“We have art so we don’t die of the truth.” Nietzsche
I don’t suppose that Neitzsche was talking about Art Therapy, but it certainly applies. Recently I have revived what I call my “Self-directed Art Therapy”. When I started, I was trying to use art as a coping skill (it has less calories than chocolate), and also I had heard that it is a way for our unconscious to speak to us. Anything that will help me heal faster. At least this is what I always think until some painful memory hits and I retreat…that’s what happened the last time I did art therapy.
After a break, I decided to try again. Sometimes I try to learn some actual art skills, other times I just doodle, occasionally something will “spark” an art project. For example, recently I was reading about someone doing art therapy with patients in a mental hospital. She gave them cereal boxes and magazines to cut up and redesign into a house that represented them. A house that represents “you”, I was immediately intrigued by this idea. What would I make? How would I design it?
I didn’t have the material, time (or desire really) to make my creation out of cereal boxes. I just wanted to draw it. Pencil drawings are my preferred way to express myself. I have also tried collage, oil pastels, colored pencils, crayons, paint…but pencil and paper suit me best, with the exception of the color red. Red often finds its way into my otherwise black and white creations. (Yes, it’s a bit disturbing.)
For the “house” project, I opened my sketch pad (really I should call it art diary, as it can be more personal than my journal). First I drew a house. Simple. Plain. The kind a kindergarten might draw. Then next to it, it’s twin. Same size, shape, design, everything. Then uncharacteristically, I put down the pencil and got a black crayon. I blackened that house so that the only discernable thing was the outline. Then I surveyed my work and smiled. If only the black were a little blacker, it would be perfect.
Then a picture of another house flashed on my mind. Much of my art therapy comes this way. An image from my self-conscious that attaches itself to me like a song that gets stuck in your head and plays itself relentlessly throughout the day, I knew if I didn’t draw this image, it would haunt me until I did.
I turned to a fresh page. This time I tried to draw a house with two stories, a porch and a gable and then the red crayon. When I showed my husband the picture, he thought the red surrounding the house was a moat. It wasn’t. (Don’t blame me, it’s my unconscious speaking).
The next time I went to therapy, I mentioned to my therapist that I had started drawing again. I thought he would be interested, not so much in the houses, but in the fact that I had returned to drawing.
I showed him the first one. He asked me some questions about it. I explained that the blackness is about the shame I feel, and how dead I can feel inside at times. Then I showed him the second picture. The one with the red “moat”.
“How do you feel when you look at this picture?” he asked.
“Sad.” The picture was disturbing to me in a way I couldn’t put words to.
“What do you see in this picture?”
I was confused by this question. Surely, he doesn’t think that is a moat? He should know better. He knows about that red often appears in my art. I looked at the picture again, “just a house.”
“Ok.” He said as if he were dropping the subject. “I was just wondering about the windows.”
The windows? They are just windows illustrating a first floor and second floor. I looked at the picture again. I saw it. The windows weren’t windows any more. They were eyes and a mouth, a face that looked angry and scary. I turned the sketch pad over so I didn’t have to look at it any more. “I didn’t mean to draw a face, they were just supposed to be windows.” I said.
He gave me a moment and then asked, “And what about the right side of the house?”
No! There is nothing else to see in this picture. It’s a house. Only a house. Slowly I turned the sketch book over and looked at the door, porch and gable. I noticed that the triangle of the gable was emphasized. Triangles often appear in my doodles and sketches, only after months of drawing them (with usually with one very acute sharp looking angle) did I realize the symbolism of a body part that could cause pain like a knife. But gables are triangles, it doesn’t— then it I saw it. It wasn’t just the gable, but the porch around the door also. The image was suddenly, unmistakably a body part. I thrust the sketch pad away from me, placing it face down on the couch an arm’s length away. I wanted to throw the thing across the room or in the trash, but I didn’t.
After taking a few silent moments to compose myself, I said, “I guess it’s better than nightmares.”
When trauma occurs, the unconscious mind and body remember even if the person’s conscious mind chooses not to. However, the unconscious won’t keep “the secrets” forever. A day comes that the unconscious begins to tell the story: through flashbacks, nightmares, or even art. The story must be told. Pain needs a witness.