Great Art ... and Great Therapy
Art Therapy and Eating Disorder Treatment
Art therapy as a profession evolved in the 1930s, when psychiatrists began studying the artwork created by their patients to see if there was a link between creativity and illness. They discovered that the simple act of creating art reflects the client's experiences, including unresolved emotional issues and conflicts.
A typical first assignment is to draw a house, a tree and a person. The therapist asks the client to complete all three drawings and then describe each one. Called the "discovery" period, this exchange often reveals stories that are imprinted deep in the artist's memories.
Although certain symbols appear to be universal, the therapist's challenge is to discover what the elements in the drawing mean to the client.
Instead of suggesting an interpretation, the therapist asks the client to explain what it means, observing body language and eye movements and alterations.
In the drawing at right, there's a tree that's "about 20 years old". A path from the house intersects the tree near the roots.
Typically, the tree represents what has happened to that person in the past, and what the soul is holding onto. It may also represents the person's age. The path from the house to the tree could indicate important events in early childhood. The explosion of branches halfway up the tree coincides with the emergence of body image issues in adolescence.
The house represents the internal self. Smoke coming out of the chimney could indicate inner turmoil or family difficulties. The number, size and placement of windows and doors convey the ease or difficulty of communication. This client drew a house with a four-sided roof with four windows with four panes, which may represent the four members of her family. But there are no windows where the client's room would be, and the wall is obscured by a bush. How hard will it be for her to talk about family issues?
The person is usually the artist herself, and what the artist leaves out tells us a lot about her. Are the eyes closed? What doesn't she want to see? If the person has no feet, she may feel stuck and unable to move or change her situation. Missing or hidden hands could signify that the client has difficulty reaching out for help.
Through regular individual and group art therapy sessions, the therapist works with clients to reveal the truths they cannot speak. The power to withdraw into the art process will accompany them on their journey back to good mental health.
So will their artwork. The paintings, drawings and sculptures created during residence at Mirasol go home with the client. Only the eating disorder — and some powerful memories — get left behind.
- American Art Therapy Association
- Arts and Healing Network
- Arts as a Healing Force
- National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Associations
Note: Artwork is by recent Mirasol clients whose names have been withheld to protect their privacy.