I know about the healing power of art. Sitting in front of a painting and quietly filling in a private world of colour helps to open up the right side of the brain, dissolving the hard edges of worn thought patterns and softening us to possibility. I know that wonderful realizations arise from the quiet space that art can provide. Bright colours draw attention to inner darkness. Self-criticism becomes louder and steps out into the light, allowing us to properly examine it.
Therefore, when I decided to attend an art therapy workshop, I figured myself to be already part of the choir who I thought would be preached to. I knew that art held the magical power to do deep psychological work. I was just curious as to how that would look in a therapeutic setting.
I survey the eclectic band of people waiting for the drawing to begin: a middle-aged woman who speaks little English and had just gone through a tough divorce, a slightly overweight male, whose awkward masculinity looks adrift in this sea of estrogen, a teenage brother and sister combination, and myself. The therapist is blond, quiet and beautiful. She shyly approaches us, her mouth a lovely cupid’s bow, her hair long and loose. She has that dreamy look about her that therapists sometimes get. Her accent hints at Eastern Europe.
We sit in a circle and the full weight of the discomfort of possibly bearing my inner self to this group of strangers begins to weigh heavy. We close our eyes and drop into a meditation, feet planted on the floor, to conjure up the image of what we’ll draw. It takes me a while to get over the vulnerability, but the space created is safe, quiet and dark. I feel nothing but good energy to quell the anxiety. So my meditating mind begins to pan away from its close-up and create a panorama of where I currently am in my life. I reflect on how I’ve been reacting to a fairly recent break-up by doing a lot of floating lately. I’ve been stretching myself thin, spending time with new people and going new places. It’s a lot of fun, but at the same time I feel I lack the ability to form the roots of deep connections. The visual image that forms is one of roots coming from my body and planting themselves through the floor. The roots have turned up in many of my recent paintings, so it’s hardly surprising.
When the meditation is over we are given paper and a choice of paints or pencils and we begin to draw. We are only allowed one piece of paper; there is no room for the critical voice that tells us what we’ve produced isn’t good enough. I select white paper and a black pen and the roots begin to form. I don’t look at my final product. I simply draw branches, then a body, arms stretched to the sky, hair becoming tree branches, a torso made of tree bark. The image takes shape and I enter the familiar state of Zen-like concentration and contentment that absorbing in art often brings.
We quietly finish – it seems to happen organically and yet with synchronicity, as if the group intuition knows when the time is up – and set down our pens. We are put into pairs where we are to exchange pieces and show our work. This feels deeply personal and I become nervous. From a young age I’ve been blessed with the gift of being able to mimic the natural world with pens, paints and pencils. I used to burn with shyness when my peers would recognize and comment on this. I remember one day at summer camp, where I’d not said a word to anyone all week, those who discovered I could draw formed a line-up behind my table, waiting patiently with their requests for what they wanted me to draw for them: a horse, a house, my sister, my dog. I used to feel painfully exposed during these times, not ready to be seen and wanting to disappear behind an invisible veil of mediocrity. Today I have the maturity to examine that feeling with gentle curiosity. I take it by the shoulders and hold it out at arms length, looking it up and down the way we might greet an old friend we haven’t seen for years. My, look how you’ve changed. So I hand my picture over.
My partner and I ask ourselves why the tears in her picture spontaneously change into wings. We marvel at the boundaries she’s drawn around her heart. What are those shapes at the top of the page? She thinks they might be neurons. They look beautiful and filled with hope.
Sharing one-on-one makes us comfortable with opening our souls. It’s like peeking out behind the heavy wooden door with the chain still on. Now the time has come to release the chain and let everyone in for dinner.
My artwork gets held up in front of the group. We talk about balance – it makes sense; I’ve been drinking a lot of fire water lately – and we talk about reaching for hope (or maybe it’s help), rooting down while simultaneously branching out. Someone wonders what the petals are that scatter from the branches. They look like little hearts, another remarks. We speculate that once balance is attained there is room for love to be diffused. After twelve months of working with patients, my compassion has become fatigued so I know this is true.
I notice that everyone’s piece is beautiful. There are birds, an ocean floor, many hearts and two flowers touching. Every piece is deeply entrenched in meaning and most of us leave feeling lighter and a bit more connected: to each other and, most of all, to ourselves.