July was probably the darkest month of 2022 for me. The usually bright and cheery month was marred by a series of violent crimes—including the brutal attempted murder of a police officer and a mass shooting, both relatively close by. It wasn’t necessarily the proximity that bothered me, but the sheer amount of human suffering occurring in such a small time frame. To me, it felt like it would never end, this endless cycle of mourning and pain. I just wanted an answer to all of the madness, and an end to all of the violence.
And when I thought it would never end, art became my crutch. I would spend hours in my room listening to music, journaling, and writing poetry. And it helped. I began to understand myself, and slowly I began to heal. I formed a new appreciation for art and began to wonder how it could be such a powerful tool to process such deep emotion.
I had the pleasure of speaking with board certified art therapist Paige Hill, who shared insights on the healing effects of art and how it is used in therapy.
She said, “[Art is] something outside of yourself that you can connect to. You can see how seeing art or making art connects with a piece of yourself and allows you to see that piece of yourself in a beautiful way, especially those pieces of ourselves that we tend to shield from others.”
I found that to be very true in my own experience. With everything I was feeling after the events of July, I made an entry in my art journal to represent how I felt. I took a scrapbook approach, gluing drawings, pictures, and poems onto the pages, carefully choosing media that captured my emotions best. Looking back months later, it’s one of my favorite pages in the journal, just because of how raw and genuine it was. It made those dark feelings beautiful, saying everything I felt without me having to open my mouth and speak the words.
Although creating art was my main form of processing emotion, I found appreciating various forms of art, especially music, to be a powerful tool as well. I wondered which method – consumption vs creation of art – has the most therapeutic benefits.
“Broadly speaking, in my opinion, I think creating art can be more therapeutic for people because it creates that experience outside of themselves that allows them and me to see parts of them that they wouldn’t necessarily express verbally,” Hill said.
Although finding an art piece created by someone else that you connect to can be very special, creating art is certainly more personal. When you create art, you’re directly translating your emotions and experiences into an art piece, while with appreciating art, you have to search for meaning that suits your needs.
In terms of medium, Hill says that it varies from person to person, although crayons, markers, and pencil are common household materials that she often uses with her clients.
“The most common are the most accessible. I want that process to be recreateable at home,” Hill said.
Hill uses the expressive therapies continuum (ETC), a model commonly used in art therapy, as a means of deciding which medium is appropriate for a given client. ETC is comprised of four levels, each gradually growing more complex as you move through them, ensuring clients are ready for a given medium or a higher level of ETC.
It was fascinating to research ETC and see how logically the model approaches art therapy and its progression. It reminded me of how I’ve progressed in my own art; It started out simple, drawing things I liked, and over time it began to take on many layers of meaning as I began to draw what I felt instead.
Hill defines art as “‘making [something] special… seeing the extraordinary in everyday things,” classifying how one dresses, music taste, and even how one interacts with others as a unique artistic expression.
While this certainly isn’t what first comes to mind when you think of art, it truly is a beautiful definition. It’s very broad, which is part of its appeal. We may not personally consider ourselves artistic, but by this definition, anyone could be an artist.
Art is a powerful tool–that’s what I learned in July when my faith in humanity was at its lowest. Time and time again it has lifted me out of some dark places without me necessarily realizing it. And without it, I don’t think my life would be the same. So pick up a pencil. Draw something you love. Write a few lines of poetry. Create something for yourself. Because art may be more of a help to you than you’ll ever know.