Paintings, photography, sculptures, and scrapbooks – how can art be used to support us through difficult times?
In the 20th century, tuberculosis was a big problem in the UK, claiming countless lives, and seeing many others confined to sanatoriums. As you might expect, this would have been a frightening and frustrating time, but among the sickness and sadness, doctors observed that patients who drew and painted were better able to cope with both their illness, and their stay at the hospitals. The practice quickly spread and, in 1964, the British Association of Art Therapists was founded.
From 1948 until he retired in 1981, Edward Adamson became the first artist to be employed by the NHS. When Edward first began his work, people living with mental health problems did not have rights, and were subjected to brutal treatment. But Edward saw another way forward. For him, art therapy was about creative expression – not evidence to pass on to psychiatrists to be analysed – but art for art’s sake, and for healing. In his lifetime, Edward gathered more than 5,000 works of art from his patients, from drawing to ceramics, sculptures to paintings, preserved today by the Adamson Collection Trust.
Painting a picture
These days, the NHS states that there are more than 4,400 registered art therapists in the UK, including art, drama, and music therapists, like Chloe Sparrow.
“I remember so clearly what it was like to experience really big feelings, but not have the vocabulary, or confidence, to talk about it,” Chloe says. “For me, art psychotherapy offered a bridge between those big feelings and the expression of those feelings. Being able to express ourselves, and feel understood by another, feels like such a healing human experience. Combining that with one of my great loves, art, feels like such a privilege and pleasure.
“Art psychotherapy is a form of psychotherapy practised by qualified, registered art psychotherapists,” she explains. “It can provide you with an opportunity to use artmaking to explore issues or themes that are relevant and personal to you, and can be used to explore a wide range of difficulties.
“You don’t need to be ‘good’ at art in order to benefit from art psychotherapy. The purpose of the artmaking is to facilitate personal growth, and a greater understanding of the self, and you may find that particular themes begin to emerge through the colours, shapes, and concepts, in your artwork.”
Chloe explains how, in most sessions, the therapist will provide you with a variety of art materials and options that you can then pick from. With this as your starting point, you might work from a prompt provided by the therapist or, instead, approach your work with pure creativity and spontaneity. From there, there may then be time for discussion and reflection though, of course, the precise structure of a session will be entirely unique from person to person.
The focus point
When it comes to therapy, one size really doesn’t fit all, and art therapy offers a positive alternative.
“Because art psychotherapy combines psychotherapeutic techniques with cre