A few months ago I was looking at my old visual diaries – the ones you’re supposed to keep when you’re studying art – and got that tingling feeling that it was something I was missing and how much I’d love to bring it back into my every day. So I hopped on the net and started looking for a drawing class and instead came across a continued learning course for art therapy. I immediately signed up without thinking about it, and I am so grateful that I listened to that quiet moment of ‘yes!’
A group of about 20 of us gathered on a warm summer morning, mostly women, but a couple of men too. In a room surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows, we loosened up and got to learn each other’s names through a series of ice-breakers. After 10 minutes, we were all laughing and enjoying the defrosting of nervousness that often comes with a room full of strangers.
After her introduction about what art therapy is all about, our teacher asked us to write down one worry about the day and put it in a “God box”, where it would remain until the day was over. She pointed to a chair draped in a silk scarf, a brilliant red and gold fabric in the middle of which sat a small bowl with a tight lid. Our teacher gave us each a piece of paper and once we had written our worry, we were to go to the bowl and deposit it inside.
The understanding was that God would take care of that worry for a day and then we could get on with the act of creating. It could have been called a ‘worry box’ or a ‘fearbox’, but I loved the idea that it could be called a God Box. The notion that my worry could be carried for me instead of by me was very powerful.
Once the room relaxed, our teacher got us started. We did a little drawing with chalk and crayon, working in pairs to start a work then let the other person finish it. Then we were to focus on one issue that was currently vexing us, and create an image. It didn’t matter what form it took, other than it would be an expression of how we felt. I drew a big red ball, then used my fingers to create flames, with an orange ball on top that it would blend into. That was followed by yellow, then green and finally a turquoise blue.
“Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.”
As I pushed colour across the page, blending pastels with my fingers and not caring that my fingers were covered in chalk dust, I discovered something really special. It was the echo of a childhood memory that the thing I enjoyed so much as a little girl wasn’t so much the output of the art, but how it allowed me to access my emotional space. As I blended the colours the intensity of that issue dissipated and pleasure of colour took over. While the final output was nothing special it was like taking a cool shower after a hot summer’s day: refreshing.
Over the course of the day, we moved onto painting and play work with clay, each less about control or perfection, and more about exploration. As an adult with a job and demands on my time, I’ve forgotten that the simple act of creating without having an objective is beautiful and that getting lost in creativity is the point of it.
Today, a few days after the class, I found myself getting anxious as my pain levels increased. For whatever reason, my RA had flared up and I was fatigued and tired, so a little cranky and jumpy while at work. As soon as I got home I pulled out a large sheet of paper and some pastels and went to work. Half an hour I felt myself again. The pain hadn’t decreased by much, but my stress about it had gone.
Maybe there’s something in this? Perhaps the simple distraction of creating can help someone in pain to focus elsewhere and let go of the anxiety and stress that comes from physical pain – and emotional pain.
We are losing the ability to speak about art in our culture, as time speeds by and our attention spans get less and less, but I can’t help but wonder whether we could all do with an art therapy session, if only to give each of us a breather from life for 20 minutes just to play with colour and crayons.