What is Expressive Arts Therapy Anyway?

These days we have access to a world of knowledge at our fingertips! With this privilege comes so many new-age ideas of how we can better ourselves, fight the aging process, and ultimately “live the life you want!” Some are fads that will soon be forgotten, while others are proving themselves to be of significant value. It can be daunting cyphering through all these ideas to understand what they are, let alone finding one that might fit your own needs.blog-post-1

So, what is Expressive Arts Therapy, anyway? I am met with this question on an almost daily basis. I usually follow up by asking, “have you ever felt like you had something to say but words just don’t seem to fit, or perhaps there are no words?” When I see their heads nod in acknowledgement, I say “That! That is exactly the gap Expressive Arts are trying to fill.” It’s that feeling of an emotion that has been slowly building inside of you, but the thought of talking about it sounds as appealing as going to a Halloween party decked out in zombie makeup and torn clothes, only to find out it wasn’t a costume party after all. The feeling of expansion with little room to accommodate the growth. Like the jeans you mistakenly wore for Thanksgiving dinner that might be hugging you a little tighter by the night’s end: It’s restricting and uncomfortable.

Credit Jonathan Kim
Credit Jonathan Kim

If you are anything like me, you have experienced this feeling, or something similar – This is where I come in; Expressive Arts Therapy opens itself up to using any and all modalities that invoke our imagination. When words fail us, a painted image might say it all. When thoughts are swirling in our minds, movement might help to untangle the mess. image7From theatre and music, to poetry and story-telling, and even the right placement (or re-placement) of figurines, the trapped expression can escape with the right modality, or maybe even by bridging from one art form to another. What is bridging, you might ask? Stay tuned for another blog post!



Bridging the Gap


When you think of bridges, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it an image of that famous bright orange Golden Gate suspension bridge in San Francisco? Or the draw bridge on a castle from your favourite childhood Fairytale? Or maybe it’s something as mundane as that toll bridge you pay for each time you go to and from work? For me, it’s expressions like, “It’s best to burn that bridge!” and “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” that come to mind.

Regardless, all of the bridges we know serve a very similar purpose: They get us from point A to point B, helping us to cross over obstacles where we may otherwise not be able to. In Expressive Arts Therapy we talk about bridging as a means to connect. Bridging from one art modality to another, for example, is one of the defining features of E.A.T. that sets it apart from other therapeutic practices.

Quite often with my clients, I like to start off with a writing exercise, allowing the person to stay in their head at the session’s beginning (and let’s face it, most of us are in our heads!) before moving to a more somatic experience. A list, poem, or short story are just a few forms this might take. From there, I will ask the client to chose an image that stands out to them from the words they have written and create a visual representation of this image – this could be something as literal as a sculpture of the flower they just wrote about, to a series of colours splattered across a piece of paper. Later they might embody the flower or the colours, allowing the image to move and seeing where it takes them. Of course, each process takes its own course, and its own set of bridges. image1-7

Each time we move from one art form to another, a bridge is created, and each bridge is different from the next. Every time we make a connection from our imaginative creations to our real lives, we are bridging the gap. “I didn’t even know I felt this way” are words quite often spoken in an E.A.T. session. Sometimes, bridges help to get us from one place to another, over an obstacle we didn’t even know was there!

But I’m not an artist!

but-im-not-an-artistI hear this statement from my clients all too often! “But I’m not artistic,” they say, “I can’t even draw a stickman!” This often prompts one of my favourite discussion topics: “What does it mean to be an artist?” I usually ask.

Creativity manifests itself in so many different forms! Dancing is the modality in which I find myself, so much so that I consider movement to be my first language. When words fail me, I can most often move my way through an emotion until it reaches its full expression. Quite often I still can’t put a name to it, but is labeling a feeling always necessary? Some might argue with me on this point but, as I see it, releasing an experience through art helps to give it a shape, and through this shape we can find meaning, even if the meaning comes in the form of a sculpture or a dance.

Credit Jonathan Kim
Credit Jonathan Kim

I feel so privileged that I have been able to access my creative-self from such a young age. Whether you have identified yourself as an artist or not, one thing you cannot deny is that you, yes YOU, are a creative being. I have watched close friends tinker with computers and various gadgets I can’t even name (unless circle-thingy-doo counts?), troubleshooting tirelessly until it works. The creativity they access to be able to try, fail, and then try again differently, requires an ability to transcend traditional ideas and think outside of the box. Again, creativity comes in so many different forms if we can only stay open to the possibilities of our own gifts! kw_zqbachws-ashim-d-silva

Now, let’s bring back the stickman example from earlier. I had a client recently who said to me, “I’m thinking of drawing my son, but the best I can do is a stick man,” as he stared at the daunting blank page in front of him. I encouraged him to draw this stickman, and to see where it took him. After a few more minutes of blank stares, and the eventual pastel to paper, he drew one stick man, and another, and another… The conversation later ended with “I never knew how powerful a stickman could be”.

In what ways does your creative-self come to life?

Shine in the Dark Places

With seasons changing, summer into fall, and darker weather casting shadows over what was once a bright August sky, I am almost instantly reminded of the effect the murky wet grey has over my body and mind. Like a ton of bricks, the weight of a dull morning sky can weigh on my eyelids as heavy as it weighs on my motivation.

I know I am not alone here. Funny how this annual shift comes when I so desperately need inspiration most (my livelihood literally depends on it). Now, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change my career choices for the world, and I am well aware that no matter how powerful, persistent, and persuasive I may be, the chances of changing Mother Nature’s plans to work around my schedule are pretty slim.

Slim chances or not, I am left to think about the power residing in such darkness, both figuratively and literally – the literal often encouraging the figurative. There are so many great thinkers and writers recently who have been spreading the word of positivity and shining one’s own “light”. Positive thinking has become a bit of a trend, one that I am in support of I should add, however I am sometimes left with the feeling as though darkness is an old friend (thank you Simon and Garfunkel!) who is being neglected and, in some cases, shafted for having no value. I cannot seem to shake this idea that light without dark is just not seeing the whole picture.

So then what is the “whole picture” one might ask? You didn’t think I actually had that answer, did you? What I do believe to be true is that somewhere inside this picture, painting, box, or however you see your life, are blacks, greys, rainy days, negative thoughts, and whatever your darkness looks, feels, or smells like. I hope that also, living among those things, is glitter, warmth, and this “light” some of us so desperately search for.

Scratch that.

What I actually hope is that the dark and light residing in myself can grow to peacefully coexist like college roommates learning to compromise and live with one another, both with different interests, and both having value. I hope I can greet my murky days with my own flashlight that will allow me to shine in those dark places. I hope that darkness is never the whole picture, but that it may always have its place. And if this strikes a chord within you, then I hope this for you too.

“Shine in the dark places, lend the world your light.” – Shane Koyczan