Local art therapist sees benefit of visual expression

A picture is worth a thousand words, especially if people do not have the words to express how they feel.

Artistic expression can give them that voice.

Art therapy, viewed by many as a catalyst for healing, self-expression and self-esteem, can give them that forum.

“Expressive arts therapy is another form of therapy,” said certified art therapist Kristine May from her home studio in Elora.

“It is a recognized component of the mental health profession, with dual origins in art and psychotherapy, rooted in many theoretical frameworks of psychotherapy and philosophies of creativity, with a wide range of applications.”

While talk therapy or other forms of analysis work for many, it is sometimes difficult for others to communicate in that way. Art therapy offers an alternative.

 “Most forms of communication elicit the use of words, or language as a means of communicating,” May said. “But sometimes there may be things we are incapable of expressing verbally.”

Having worked with clients who have suffered trauma or post-traumatic stress and even cases where verbal communication was impaired by other disabilities, May has used art as a forum to foster a relationship of trust with her clients.

“For whatever reasons, we may find we have a hard time talking about our difficulties. Images can speak to us indirectly using metaphors, providing a different venue for communication where language does not interfere,” she said.

In her studio, May points to a wide-variety of materials that are as eclectic as the needs of the people she works with – and that is a conscious choice for her practice.

She works with adults, children and youths in groups and individual settings, building a program to suit their specific needs.

Activities can include creating memory boxes, mask-making, collage, photo transfers, painting or pastels, totems or visual journals.

“In a general sense, art therapists use image-making as a vehicle for exploring many facets of experiences,” explained May. “We create a forum to express feelings and explore issues, but it can also be a playful place and it’s a nice balance.”

If art is for everyone, then art therapy can be too.

May stressed the focus of art therapy is on the process, not the outcome. People don’t need to have artistic ability or specific talents.

All they need is the willingness to explore their desired artistic medium and a safe, supportive, non-threatening environment in which to create.

“One of the beautiful aspects of art therapy is its inclusiveness … any person of any age or any ability can express himself through an art form such as painting, drawing, sculpture or any other varieties of visual expression,” said May, adding it is particularly effective with children.

“Children are so uninhibited that they are open to the process. Children and adults need to feel secure in that image-making is a way to record their experience or represent their thoughts and feelings and know they will not be judged on its merit.”

May has done extensive work with children who face issues of anxiety, learning disabilities, autism spectrum and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She said her work in that area is particularly rewarding.

“It’s more than just doing crafts with kids,” she explained.

“For this population, there are really two goals: self-definition and independent functioning, the two things they struggle with because they are constantly in the role of needing.

“By encouraging independent choice and decision-making through exploration of colour and different art materials, they learn develop their own voice, personal style and validate their feelings.

“It’s really rewarding to see the joy and pride children receive from this process.”

Dr. Laura Brown, a child psychologist with Guelph’s Norfolk Psychological Services, is a proponent of art therapy for children and youths at her practice.

“I know many young people have engaged in art therapy in conjunction with other forms of psychotherapeutic or psychopharmacological techniques,” said Brown.

“It is a great way to reach children who are anxious, withdrawn or generally have difficulty expressing their emotions, because it can be perceived as less threatening than traditional talk therapy for some.

“Furthermore, it can elicit psychological expression from children who are incapable of clearly articulating their thoughts or emotions for a variety of reasons.”

Art therapy is not new; ask any artist. The creative process itself is therapeutic.

But the act of creating art for the sake of coping with issues related to emotional or behavioral challenges, mental-health issues, neurological conditions or physical disabilities is still a fairly new concept.

“Public perception of the arts sometimes affects the perception of art therapy,” said May. “Yet, the medical community does take this seriously. Still, there is a need for the public to understand what it is and the benefits.”

Part of her work involves educating people on the process of art therapy, as well as its merits.

May explained her role is to foster an environment that is non-judgmental, confidential and safe for people to explore their emotions.

The key element central to her therapeutic approach remains the same: there are no right or wrong ways to use art.

Initially, when clients begins therapy with her, May knows enough about their personal situation to be able to create a supportive environment for them.

“I would never ask someone to share something they’re not ready to disclose,” she said. “People participate at their own level, at their own pace. It is really client-centered.”

A typical session begins with a warm-up activity; something to set the tone of the appointment.

“Then I will provide some kind of art-based directive and encourage a sense of play and spontaneity,” May said. “I act as a guide, helping people give form to their creative expression. I want them to learn how to suspend and quiet that inner critic.”

Whatever art form a person chooses, May believes the experience is every bit as important as the work itself, and that is why her role is to guide more than instruct.

“It’s about a visual experience and contact with it, but in some cases what really becomes important is the space provided, the time, the attention, the continuity,” she said.

May reassures people she is not judging their work or digging for psychoanalysis via colour association or imagery.

“It’s not my job to interpret or read meaning into a client’s art,” she said.

“The emphasis is placed on helping a client tell [her] own story by finding what is communicated in the art and how it relates to their lives, thoughts and feelings.” 

The outcome varies, as it would for any type of therapy, and May acknowledges her practice is not a cure-all for every disorder.

“What it can hope to do is help with some of the isolation people feel,” citing her work with victims of abuse or trauma.

“It can’t work miracles more than any other therapy can, but it can offer opportunities to help break the cycle of feeling anxiety or self-doubt.”

But the success of her work and that of her peers inspires her personal growth and dedication to her practice.

“Using art to explore feelings and events in their lives, I see people increasing their self-esteem, confidence, gaining a stronger sense of their self and self-image and developing interpersonal relationships too,” May said.

“Art therapy can help change a person’s perceptions of their world, their emotional state and attitude. It can transform a person’s outlook and way of being in the world.”

May’s work with people who have struggled with body image and eating disorders is an area of particular interest, where her passion for the healing power of art has been validated in the intensity of the work created.

“Engagement in the art process is a very effective means of redefining body image, gaining self acceptance and getting positive solutions to difficulties and challenges through the creative process,” said May.

“It has been said that art therapy and eating disorders seem to be in some way closely related in that they are both about expressing feelings without words, yet one is self-empowering and the other is self-destructive.”

Another part of educating people about her work is ensuring they understand the credentials required for certification in art therapy.

Bound by the same ethical codes of confidentiality as any social worker or therapist, a certified art therapist must have a bachelor’s degree followed by a graduate diploma or master’s degree from an accredited art therapy institution.

Credentials and experience matter.

“While it’s important that the therapy be practiced by an experienced, well-trained clinician, art therapy is a valuable form of therapy for many people experiencing psychological distress,” Brown said.

For May, the goal is not to “fix” a client but rather to provide an alternative mode of communication to help understand and communicate feelings while nourishing and strengthening their inner-self.  The healing is in the journey.

For more information on May or her workshops, visit www.kw-artzonestudio.com.