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The pot, the goat, the bed and the tree: transforming fear and pain through art therapy – Elaine Wisdom

page 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, pallette  logoThe word gospel means ‘good news’ and a word often associated with the gospel is ‘salvation’, which translates as healing.  We don’t use the word ‘salve’ so much now, but it is an old word for healing – ointment.  Another word, ‘redeemed’, means freed.  These aspects are also in the remit of both therapy and therapeutic care.  We are told in the Gospel of St John that Jesus “bent down and started writing on the ground with his finger”.  Making marks on a surface with fingers or other tool is an ancient activity.  Humans have been mark-making since earliest times.  At Creswell Crags in Derbyshire, images are scratched into the rock caves providing shelter for these pre-ice-age people living there 12,000 years ago.  We don’t know why these marks were made, but some of those early, scratched images can still be recognised today.

And recognition seems to be something that making marks helps us to do, both recognising, acknowledging and perhaps putting parameters on the world as experienced; the same need today as it was for those ice-age ancestors of ours.  It is an activity that can be immensely helpful, especially in addressing trauma, loss, conflict, crisis, pain – that which has wounded us in life.  Today, the act of creating an image in a chosen medium, using the imagination as both an aid and antidote to memory, is called art therapy.  We are creative because we are human.

We use art therapy as part of a healing process of psychological and emotional wounds inflicted on us throughout life by a variety of causes.  Art therapy is a way of recognising beyond words, and Jesus, in the gospel event mentioned above had no words, especially not the words of accusation that the crowd wanted to hear.  Instead, he made marks on the ground, and when he did speak, it was to use words that made the crowd baying for ‘justice’ recognise what they were really about; and they dropped their stones.

Art therapy works partly by reaching the places that words cannot reach.  Images that emerge from the psyche can be an expression of something that once happened, which causes us to live in a certain way because there seems little choice.  In the art room at Holy Rood House, we work in ways that may at first appear to be rather random and abstract.  We work fast, on large sheets of paper, without the use of conventional paint brushes or crayons, using ready-made ‘tools’ that come to hand: toothbrushes, lollipop sticks, old plastic cards.  This is because for many who come, holding a conventional painting brush can cause a barrier to creativity as artistic stereotypes of ‘good art’ come into play:  What do I draw?  How can I draw it?  It will look a mess because I can’t draw.  The process used – designed to help people free up, relax, even have fun with the painting activity – provides quite a direct route for many to areas of the mind and heart that are often kept split off and apart from daily life.  However, the coping mechanism used until now is no longer helpful, hence the appeal for therapeutic intervention.  The aim expressed by many is to find themselves again, or perhaps for the first time.  We are back to recognition.  To gain, regain, freedom, choice, perhaps life itself.  Precisely the reasons why Jesus came and the Gospels were written.

Creative activity is often likened to our creator God; a holistic connectivity that we at times seem to have lost.  Music, art, dance, all things that children instinctively find absorbing and necessary to well-being are the same for adults’ well-being too: re-finding the joy, ability and perhaps above all, permission to make a mess.  Artistic excellence is not the point.  To begin a process of exploration in a safe space is.  The safe space of the art room is an integral ingredient, giving a safety that allows one to feel unsafe as the journey progresses.  Sometimes what is made in the art room can present a possible new, or different, reality, or tell a story about oneself, experiences, hopes, dreams.  The life of the imagination is a powerful dynamic, akin to the life of the spirit, a freedom untrammelled by convention or taste: simply a relationship with colour, texture, shape and mark-making.

Print-making also has a therapeutic dimension and can work as metaphor as all creative activity can; the mark we make on life, the marks life makes on us, shaping us as artists shape their material so that the image can emerge.  Michaelangelo said of his sculpted pieces that he did not impose anything but simply revealed the figure within the block of marble.  This indicates a sensitive rapport with the material, seeing its potential and possibilities.  Similarly, Jesus encouraged and empowered those around him to become the best they could be, and there are many examples in the Gospels; Zacchaeus, who took the actively imaginative step of climbing a tree in order to see Jesus and had his life transformed as a result.

Images made in art therapy often help the maker to see more clearly, thereby enabling change.  But it takes courage to make that first, adventurous step and allow the imagination to play its part.  The use of creativity, imagination and imagery can encourage freedom from constraints which limit life and its expectations, enabling a wider vision and a broader portfolio of possibilities.  Connecting with one’s creative process can enhance this, by, as Picasso put it, making the invisible visible. The images formed help words to be articulated, a realisation emerging through the image and the making of it that can put form on past or present terrors and dilemmas that allow fear and doubt to be the predominant dynamic in a life diminished in its expectations and responses.

Paint, because it flows, can be seen as a paradigm of the psyche.  Sometimes it is only possible to manage pouring the paint from the tube before feelings become too much.  The struggle to contain and control the chaos, pain and fear of a life become moribund is sometimes seen and felt all too painfully in the pouring paint, so we stop there until next time when the painting and the making of marks in the paint, interacting with it, becomes more of a possibility.  In some subliminal way, this activity works upon the inner constraints and fears, allowing the possibility of some kind of inner movement to be recognised, integrated and allowed to happen over time; allowing new possibilities of a different kind of life.  We see this sort of release into greater freedom many times in the Gospels, where lives are taken up and begun to be lived more fully; taking up our beds and walking, where before paralysis had seemed the only option.

Whatever is made becomes a third element in the conversation taking place between client and therapist, and can ‘speak’ as much to the art therapist as to its creator.  The image and process can help draw together those bits of life that have been shut away, split off and buried as too shameful or terrifying.  The object made may also carry ‘stuff’ that is no longer needed or wanted.  In this sense, it reflects the Jewish scape-goat sent into the wilderness.  To integrate whatever has happened to us in life gives choices.  As Jung said, the shadow self is 90% gold when worked with and integrated, creating and allowing a wholeness which is both healing and freeing.

As Jeremiah discovered when he went down to the potter’s house, (Jer 18:3-4) ‘So I went down to the potter’s house; there he was, working at the wheel.  But the vessel he was making came out wrong, as may happen with clay when a potter is at work.  So he began again…’ art, dance, music, singing, can all make a profound contribution to living life more fully and sometimes to beginning again.  Anything that will allow a re-imagining of life’s potential, and an actively embodied, creative way of making it more possible for ourselves and others echoes Jesus’ definition of his ministry in John’s Gospel: ‘I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.’   f