“Raise your hand if art has saved your life.” It was my first day of a graduate program in Art Therapy, sitting in a circle of eleven other students, all women. Hands shot up all around me. I felt that old high school pressure to follow suit, but I knew I’d never been in danger of losing my life, so how could art have ever saved it? Still, I was moved by the passionate, instantaneous response of my classmates, and I had always believed that art had tremendous healing power.
Later that day, I pulled out a sketchbook that I’d put away a few years previous, when I had been struggling with depression, and barely had the energy to cry anymore. There was only one finished picture in it, created with black ink and water. It was a self-portrait, painted while looking into a three-way mirror, six sad gray eyes gazing inward in three different directions. It brought a familiar, and somewhat frightening pain to my chest and throat to look at it again. But it also brought with it a memory of some small release that came through creating it. Through those eyes, looking at themselves from different reflections, I had felt a glimmer of compassion, a tiny offering of gentleness to myself, that was the first of its kind during that painful time. I realized that although I’d been fortunate and my depression had never become so severe that I’d considered dying, I had been in a dangerous pattern of not living. And here was the evidence, of both my pain and my pathway out of it; here was the art that had saved me from not living.
Perspective and Possibility
The healing power of art in my life has always shown itself in the realms of perspective and possibility. Through the self portrait I described above I was able to begin to look at myself from the perspective of a witness to, not just an experience of suffering. The opportunity for objectivity, clarity and compassion that opens up when we gain a new vantage point in the upward journey of life can be very quickly accessed through creating art.
Gaining a new perspective, quite literally looking at our problems from a new point of view in the form of visual expression triggers a surprisingly powerful shift in how we behave, and what we believe is possible. Years of art-making have laid the foundation in me for a powerful belief that there is always much more possibility than I might immediately see. This doesn’t change the fact that when I go through long periods of time without making art I almost always forget this belief in the possibilities, and I become stuck viewing my problems with tunnel vision, often feeling overwhelmed and dis-empowered. Art never fails to open my mind and challenge my judgment.
Engage Your Inner Critic
But opening up to new possibilities can require us to grapple with the fears that made us believe in impossibility. Art-making also engages me with my inner critic, that familiar voice that tries to protect me from making a fool of myself by automatically assuming I am doing something foolish. Art Therapy has provided me with the tools to dance with that inner critic, and to strengthen that objective, non-judgmental Witness who first showed her strength in my self-portrait. She reminds me that there are many perspectives, and thus many possibilities, for how I can see myself, and heal myself. Profound healing awaits when we couple art’s potential for developing new perspectives with its power to challenge our sense of what is possible in how we view our work and ourselves.