Art for Life

Antara Mukherji
Published: August 2019

A professional in visual & graphic arts, Antara Mukherji is a part of an ongoing research on the effect of art in cognition and learning. She works closely with children, encouraging them to discover the countless possibilities in the world of art. Here she writes about art therapy and its various benefits.

Last weekend I happened to visit my friends over lunch. It turned out to be an animated gathering of art lovers. The house was beautifully designed and had artifacts from yesteryears, traditional antiquities, framed artwork both from modern artists as well as traditional works of art.

My friend’s niece, all of 5 years-old was busy scribbling in her book. When I asked her what she was up to, she explained that she had drawn her friend and her dog playing in the park. She drew elaborate playpens, swings and slides; she captured the trees in quick strokes of vertical lines to depict trunk and slanting strokes for leaves. The rain tree was captured with a flurry of circular stokes. She weaved together her imprint of the memorable time she had had in the park. It was fascinating to watch her draw.

As I sipped my coffee, my friend’s mother approached me. In her mid-60’s, she brought a fat adult coloring book that she is hooked to since she discovered it. I saw endless pages of decorative drawings with whimsical colors. To my surprise she had not been limiting herself to soft shades of pink and orange. I was pleasantly surprised to see bursts of colors bright and dark, page after page. She also shared with me her mandala drawings, which she has been practicing with a group in her neighborhood. The group, she said, comprised of different age groups of people who come together to practice mandalas once a week. She was very proud of her drawings and was also contemplating if she should exhibit them. It was a first for me, people coming together to do artwork together! It must be a wonderful gathering, I thought to myself.

As evening set in, my friend took me to her room, which was a mini studio. She had been working on an oil painting on canvas. She took to art a few years ago and since has discovered her talent for the big canvas. She quit her day job and has been honing her artistic skills full time. It was inspiring to see the plethora of well-kept art materials.

As I waved them goodbye I could not help, but think how art was central to all the three generations I met. I recollected how happy and content the family seemed and wondered about the connect between art and wellbeing. I had chanced upon the term “art therapy” recently and was intrigued to know more.

The term “art therapy” was coined in 1942 by the British artist Adrian Hill, who discovered the healthful benefits of painting and drawing while recovering from tuberculosis. In the 1940s, several writers in the mental health field began to describe their work with people in treatment as “art therapy.” As there were no formal art therapy courses or training programs available at that time, these care providers were often educated in other disciplines and supervised by psychiatrists, psychologists or other mental health care professionals.

Art therapy involves the use of creative techniques such as drawing, painting, collage, coloring, or sculpting, to help people express themselves artistically. It then examines the psychological and emotional undertones in their art. With the guidance of a certified art therapist, individuals can “decode” the nonverbal messages, symbols, and metaphors often found in these art, which should lead to a better understanding of their feelings and behavior so they can resolve deeper issues.

According to Betty Edwards, a famous artist and well known writer of the book Drawing from the Right side of the Brain, drawing or practice of art can lead to a slightly altered consciousness state of feeling transported, which most artists experience while drawing, painting, sculpting or doing any kind of art work. For example, most people are aware that they occasionally slip from ordinary waking consciousness into the slightly altered state of daydreaming. Another example is when people say that reading takes them “out of themselves”.

The writer further states that it is possible for many of us to experience a slight shift in consciousness while being fully engaged and focused in more ordinary activity. These include activities like meditation, jogging, needlework, typing, listening to music and of course drawing or creating art itself.

Margaret Naumburg, often described as the “mother of art therapy,” established the Walden School in her home city of New York in 1915. This was a long way before the term ‘Art Therapy’ was established. She is widely viewed as the primary founder of the American art therapy movement. Naumburg believed that children who were allowed to express themselves creatively and pursue subjects of interest to them would experience healthier development. Influenced by the psychoanalytic movement prevalent at the time, Naumburg began to view the creative process as a methodology similar to verbal expression – a means of unearthing repressed, unconscious thoughts and emotions. She believed that, once the symbolic expression of a person’s state of mind was combined with the cognitive and verbal aspects of experience, healing could take place. Both this expression and healing were believed to be able to occur in an art therapy session.

Art therapy allows people to express feelings through creative work rather than with speech. It is believed to be particularly helpful for those who feel out of touch with their emotions or feelings. Individuals experiencing difficulty discussing or remembering painful experiences also find art therapy especially beneficial. We live in a visual world, and Art Therapy can capture the visual clutter in a harmonious way and help in clarifying conflicting emotions and thoughts. It puts our inner world in connect with the outer world. Art Therapy works as a means to reflect and capture the unknown aspect of self; that is, it helps bring the sub-conscious self into the forefront.

Picasso once said “I want to paint like a child”. This was when he was at the peak of his career as an artist, in his late 60’s. It is a well-known fact that most children have innate artistic abilities. They can capture their world through their art, which gives a wonderful insight into their perception and imagination. As they grow, they develop distinct interests, likes, dislikes and personal choices and are affected by cultural influences. For many of them, art then takes a back seat. Another reason children give up on art while growing up is because of the perception that one should practice art only as a vocation or as a hobby, thus limiting the scope for personal development. For some of us who have gone through a structured approach of learning, art was discouraged while still young and may have dissuaded us from pursuing it in any form later.

Many research studies have proven that art improves the mental wellbeing of a person in a similar way as exercise does to physical health. It has the ability to heal, calm and rest our nerves from everyday hustle and bustle. By working with art materials, learning new skills, and developing ideas through visual media, people often feel a sense of satisfaction, personal achievement and accomplishment. With so many benefits, Art should be an ongoing engagement for life for everyone.