Art in Times of Crisis

What lessons can we learn from art therapists in times of high uncertainty and stress.

Little hands and worn hands, dipping into a deep bin filled with multi-colored beads. The smooth and shiny colors, the gentle clinking sound, and pliable wire, all available for threading, gluing, bending. All providing a pleasant problem to resolve: which colors to choose, what to form?

Rachel Brandoff, PhD, who practices and teaches art therapy at Jefferson uses art materials like beads and wire to entice clients to work through manageable problems, like deciding which beads to choose, as a bridge to more difficult problems. “Art therapy is a space for problem-solving which is a skill that takes practice,” says Dr. Brandoff, “and that can be generalized to other parts of life.”

During these times of near constant COVID-19-related stress, the empowering protests bringing to light the hurt of our communities of color, art can be a salve and an outlet, especially in the context of art therapy. “Art is a practice of inward reflection – an exploration of thoughts and emotions – followed by bursts of outward expression,” says Dr. Brandoff. “Art therapy gives emotions a place to land that isn’t verbal, and that can be very helpful.”

Dr. Brandoff talks about what art therapy is and isn’t and discusses how she uses art to help people create room for processing emotions. Her recent book for art therapists, “Quick and Creative Art Projects for Creative Therapists with (Very) Limited Budgets,” was published just last year.

Do you see people turning to art in times of high stress, like we’re in now?

As a culture, we may be more interested in the arts than we were three months ago. Anecdotally, it seems like there are a lot of people starting public art projects. There is One Philly: Coronavirus Public Art Project, which is a Facebook group that encourages readers to post artwork on a particular theme in their windows for others to enjoy. There are also FB pages dedicated to art and social justice issues, such as @artforjusticepa. These are places where people can share ideas, but really share their art that expresses their ideas, hopes and fears. Mural Arts Philadelphia, has been involved in restorative justice for many years. While some of these social channels include professional artists and art therapists, most are open to anyone who makes art and wants to share it.

Art therapy gives emotions a place to land that isn’t verbal, and that can be very helpful.

Unlike some of the more volatile or eruptive discussion forums on social media, these art postings are extremely encouraging, supportive, and compassionate forums. There is no debating, bickering, chastising others. It’s like everyone already understands how vulnerable each person has made themselves by sharing their art—an intimate reflection of themselves.

Making art has tremendous benefit. It can be a wonderful tool for stress reduction, distraction, increasing focus, processing complex ideas, and expression of feelings. But that’s not quite the same thing as art therapy. Art therapy takes the practice of art and extends and intensifies its ability to provide relief, and exploration.

What are some common misconceptions about art therapy?

A lot of people think, “I’m not an artist,” or “I can’t draw.” But art therapy really isn’t about creating beautiful things, although beautiful things do come out sometimes. You don’t have to be “good at art,” to do or benefit from art therapy. Having a willingness to try and to take risks, being open to possibilities and learning about oneself, and even if you think you are not good at these things, just being interested in working on them is enough.

Another common misconception is that if you’re doing art and it makes you feel better, that it is art therapy. While making art can be beneficial, art therapy is something you do with a trained masters-level clinician. Art therapists are credentialed therapists and artists as well.

What are other ways people explore art in therapy?

Any art material can be used in therapy. Drawing materials, paint, clay, collage are all fair game, and I’m a big fan of art materials that invite a playfulness and impulsivity.  Art does not have to be planned or well thought out. It can be spontaneous or whimsical. Pipe cleaners are fun.  They are easy to use, lack pretentiousness, and you don’t need to do much work; if I go into a meeting with a handful of pipe cleaners (which is not unusual for me), by the time I leave, there will be a dozen small sculptures sitting on the table in front of unseeming artists. Totems of expression.

I like little art projects. I’ve done projects that take weeks or months, but sometimes it’s just as gratifying to get something out quickly. I also like to do temporary art projects, and some materials lend themselves to creativity that isn’t intended to last forever. These include found objects in nature and Legos. I’m a big fan of using recycled materials, which provide a number of rich metaphors with which to work on big life issues.

You like to work with beads. Why beads, and not pencil and paper?

Drawing often evokes a person’s inner critic. Many people stop making art at around 10 or 11, which is a time in life when we tend to compare ourselves with others a lot. But the goal isn’t to make or to draw something that’s realistic or perfect, or to measure up to someone else’s art making. It’s to open up to whatever kind of creative expression might benefit an individual. Since people often do not know what that might be, or how to approach it, an art therapist can be integral to this process.

Beads have this wonderful tactile quality and there’s less of a preconceived notion of what to make with them. Some people will make a bracelet, or a keychain, others might make a sculpture. I have seen people produce Calder-esque mobiles. The final product seems less tied to expectations in our mind, and in some ways leaves more room for creative problem-solving. I certainly do use drawing as well. When an art therapists asks a client to make art, it is not random or without intention. When I choose a medium for or with a client, I am taking into account their art experience, comfort with materials and exploration, therapeutic goals, interest in or aversion to mess, size and space limitations, safety and toxicity, material cost, and likelihood that the client will develop interest.

How does art facilitate healing or working through problems in art therapy?

When we are creating art we often are taking something unresolved and achieving resolution. We might be cycling through thoughts or emotions or ideas repeatedly, and making art can help end or change the cycle. There’s an actual product. We take an idea or feeling that was living inside and externalize it, giving it form so that it can be seen and dealt with in a new way.

Some people have an aversion to seeking therapy or help in the first place. Or there’s this feeling, especially now, that because everyone is going through similar struggles pertaining to the global pandemic, quarantine, social distancing, life changes, social justice uprising, coping with police brutality, and advocating for change– that it shouldn’t be so hard that one can’t deal with it, or needs therapy because of it. But I will tell you that many people do, and requests for services have increased exponentially in the professional community. Many prefer art therapy because it’s less about identifying and naming a problem, and focuses more on expression. This is inherently a wellness and strength-based way of working.

I used to run an 8-week workshop for families who experienced some kind of disruptive trauma, such as domestic violence, death of a primary caregiver, or incarceration. At first we started with projects where each family member worked solo, making their own decisions about what to create. As the weeks progressed, the projects became more complex and more intertwined with other members of the family: perhaps each person would make a component of a single piece. The final work was something they’d create as a team. They had the ability to plan and strategize, to communicate and negotiate, and they had the opportunity to get better at these skills. They had to work out their way of working together. This takes practice. What if someone in the family had all the voice? How does everyone get heard? There isn’t a single right way to be a family.  My job was to help them find their best way. Therapy is often about training to better handle the challenges in life, and in art therapy we can create smaller problems that aren’t life-interrupting and use that as a practice ground.

What’s something to help people now?

I am a huge proponent of art therapy, and of psychotherapy in general. I would always encourage people to give themselves the gift of therapy and sit down with an unbiased person who can help guide a process to better know yourself and better cope. There are many reasons why people do not pursue therapy, and most of them can be easily countered.  It’s possible to find providers for low fee. It can be done short or long term in any variety of styles and approaches and has even been done online long before coronavirus came along. I’ve heard many people say that they don’t want to have to tell their whole story all over again. But we do that all the time in life anyway, and in therapy you can tell what you want in your own way. In art therapy, you don’t even have to tell it.

I am also a huge proponent of art, and always encourage people to engage their own creativity. Even if they feel that they are not artists, or not creative. We are all inherently creative beings, and making art is not only in the domain of people who make a living at it (or don’t since roughly 4-10% of artists are thought to make a living from their art).

Health, Life at Jefferson