisoner art exhibit in the campus art gallery. As art therapy students we were eager to guess the crime of the artist as we viewed each piece. We had been trained to look at content, technique, and symbolism in an effort to analyze the artwork. Anger sprang forth in some pieces through aggressive brush strokes and bold color, while tenderness, control, and exquisite detail presented itself in others.
Like Criminal Minds profilers, we made observations and critiques not about the art itself, but about the personalities of the individuals, who created the art. Analysis is one side of art therapy and while it is extremely interesting, it is the side of art therapy that I have stepped away from in favor of the other side, the therapy side.
Art as therapy is the benefit of creating art for the individual. In the case of the prisoner art exhibit, art served as a form of expression: a way for persons serving time to channel their emotions, feelings, and interests into something tangible. The act of creating art can have profound therapeutic effects on the creator and it doesn’t have to be art show quality. In the accepted definition of creativity, something that is unique and useful, art as therapy is both. A person can create something that is unlike any other (unique) and they can benefit from the outlet for their self-expression and communication (useful.) Art as therapy can be used by anyone at any time without any particular training. The key is to not judge the product.
Process Not Product
Art as therapy focuses on the process, not the product. This does not mean that the product does not have quality or skill or beauty; it means that it does not have to possess those things. The person creating the art should not feel pressured to meet the expectations of the viewer. Their goal is to communicate an idea, to express an emotion, or to make something that, through its process, has given the creator some sort of satisfaction.
In his book, Art As Therapy, Allain de Botton argued for redefining the artistic agenda. He stated, “Artists would be allowed to follow an unapologetically didactic mission: to assist mankind in its search for self-understanding, empathy, consolation, hope, self-acceptance, and fulfillment.” He was arguing for professional artists (rather than amateur artists) and their obligation to art viewers. I propose that all persons should seek to achieve these outlets through art with no obligation to anyone but themselves.
Art as therapy can be used in any classroom for any age group to enhance existing lessons or to create a mindful break from lessons. Generally, crayons are the optimal choice of medium as they encourage a childlike response, regardless of age. There is something about the smell and the texture of crayons that takes one back to childhood. Crayons also lessen the expectation of creating something of great technical quality, which lessens the pressure on the person and allows them to be more whimsical and open.
Creativity can truly flourish when one is feeling experimental and free of scrutiny. I recommend getting a giant tub of crayons and a ream of cheap paper. Have them represent words, people, and music using only line, shape, and color in an abstract way, then explain their choices. Or just have them draw whatever they want at that moment.
They can channel problems and frustrations onto paper in the same way, then destroy it by ripping it up, stomping on it, and crumbling it. This allows them the power to acknowledge and move past things that might seem overwhelming. In addition to giving a therapeutic coloring break, approaching content abstractly might reveal a greater depth of understanding than students are able to express in sentence form.
The High School Art Classroom
In the art classroom, art as therapy can be explored in greater depth. In the book, Brave Art and Teens: A Primer for the New High School Art Teacher by Jodi A. Patterson, the high school art classroom is transformed into a haven for the exploration of ideas, feelings, contemporary issues, and most of all, self-expression. Patterson argues for adapting art projects to the group she is teaching, pointing out that teens in rural Indiana have different interests and needs than teens in the inner cities of Michigan. She said, “With each group, I could have chosen to teach a curriculum based on traditional techniques and historical art, but I would have failed them and the arts. A few students from each group would have excelled, but most of them would have left art class thinking that art was irrelevant to their lives.”
Many art teachers feel pressured to teach their students how to produce technically proficient art and miss the opportunity to give students an outlet for creative expression and meaning. Patterson pointed out, “The question an art teacher NEVER wants to hear is, ‘Is this how you want it?’” She emphasizes that the sharing and discussing of the artwork is almost as vital as the actual creation of the art, allowing students to share ideas and intentions. The book is a call to arms for any art teacher who believes that art is for everyone and it gives many tools and ways to create this outlet for students. I cannot recommend it enough.
Art as therapy is for everyone. Art does not always need to be analyzed for its technical qualities or for its hidden content. It does not need to be measured to curricular standards or be pretty. It can be used as an outlet of creativity and expression. It can give a much-needed hands-on break that allows the student to speak through color and line and shape or simply be a process of mark-making. The simple process of making art is a mindful, creative, and therapeutic escape from an otherwise rigid and goal-oriented schedule.
- Art as therapy is art without expectation that focuses on the therapy of creating art.
- The goal of art as therapy is for the artist to use art as a form of expression and communication or simply an outlet of emotion.
- Any teacher can use art as therapy as a break from the routine or as another avenue of expression within existing lessons.
Beverly Zapatka Weihz is a renaissance woman. She is a high school communications teacher, an artist, an entrepreneur, an avid traveler, and a voracious student of life. She holds a B.A. in Art Therapy and teaching certificates for both Art and English. She received a Master’s of Science in Creative Studies and Change Leadership from SUNY Buffalo in 2016. Her master’s study work focused on research in motivation and finding the balance between technology and creativity. Her desire is to create a learning environment where all students can discover their strengths, their creativity, and their own version of badass.