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A Beautiful Adventure - When Artists and Therapists Walk Hand in Hand

Hand print in prehistoric cave art and Modern Art by Kandinsky
Prehistoric hand print from a cave at Peche-Merle and 1912 artwork by Wassily Kandinsky

Some of my Facebook friends are artists; some are therapists and healers. Two comments in an online discussion set me thinking. One, that art is therapeutic. And two, that therapy is an art. Here are two works: a prehistoric stencilled hand from the cave at Pech Merl, France and 'Improvisation 26' by Wassily Kandinsky, 1912. Art? therapy? Both? My friends' nuanced statements certainly do not imply that art and therapy are identical twins. So how are they different?

The arts and therapy can work together in an intimate and rewarding relationship. That has been known and practised since ancient times. The shaman was a kind of therapist who used dance and song to help release demons. Today a music or dance therapist is doing much the same, with demons now interpreted as psychological-physical imbalances. In the healing complexes of Asklepios in ancient Greece, potions, meditation, dreams, exercise, colours, music and drama were brought together to heal body and soul. Therapeutic practices still involve such activities, and today’s healing retreats aim for an enriching environment conducive to change.

Ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus

The theatre at Epidaurus – part of the major healing sanctuary or Asklepion

Making art is a creative process that draws on what lives in the soul to access inspiration, tap the visions of the imagination, and explore ways to express your responses and thoughts in a physical form. Art reveals who you are on a deeply personal level. No wonder trained and experienced therapists bring the arts into their work. Through what is revealed though arts experiences they can assist other people to make deep and meaningful changes.

For therapy, as well as for art, there needs to be a relationship with one’s soul life. And the practice begins right there. Only from this can emerge an interconnection between the inner and the outer world. If the orientation is outward without that starting point, then art or therapy would be limited at best.

So, is the therapist an artist? Yes, in as much as they ply their trade with skill, perception, awareness, empathy and creative imagination. That’s why we can speak of the art of therapy, and also the art of cooking, gardening, child rearing or conversation. ‘Art’ in this sense is a refined ability. You could add the art of art.

Most of these ‘arts’ are similar in that they reach towards a product, a successful outcome in the world that is a direct result of all that has been contributed. Work and product go hand in hand, even when the aim is to bring about an individual’s healing and transformation.

Art, as art, has this main difference. It emerges from a wish to EXPRESS something from within self. And the outcome is about that inner expression, whatever the external, observable subject matter.

Isadora Duncan dancing

Isadora Duncan – expressing self though the art of dance

Self-expression has underlined art’s power since that prehistoric artist made a hand stencil on Pech Merle’s cave wall. Sure, skills make the expression clearer, specifically the creative heart-mind-body skills of the chosen art form. During the artistic process an artist works with the material, with the environment and maybe with other people. The by-product is a dance, a painting, a sculpture, a song.

But art as art remains a child of your creative womb. Because of this, artists often find it hard to let the work go – like Leonardo da Vinci who took his Mona Lisa from Italy to France and kept it by his side there until he died. That’s why it is in the Louvre in Paris rather than Italy’s Uffizi Gallery. Leonardo loved it. Now everyone loves it almost to death.

Da Vinci's Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris

Little Mona Lisa behind her protective glass cage looks out on some of the thirty-deep crowd

An artwork is like a limb. Surrendering that part of you can be challenging even when it has been commissioned, or if there’s a performance aspect built-in, say, for actors. Editors tell authors to ‘kill your darlings.’ It’s a cliché but true. An artist must become detached at some stage, because artists are communicators, sometimes despite themselves.

‘A genuine artist discovers and reveals what is hidden from everyday consciousness so that we who encounter the artworks do experience the deepest mystery where true beauty lives.’

I wrote that in Prodigal Daughters. And as artists communicate directly the highest within self, the truth of this is beautiful, and through our response the work becomes valuable and significant for the world. Or, it may do the opposite. When an artist dredges up the lower self our humanity is diminished. But mostly there is an option to turn away.

Unlike in the arts, therapy involves intimate work soul to soul, and in a real sense a soul is in a therapist’s care. It’s an awesome responsibility. A genuine therapist recognises this. He or she draws on the highest within self to facilitate healing and fruitful living in the world. And as in art, this work is beautiful because it is true.

The roles of artists and therapists are different. Yet as members of a healing ‘family’ and as adventurers together they make a wonderful team.

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