Art Therapy and Authentic Creative Expression Emphasized at TEDx NYU

Transcript of "Create Your Own" presented by Jordan Potash, PhD, ATR-BC, REAT, LCPAT, LCAT
May 23, 2016 12:00 PM ET

On April 15, 2016, Dr. Jordan Potash, ATR-BC, REAT, LCPAT, LCAT, represented the American Art Therapy Association at Color Party: TEDx NYU (New York University). As a student organization, TEDx NYU plans annual conferences and smaller community events that act as platforms to address pertinent topics. Along with fellow art therapists and digital arts developers, Dr. Potash discussed adult coloring books by comparing them to other leisure-based and success-oriented activities and contrasting them to art therapy, a regulated mental health profession. Dr. Potash's transcript (shared with his permission):

Introduction. Good evening. So, my sister is an athlete. Not a sit on your couch at home, yelling at the ref through the screen kind of athlete – like a real athlete. Much of her free time is given over to exercising and coaching and working out. And so, when she called me one day and told me she made a painting, I was pretty surprised. Because in my family, I’m the one who’s been doing art since I was a kid, I’m the one who dual majored in studio arts in college, and I’m the one who still makes art to this day. But, still, my sister and her friends went to a painting studio one night (see Figure 1). And in that painting studio, they were each given a canvas, a palette of colors, and a glass of wine. An instructor told them which colors to mix and where to place them on the canvas in order to create a tree-lined landscape complete with a lakeside view. And my sister had a great time. And she was proud of herself – proud enough to tell me about it and give me her painting. She hasn’t made any art since that night but, for one night, she thought of herself as an artist.

“No-fail” Art. Nowadays, adults have a lot of choices when it comes to being creative. We have these painting studios and we have adult coloring books. There are pottery studios you can go to and glaze premade ceramics and there are the equivalent studios that will let you make mosaics. If you come to the neighborhood where I work, there is a truck that drives around, parks, sets up a table, and invites passers-by to create crafts in ten minutes or less. All of these activities are billed as leisure or as alternatives for a night out to, you know, paint the town red.

And although we see this as a new phenomenon, it’s not that new. It’s actually based in the 1950s paint-by-number movement. And in 2002 when the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History mounted an exhibit, they focused on how paint-by-number democratized art making. It introduced ordinary non-artists to the simple joys of using art materials and the fun that can come out of it. And mostly what they found was that paint-by-number gave adults an opportunity to be creative without the fear of failure.

And we see a lot of that today with our creative arts activities for adults, particularly coloring books. And there are some other aspects added, as well. There are people who find that it promotes escapism and distraction from the world. There are those who find that when you narrowly focus on coloring, it frees up a whole other part of your mind to unconsciously work out problems. And there are those who find choosing images and coloring them in soothing. There are a lot of great benefits to coloring and all of our “success guaranteed” art activities.

But there are times when life’s challenges require our attention, not our distraction. And what that means is that we need to shift how we see art. We need to shift from seeing it as recreation to seeing it as being able to re-create how we see ourselves, our relationships, and our communities. But what that means is we need to let go of the predetermined lines and shapes and images to free up the lines and shapes and images of our imagination. Now if it sounds scary to create art without outright instruction, trust me, under the right circumstances anyone can do it. I know because I’m an art therapist. And I have seen people make amazing pieces of art with little more than a willingness to try, combined with a supportive studio and an attentive facilitator.

Defining Art Therapy. Now, when it comes to coloring books, the phrase “art therapy” is thrown around a lot and it’s often used as a shortcut to mean relaxation or happiness. But that’s not actually what art therapy is. So let’s set the record straight.

According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy is an integrative mental health profession that uses art media, and often verbal processing of produced art, to help people – to help people resolve conflicts and problems, to manage their behaviors, to reduce stress, to increase self-awareness and self-esteem, and to achieve insight.

Principles of Art Made in Art Therapy. Now when I tell people I’m an art therapist, some of the immediate reactions I get, “Well, that’s not for me! I’m not creative! I’m not artistic! I can’t even draw a stick figure!” And maybe some of you are thinking that now. And that’s the beauty of the coloring page, isn’t it? The remedy for the blank page, the fear of uncertainty and the unknown. Here’s the thing, though. Art therapists, we work with everybody. We have a special way of having people create art and we do that by honoring the principles and teachings of one of the founders of art therapy in the United States, Edith Kramer. And here’s how it goes.

First, we help you to create art based on you – your thoughts, your feelings, your memories, your dreams, your ideas. Because when you base art in your experiences it gives it an emotionally evocative quality that will help you find it special and help those who you share it with find it special.

Second, is that we want you to find an image that matches that experience. You don’t need to have the whole idea formed out in your head ahead of time. Not even seasoned artists can successfully translate their mental images onto a canvas. What we want is for you to have a start, or what I describe as the seed of an art, that you put down on paper to begin and you add to. That way, it ensures that the image you are creating, as it evolves, has a consistency with the experience you want to convey.

And third, we want you to work with the abilities that you have. We are not interested in the skills that you do not have – they are uninteresting. We believe that everybody has the ability to make a mark on a page that’s meaningful, make a stroke on a canvas that’s meaningful, and an indent in a ball of clay that’s meaningful. We will work with you with the skills you got and then we’ll help you to expand them when needed.

And when art is made in these three ways – emotionally evocative, has that inner consistency, and made according to your ability – we call that beautiful. We call it whole and we call it complete. From there, we’ll get you in conversation to help make meaning of your art, because we don’t interpret art. We’re not tealeaf readers or palm readers. Our job is to get you into dialogue so that you can discover the messages of your art for you. And here’s the three types of lessons that we think your art can teach you.

Learning About Self. The first is that art making in art therapy can help you learn something about yourself. Art making can promote expression, communication, and contemplation to give you a new perspective on an idea or situation.

This drawing was created by a young man I once worked with who was struggling a lot with anger and being impulsive (see Figure 2). The black sketchy ring on the outside represents the irritation he feels when he’s dealing with other people. And that red is his intense reaction back. And after he drew this, he was really interested in that space where the red meets the black. Because there he noticed that possibly other people are experiencing him the way he experiences them – and even worse, because his reaction is so much more intense. But more than that, he was very curious about the center, which he described as filled with light and having a calm core. After a few minutes of silence, he said, “I didn’t even know I had this part of me. And probably all of my ways of reacting prevented anyone else from seeing that as well.” For this young man, making art in art therapy allowed him to gain awareness of himself.

Learning About Others. Creating art in art therapy can also help us learn about others. When we focus on relationships, our art can promote a sense of familiarity and empathy.

On many occasions, I had the opportunity to bring medical students into the art therapy studio for the purpose of using art to change their perspective on their patients and how they saw illness.

The young doctor-in-training who created this drawing described how doing so allowed her to see through her patient’s physical pain to appreciate her patient’s emotional suffering (see Figure 3). To convey this idea, she wrote a poem to accompany this piece. And it goes like this:

The clock was ticking, the Lady sighed

Her world was grey. She shook her head

Feeling distressed and confused, anxious and sad

She had a sense of guilt and ongoing pain

Perhaps all she needed was a tender touch

To rescue her from the world of helplessness.

For that medical student, creating art in art therapy helped her gain awareness of others.

Learning About World. And creating art in art therapy can also help people gain awareness of the world. When we focus our attention on social issues like poverty and discrimination and violence, we get a glimpse as to what it is like to live with that as one’s reality. And it can even motivate us to social action.

So, my colleagues and I had an opportunity to work with adults living with mental illness who were interested in creating an exhibit in order to help challenge perceptions of mental health and to break stigma. And viewers who came to the exhibit had the opportunity to make art in response, in response to their feelings that they had (see Figure 4). One of the viewers was really focused on a very colorful piece, but that had a very little story attached to it; she didn’t know what it meant. And the longer she sat with it and as she made art about it, in her mind she started to untangle the confusing colors in order to discern a ray of hope. And in her reflection afterwards, she noted that she no longer saw this person just confined to just someone living with mental illness, but seeing them in a more holistic way. Somebody with strengths and hopes and abilities, as well. For that gallery attendee, creating art in art therapy helped her learn more about the world.

Closing. So, coloring and all of our success-oriented art activities are great. They promote relaxation. They promote distraction. They may even give you some joy. But if you start to find that these activities lose their joy and they become stifling or if you start to become a bit more curious about your art, then it’s possibly time to try something else.

Check out an art therapist. Use your creative energies and activity to learn something about yourself, about your relationships, and about your world. Because sometimes the answer isn’t to fit into somebody else’s lines, shapes, and images, but to create your own.

Thank you very much.