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As Epigram’s #14Conversations draws to a close, Hannah Gauntlett illuminates the increasingly popular practice of art therapy, and reveals how our creativity could be the key to alleviating mental ill-health. 

In the hidden depths of Spike Island I am sat in a small, light room amongst a herd of adults, and an art therapist. Having a personal interest in art therapy as a profession, this was one of a few taster sessions I had attended. During this particular session I am handed a sheet of white paper, printed centre bottom with the word ‘sun’, and am given free range to a box of felt-tipped pens.

As minds raced back to primary school years, brows furrow and silence descends. Even during this short, guided exercise, I experience intense nostalgia and feelings of vulnerability. I revert back to my five year-old self and draw a well-rehearsed sun. We proudly tack our sheets to the wall, and as a group stand and stare, quietly contemplating the intentions behind our felt-tip strokes.

Mark Rothko, No. 14 (1960). ‘You’ve got sadness in you, I’ve got sadness in me—and my works of art are places where the two sadnesses can meet, and therefore both of us need to feel less sad’

With the stigma surrounding mental health issues fading somewhat within the United Kingdom, there are more people seeking medical help for their sufferings, and the demand for therapy is high. Anyone who has picked up a paintbrush can understand the therapeutic benefits of creation, and from this art therapy is beginning to find its feet, taking form in multiple ways.

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Whilst in a clinical environment an art psychotherapist assists the use of creative methods of expression to aid healing, recently, we have seen art therapy seep into the commercial world, and bookshops profit from the stress-relieving patterns found in ‘mindful colouring books’.

Art can help to express those feelings which are perhaps inexpressible through other media, and it is this communicative essence which art therapy utilises. There are aspects of human existence and interaction with the natural world which simply cannot be articulated through writing or speech. Where some lack the ability to communicate verbally, art can do the talking for them. For others, art may hold their hand as they traverse a traumatic experience too distressing to articulate verbally. It provides the possibility of stepping down into the unconscious mind, and the art psychotherapist’s job is to guide this journey.

it has been shown that the experience of art itself can yield therapeutic benefits, having the capacity to calm and conjure deep-felt emotions

A registered and qualified art psychotherapist is trained in the fields of both psychology and art. They have the appropriate understanding of human development and psychological theories whilst sharing a passion for art and its healing properties; when one is artistically inclined, it often makes sense to use art to cope with the qualms of everyday life. Art therapy aids individuals of all ages, and because sessions are client-led there is no preferred medium of expression.

In a world full of aesthetically flawless images we are often quick to admire a ‘masterpiece’. While there is a place for talent in the arts, it causes many people to feel scared to pick up a paintbrush for fear of judgement. Art therapy stresses the importance of the creative process.

Let Alain guide you through the history of ‘Art as Therapy’

This idea stems from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of ‘flow’, a theory built upon an observation made while watching artists paint. In a similar way to meditation, artmaking monopolises all concentration; it frees the mind of external thoughts and concerns of the self. Flow is the feeling one gets when time is irrelevant, when the hours feel like seconds. Validated through psychological research, Csikszentmihalyi found that human beings are happiest when in a state of flow.

However, art therapy does not have to be confined to the walls of the therapist’s office. Multiple non-profit organisations have partnered with art psychotherapists to bring it to the community in aid of countless causes. From charities such as Art Sisterhood, who empower female creatives through art therapy sessions across the country, to Art Refuge UK who work with individuals and families displaced through natural disaster, famine, war, political persecution, and trafficking.

In addition, it has been shown that the experience of art itself can yield therapeutic benefits, having the capacity to calm and conjure deep-felt emotions. Hospitals are beginning to change the way they decorate, to immerse patients in environments which aid the healing process—rather than prolong it. Sometimes, living in Bristol I feel like I am walking through an open air-gallery, free of charge. When one looks around it is almost impossible not to soak up inspiration, and to feel some sense of heightened well-being.

Art therapy is an ever-evolving field, drastically improving the lives of individuals from all backgrounds. However, the fact that our National Health System is overextended is not news to anyone. The lack of funding means that the value of the Art therapist is not appropriately recognised. Open your mind to art, and it will return with armfuls of undiscovered-you, and begin to heal parts you never thought you would, or even could, reach. Be bold and be expressive. Are you scared? May I suggest you start with a felt-tipped sun.

Related content: What is #14Conversations?


What are your thoughts on the potentials for art to help sufferers of mental ill-health? Have you benefitted from it yourself? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @EpigramArts

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