How art heals


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Diana Miller-Pierce of Fort Wayne, Indiana wrote, “As a professional artist and practicing psychotherapist I’m particularly interested in the healing aspects of art. I hear from my clients a yearning to create in some manner. I’m wondering if in creativity they might experience the healing they need. Art therapy seems to me to have the potential to be the most powerful and far-reaching work. What’s your take on art as therapy?”

Thanks for that, Diana. “Art therapy” is a professional vocation that can exorcise a variety of devils as well as give a person a sense of self-worth. World wide, there are more than 7000 registered and practicing art therapists. There seems to be job opportunities in the field. “Art as therapy” presents another picture, but as usual, the edges are smudged.

A great deal of the art produced in art therapy is what I call “unfettered” art — that is it’s a free association “anything goes” art that attempts to do the same job as free journaling. While a matter of degree and open to exception, professional and serious artists are more likely to be “fettered.” They produce art that has norms of technique, standards and chemistry. This art is loaded with challenges that can produce a relatively benign form of stress. At the same time, art-making not only fills up the senses, but a few corners of the cortex as well. Furthermore, art carries one of the most deep-seated psychological values — birthing. Every work of art is a new offspring pushed out into the world as permanent evidence of personal fecundity. Don’t kid yourself, we’re into serious stuff here. A form of “creation therapy,” the making of art tunes into the natural unfolding of our universe. Creation therapy, whether understood by the artist or not, is one of the reasons why artists are some of the sanest folks around.

Art is a course in personal development that has no reliable diploma and no known end. The pursuit of art instructs in beauty as well as ugliness, fantasy as well as common sense. Art levels souls and baffles brains. Art softens pain because it is pain. Art gives joy because it is joy. Art is a form of love. Art is the ultimate gift. Art heals life.

Best regards,


PS: “An artist is a neurotic who continually cures himself with his art.” (Lee Simonson) “Art is therapeutic for the audience as well as the artist.” (Bonnie Sherr Klein)

Esoterica: The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) is dedicated to the idea that the creative process and art-making are healing and life enhancing. Founded in 1969, AATA is a not-for-profit organization of 4,750 professionals and students. They establish standards for art therapy education, ethics, and practice. AATA committees work on professional and educational development, national and regional symposia, publications, governmental affairs, public awareness and research.


Art therapy diploma courses
by Elsha Leventis, Toronto, ON, Canada


original painting
by Elsha Leventis

Art therapy is psychotherapy that uses art (as well as talking) as the communication medium. It involves making art in the presence of a trained therapist — who validates and witnesses what the client brings into the session. The art allows the client to express thoughts and feelings, as well as much unconscious material. Healing happens in several ways — through the art making process itself, by seeing the product (the client can see what her or she feels), through talking about the process and product, and because of the trusting and caring relationship that develops between the client and the therapist. I am currently finishing my two-year diploma course at the Toronto Art Therapy Institute (TATI) and I would be pleased to advise of diploma courses available in other areas.


Painters for art therapy
by David Sharpe, Toronto, ON, Canada

I’ve thought about getting involved on a volunteer basis in the art therapy movement. I’m wondering if there is a place for a practicing artist like me to help? In my day job I’ve created award winning anti-stigma mental health media materials for the renowned Centre for Addiction and Mental Health here in Toronto — so I have some understanding of the crippling pain and anguish of those with mental problems, but have no idea how to hook up my talent as a painter.

(RG note) Thanks to all the artists who wrote to offer themselves in this work. The Canadian association is at the British at and the Australian and the US


Opportunity to work through issues
by Diana Miller-Pierce, Fort Wayne, IN, USA


“Looks Good Enough to Eat”
watercolour, 30 x 32 inches
by Diana Miller-Pierce

I agree that art therapy in general produces art that is primarily expressive and without technique or the ability generally to stand alone as a piece of art. However, many of my clients who do poetry as a form of therapy do write powerful poems that are in some cases published. I think the general work of any artist, writer etc. tends to allow us to have the opportunity to work through issues of risk-taking, perfectionism, loss of control, as well as many others depending on the media or the form of one’s art. I really appreciate your comment that artists are some of the sanest folk out there. For those of us who continue to work overtime that tends to become true.


Use of daily analytical energy
by Sally Rosenbaum, Napa Valley, CA, USA


“Napa Garden”
Giclee print on canvas
by Sally Rosenbaum

Not only is the value of creating art therapeutic in the sense that the artist is expressing inner “saints, demons and conflicts,” it is a process that uses up our daily allotment of analytical energy (in searching for values and perfecting design of form and line) which saves others around us from the nagging and criticism that seems to accompany our day to day displays of neurosis. After a long day (or a few hours) of painting we are more able to enjoy and perceive the company of those around us without exhibiting the co-dependent controlling behaviors that drive people crazy! Whenever my mind starts to become obsessive with worry or analysis, etc… I know I need to paint so I can use up some of my critical energy to a more appropriate end.


Healing for 9-11 project
by Kathleen Tonnesen, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada


18-foot sculpture
by Kathleen Tonnesen and Louis Louw

My Release of Souls 9-11 Memorial is traveling through the USA, starting in Pasadena, California on 03 September 2004 and ending in New York 11 September 2005. I’m interested in contacting other artists to try and find the ones who were also compelled to create as a result of 9-11. The opportunity now exists for them to exhibit their work at every City where the Release of Souls Exhibit and Concert is scheduled 2004/2005.

(RG note) Websites related to this remarkable project are at and at


Dangers in healing relationships
by Karen Fitzgerald, New York, NY, USA


“Sparrow’s Eye”
oil on canvas, 16 inches diameter
by Karen Fitzgerald

While it is laudable that people have recognized the strong connection art has to well-being, a great deal of the work being done at the smudged edges has to do with the sense that some artists have regarding the establishment of the therapist/patient relationship. Some artists want to get around this relationship — this dynamic that immediately establishes a power dynamic. When you “pathologize” someone, you are basically telling that person you know what is best for them. Some folks like this approach — it relieves them of the responsibility of owning what ails them. Other people see a specific danger in this approach, and so opt for a non-pathological relationship with others. is a significant site that deals with art and healing. It has a listing for healing-oriented artists, together with their illuminating comments.


Value of art therapy
by Sarah Cannell, Norwich, Norfolk, UK


“Small field”
original painting by Sarah Cannell

Art therapy is of assistance mainly as a distraction from an individual’s problems. The problems do not go away purely from painting but give the brain a respite and a chance to fill the eyes with colour and form. Also, quite often, those in art therapy use their hands in a way that they may not have done since they were children. I think that many problems are derived from the adult world moving away any form of “making.” Even the creativity of preparing a meal has been replaced with shoving a packet in the microwave.


Given a direction to explore
by Anne Copeland, Lomita, CA, USA

Art is a healing tool because it transcends everything that we are. It helps us rise above the daily things of our lives. It brings our highest dreams and aspirations to life, and it validates us beyond what anyone else can do for us. And when we are angry or hurting, it gives us a safety net for getting our emotions out and helps us to really “see” what we are feeling inside and sometimes that is enough. When it is not, we are given a direction to explore further.


The person I know I am
by Marion Barnett, Scotland

I trained originally as a translator, French and Russian. I thought that words were my vocation. Over the years, I was to discover that my true vocation was quite different. It was to be myself, and to create meaning. And that has only proved possible through music, cloth and painting. I make art to discover who I truly am, that person who got lost in a long term dance with the demon depression. I found that words by themselves are not enough. Art healed by allowing me to make something meaningful out of a childhood made in hell, and an adulthood confused by illness. I have moved from telling my story, visually, sometimes painfully, into making art that is gentle, peaceful and calm. The person I know I am. For me, art is a road — there are no wrong turnings.


Paint, paint, paint
by Sharon Voyles, Belle River, IL, USA

Art heals. No one knows better than I. In 2001 five friends were killed in a car/train crash. A year later a very close friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Then, in the last six months I have seen my home gutted by fire, had 3 car wrecks, and been seriously ill with life-threatening consequences. But the joy I find in my art and the rock-solid relationships I have formed through my art have made me a better, stronger person than ever before. My attitude is that “Life Happens” — how we deal with it is the important thing — and how I deal with it is to paint, paint, paint.


Best kept secret
by Antoinette Ledzian, Stonington, CT, USA

Being in love with art is the best kept secret for a fulfilling life. We artists are blessed to understand this phenomenon. I’ve been involved and certified with the “Expressive Arts” since 1996, and had some work published in Art and Healing by Barbara Ganim. I’ve studied at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts in Connecticut, USA. The hardest part about being a “Fine Artist” versus an “Expressive Artist” is allowing oneself the freedom to create spontaneously in the right side of the brain while the left side is trying to balance color, shape, value, design. Letting go of this voice allows one the freedom to remain in the “non-judgmental/safe/nurturing” part of the brain which promotes healing.

I also have a summer camp for kids that focuses on the process of creation. The parents are always astonished at the transformation of their children after 5 days of free art and writing. It takes a day or two to leave the critic at the door before we can truly explore.


Does henna for a change
by Terri Steiner, Princeton, ME, USA

Being a mostly manic bipolar, I find I’m a lot more in control, as long as my week involves at least 4 days of painting. When I’m too “over the edge” to even paint, I find that doing henna (easier to do) on someone totally fits the bill and chills me out. The fact is that I’m still creating, and that is manna for the crazies. I swear, this is so much better than medication and hospitalization! And I’m a functioning person — most people refuse to believe that I even have a disorder.


Painting the best therapy
by Robin Ann Walker, Dallas, Texas, USA


original painting by Robin Ann Walker

Painting has done for me what a thousand hours of therapy could not. I lost my son and only child in Desert Storm, the first Persian Gulf War. At the time, it was only one of a series of tragedies that I experienced in a short time. I suffered for seven years — in therapy most of that time. I have no art education, but I started painting. And what poured out of me was all the anger, loneliness, grief, sadness, shame, guilt, and despair that had been hidden inside me. I could not paint those first images fast enough. When I was finished, all those feelings had been purged out of me and onto the canvas. I was exhausted. The next time I picked up the brushes, the paintings were sweet and beautiful. I have been painting ever since.


“Bestest day of my whole life.”
by Barbara Mason, Aloha, OR, USA

As president of the board of Print Arts Northwest I am involved with our educational outreach program. I have seen an inner city second-grader rolling ink on a plate and saying “this is the bestest day of my whole life” and seen a three year old at an art fair just light up with excitement when he saw a fish print he made almost all by himself. I will never forget the look on that little face.

As adults we have learned to curb our outward excitement at the creative process, but inside we feel the same. When we make something that is a little more wonderful than we know how to do we bloom a little and our confidence grows. I have arthritis and when it hurts horribly I go work in the studio and immediately my mental outlook improves. You can forget a lot of physical pain if your mind is engaged in creating. I have long known that the work we create is only a byproduct of the process of making it. Art is like singing, some do it better than others, but everyone can and should be doing it for their soul.


Continuity from art therapy
by Delores Hamilton, Cary, NC, USA

I have a son who was three times in psychiatric hospitals as he was growing up. I still have all of the art he made in his art therapy sessions. His artwork continues today and is focused on music and writing. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” (Aristotle)


Wouldn’t have coped without her art
by Joanne Mortimore, Auckland, New Zealand

I have a friend who 12 years ago suffered a breakdown. To help herself she began to paint and now she is one of New Zealand’s foremost artists. She gives lessons and her classes are always full. She holds workshops, sells extremely well and earns her living through her painting. Each year in December she holds an art exhibition and sale in her garden. Through her painting her self-esteem has been restored. Her mental health is returned to normal and she lives a full, happy and healthy life. Without the art therapy her friends do not know what would have happened to her or how she would have coped.


Art for heart attack victims
by David Brougham

To a person like myself who has had major heart problems with open heart surgery and two strokes since then, I find painting has a calming effect on my emotional state. I was despondent until my brother-in-law introduced me to watercolors. Since then I have not looked back. It’s hard to explain unless you have gone through periods of heavy depression what painting does for a person in that mental state. I belong to the First Open Heart Society and there are quite a few people that have taken up painting after having heart problems.


Rebirth in vegetation
by Olinda Everett, Sao Paulo, Brazil

Art clarifies issues for me. It helps me see what’s important and why it matters. Maybe this is why I paint. To see more clearly what is inside my head. Another point that has to do with sanity is that about 1/3 of my art is to do with images that satisfy my sense of well being and those always relate to some sort of archetypical activity or symbol in some way. For instance, the strong sense of rebirth inherent to vegetation and the landscape as a depiction of and a symbol for the continuity of being.


On the threshold of the unknown
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA

Art is transformative. Each creation is a kind of birthing, except I think the transformation of bearing children is more blatant, whereas art transforms deeply yet subtly. Like a sincere spiritual, yogic practice one has to be steady and committed to reap the fruits. Painting reminds me of paying attention to my breath and having an intimate relationship with it. Breathing is a powerful tool that works on the subtle levels of the body. When painting I find myself in a delicate space that requires awareness, effort and surrender. Art works when I acknowledge tendencies of the mind going to old patterns of doubt and then I ride the wave beyond such inhibiting patterns with complete abandon. I know I have been there before in painting and in life in general and I now know the trap as well as the tools of liberation found when I trust my universal connection. As Gurumayi Chidvilasananda said, “Trust is transcendent, resolute, universal, sacred and tolerant.” These are great tools that work in life and in art. I happen to have two daughters that have transformed me for sure, and my work as an artist is like my third child. It requires my attention, dedication, trust and love just like my children do. Both my children and making art bring to me the joy of liberation when I am able to be present and pay attention. Children, if given the opportunity will offer profound insights. Art also provides me with a clear perspective and sustains and expands my awareness. I find that the challenge of confronting that empty surface is worth any anxiety it creates. I can solidly stand on my two feet when I am nurturing the mystery of art. I am both vulnerable and empowered. Living and painting are always works in progress, and I am grateful for the opportunity to live as an artist on the threshold of the unknown.


Quilts for healing
by Ann Flaherty, Sanford, NC, USA

Last year, after learning that my childhood priest was the subject of a national manhunt as part of Boston’s sexual abuse scandal, I worked out my anger in an art quilt, titled, “‘Tis enough to cause the saints to weep.” This work has been part of the Sacred Threads shows in Ohio and Texas.

I’ve established a program through the Armed Services YMCA. Using my talents for making photo-transfer quilts, I have founded Operation Kid Comfort. Through the program, volunteers and military spouses, make photo-transfer quilts for young children of deployed service men and women. While they use a pattern for the quilts, many have never created a quilt, or any thing remotely creative, and the process is enlightening to say the least. During the workshops, the families talk to me about the photos they’ve chosen to include, and pick fabrics, and sew the quilts, all the while expressing what is happening to their families during this terrible war, what it is like to have a spouse and parent gone for more than a year, and how they are coping with the day-to-day trials and fears.





The Red Falcon

Healing art — oil painting
by Dr. Jing Nuan Wu, Bethesda, MD, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.

That includes Annie Jolivet-Vilbois of France who wrote, “I’m too young a painter for giving input on most subjects, I wait and read for the time being. I’m always looking for contemporary painters I can learn things from, and your writers prove very useful. Thank you for this twice-weekly time for thinking.”



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