Local Tucson Art Therapist, Rebecca Wilkinson, MA, ATR-BD, LCPAT shares her passion about the world of art therapy, a highly in-demand modality that is helping many who currently cope with obstacles that prevent them from living their best lives.
Long before electronic and handheld devices, we doodled and sketched, played in the sand box, made chalk designs on the sidewalk and (everyone’s favorite) colored in coloring books. We had ways to calm ourselves and create something from our internal thoughts and imagination, release negative feelings, as well as generate positive ones. There is a mind/body connection that is illuminated through the process of making art which allows space for reflection and exploration. The ability to express oneself in order to enhance our life can make us happier, address sadness or negative emotions and help us to reach these goals in a healthy and often more effective way.
Communication and healing through art has been around for millennia. Some artists will reflect on early times when imagery was used to communicate in almost every civilization. Cognitive psychology research shows us that images can strengthen communications in several different ways—capturing attention, evoking emotions and easily conveying large amounts of information in a short period of time.
How can art and imagery help people change their way of thinking and positively address issues that previously have been unsuccessful? Those who are interested in improving their clarity and general well-being will often seek out new and creative ways to improve their mental and physical health through art therapy. “Art gives us ways to connect and bridge when we are feeling isolated and often times struggling with expression,” says Wilkinson.
Art therapy is a mental health profession that uses active artmaking, the creative process, applied psychological theory and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship. Art therapists are mental health clinicians with master’s-level degrees or higher, trained in art and therapy. They serve diverse clients, from children experiencing behavioral challenges; victims of violence or trauma, including military service members and survivors of mass shootings; older adults struggling with dementia; and anyone that needs help coping with life’s challenges.
Wilkinson was drawn to art therapy as an artist who was also curious about how the brain works. Those who study art therapy acknowledge the powerful and positive relationship between neuroscience or the activity of the brain and the art of expression. “In the end, it is a metaphor to engage with the internal experience,” describes Wilkinson. “Art is a way to access the other realm.”
How can therapy address some of the most prevalent public and mental health issues we are currently experiencing as a population? Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented chaos and stress in the lives of nearly all Americans across the country. A recent NHIS study has found that between 2019 and 2021, the percentage of adults polled expressed some level of depression had increased from 11 to 41 percent over the two years. An Art Therapy Association poll indicated that “nearly all art therapists (92 percent) surveyed reported that their clients were experiencing anxiety due to isolation during the Coronavirus pandemic, and two in three (62.7 percent) said that their clients raised these concerns frequently.” Many of our front-line therapists and mental health professionals are using art therapy as a very effective way to address several types of health concerns including depression, PTSD, anger, isolation, changes in circumstances and lack of focus or purpose.
Wilkinson also points out that one does not need to be an artist to benefit from art therapy. Art therapy generally serves three functions: expressing feelings that are “stuck” inside and inaccessible or we are unable to communicate; mentally and physically changing the energy level and physiology of the body; and accessing or experiencing new information and personal insight that could not be articulated otherwise.
For example, art as a form of expression. The image on the left depicts one of Wilkinson’s clients who felt relief in expressing anger that she was experiencing: feeling like people were disrespecting her boundaries. After she’d made it, she also saw the elegance in this expression. It transformed perception of herself and her anger.
This same client also had a “poor sense of self, difficulty grasping who she was, and felt adrift,” according to Wilkinson. “After working together for a while, visual themes began to emerge that helped confirm a sense of identity—she could see herself in her images and see that they reflected qualities that she possessed: warm, soft, flowing, light and bright, fluid, feminine.”
There is an increasing amount of evidence that supports art can enhance brain function and decrease levels of anxiety that affect the physiology of the body. It has an impact on brain wave patterns and emotions as well as the nervous system and can raise serotonin levels. Art can change a person’s outlook and the way they experience the outer world by changing their internal experience.
“We understand imagery fundamentally,” says Wilkinson. Words only allow us certain types of expression, and in many cases, verbal expression is ineffective. Through art, the artists can communicate their thoughts and feelings with greater intensity than may be possible with words.
Art therapists are highly trained and specialized professionals that support clients with specific issues that may not have been successfully addressed through traditional cognitive or verbal techniques. They have the ability to assist individuals dealing with trauma, help to change the way we think about ourselves and our world and support active minds to remain calm, focused and less anxious.
Many therapists will work in private practice with individuals but will also help groups with specific needs to address issues they are experiencing on a substantial level. International organizations have hired Wilkinson to provide techniques to their front-line workers for reversing the experiences of burn-out and isolation. She provides ways for these professionals to improve their lives and begin to look at things differently in the future.
Although art therapy is a form of professional support and a journey that should be embarked upon between the client and a licensed professional, there are also ways to use art in our own life as a personal hobby or way to improve overall well-being. Wilkinson created an adult coloring book that can be used for relaxation and other positive ways to spend time, which is available for purchase at RebeccaWilkinson.com
Wilkinson and her colleague Gioia Chilton have pioneered and authored a book on Positive Art Therapy Theory that combines positive psychology with art therapy’s capacity to mobilize client strengths; induce engagement, flow and positive emotions; transform perceptions; build healing relationships and empowering narratives; and illuminate life purpose and meaning. Positive Art Therapy provides a paradigm to integrate the strengths of two complementary fields: art therapy and positive psychology. “Positive art therapy can and should be pivotal to significantly increasing individual and social well-being,” says Wilkinson.
The image to the left depicts a bridge drawing and theme art therapists often use specially to support clients who are trying to make decisions or who feel stuck. “It often helps them see where they are on their path,” explains Wilkinson. “In this image, one can see that the ‘storm’ is to the left and that the figure is in the side that is bright and sunny—prognostically a good sign. But also, as example of unconscious communication—there is no foundation under the side where he is standing and so I might ask the client what could help ground and stabilize that person as he proceeds.”
Connect with Rebecca Wilkinson at CreativeWellbeingWorkshops.com and RebeccaWilkinson.com.
As a true thought leader in her field, Wilkinson set out to find every art therapist in the state of Arizona and has committed to creating a directory where individuals and groups can find board certified specialists in their locale. Wilkinson is cofounder of Creative Wellbeing Workshops, (CreativeWellbeingWorkshops.com
), where she supports her connection with individuals and groups through therapy for couples, families and organizational/educational groups.
Tavi Meketon, MBA, SPHR is a local author and business executive who focuses on supporting individuals and organizations through proactive strategies and comprehensive solutions. Connect at [email protected].
Art Therapy: Start Here
If you choose to enhance your experience or knowledge of art therapy, there are several resources available for reading and research.
Arizona Art Therapy Association: Directory of local art therapists, divided by region and whether they are available for private practice. azata.org/resources.html
Handouts on Creativity and Stress Release: This resource includes handouts on subjects such as: demystifying creativity, creative ways to cope with COVID, mandalas for meditation, creative journaling and more. CreativeWellbeingWorkshops.com/handouts
Blog on Creativity and Well-Being: Each blog has a nugget on well-being and an art exercise to explore the topic. CreativeWellbeingWorkshops.com/the-creative-wellbeing-workshops-blog
American Art Therapy Association: ArtTherapy.org