By Dominique Hunter
Last week I wrote about the potential value of introducing art therapy in our schools to combat the increasing number of suicide cases among youth.
Now, although art therapy should be practiced by a licenced or certified mental health professional, I wanted to share some examples of how you can apply art as therapy (note, in this case I didn’t say art therapy) in your own life. I made the distinction between art therapy and art as therapy because self-treatment using art-related exercises is not the same as art therapy and, to some extent, discredits the seriousness of the profession. Having said that, there are a number of activities for children and adults alike that can be used as coping mechanisms in the interim. Listed below are a few exercises that anyone can practice according to their emotional state at the time.
Anger – Draw/paint something huge
While there are therapeutic qualities to drawing and painting, those qualities are amplified even further when you increase the scale of your working surface. Whether you choose to use a large sheet of paper, a large canvas or even an entire wall, the act of using your entire body to produce a work of
art almost becomes a performance piece in itself. Working on a large scale is an excellent way redirecting and expending negative energy in a positive way. There is no right or wrong way of filling the blank surface with regard to content or technique. You can work upright or lay the working surface flat on the ground; opt for a paintbrush or abandon traditional tools altogether by using your body (hands and feet) for even more meaningful surface marks. The purpose of the exercise is to release your frustrations on the canvas and leave it there.
Grief – Memory box
This is an exercise for persons (particularly younger children) who would’ve lost a loved one and are struggling to cope with the separation. Any box could be repurposed and used to house important keepsakes that would’ve marked special moments in that person’s life. For example, the box could be covered in the person’s favourite print and filled with small art, photographs, jewelry, keys, cards, letters, figurines, perfume, flowers, ticket stubs or any small trinket that you would like to include. The objective of building a memory box is to slowly work towards being comfortable enough to talk about your feelings by telling stories about the importance of each object in your box.
Sadness – Write your own fairy tale
Everyone experiences some level of sadness at one point or another in his or her life and this is a wonderful exercise for anyone with a knack for creating fantasy worlds. It’s a great way to nip sadness in the bud by imagining a world in which you are the hero. Although this exercise can be done using only text, persons who are more comfortable creating image-based stories can use magazine cut outs or their own sketches to illustrate their journey. The format for this exercise is a little more technical than the others since you have to consider character development and your storyboard. Then of course there’s what is referred to as the “12 stages of the hero’s journey” which include: the ordinary world; the call to adventure; refusal of the call; meeting the mentor; crossing the threshold; tests, allies, enemies; the approach; the ordeal; the reward; the road back; atonement; and the return. Your journey should reflect actual events in your life with a few creative embellishments. There is a lot of information available online that can assist you in developing your own story so don’t hesitate to take advantage of that.
Anxiety – Mapping your past, present and future
This is a great exercise for identifying areas that could be changed to facilitate a more positive and productive outcome in your life. Mapping out your life (decisions, detours, accomplishments etc.) helps to find meaning and value in your experiences thus far. And by focusing on your strengths you can work towards manifesting your ideal future. Your map could include a legend with a variety of landmarks that represent specific things (for example, a fork in the road for decisions, gold flags or stars for accomplishments, mountains for obstacles, water/waves for riding out challenges, pits or caves for failures, trees for new beginnings, blocked out areas of colour representing specific emotions etc.). You could also include photographs, drawings or any type of decorative element you see fit. The possibilities are endless!
So again, although art therapy should only be practiced by licensed professionals who are equipped with the relevant information and tools to assist persons in a delicate mental state, there are many art-related exercises that you can practice to relieve some of the stress you’re experiencing. Engaging in these activities on your own does not address the root cause of your problem unless there is a trained professional to guide you through those emotions as the objective voice. I don’t endorse self-diagnosis or self-treatment. If you are experiencing any of the emotions previously listed then your first course of action should always be to seek professional help. The exercises above should only be used in the interim while you seek help from a qualified therapist or counselor.
(Dominique Hunter is an independent visual artist who recently graduated from the Barbados Community College with a Bachelor of Fine Art, First Class Honours)