Art Therapy for Inspiration, Guidance, and Healing

By Sibel Ozer

“Kibele” (grapevines stitched to canvas) represents settling into our new lives in Michigan. I was thrilled to find wild grape vines in our back yard and excited about the idea to sew them onto the canvas. It’s about being held by Mother Nature, and feeling inner piece in her embrace. 

“Kibele” (grapevines stitched to canvas) represents settling into our new lives in Michigan. I was thrilled to find wild grape vines in our back yard and excited about the idea to sew them onto the canvas. It’s about being held by Mother Nature, and feeling inner piece in her embrace. 

A non-artist friend asked for help with a painting she had started a year ago. I suggested we do some foraging for inspiration, and we spent a day antiquing, visiting the art museum, stopping by an art store, and hunting for materials in her backyard. Next, we cleared her garden table for a day of painting, where I modeled free expression. She is not yet finished, but definitely no longer stuck either.

The practice of art therapy can help us get “unstuck,” not only with a painting, but also with everyday personal, professional, and social challenges. There are few things I like more than getting creative juices flowing, and giving others and myself the permission to exercise our freedom to choose and to experiment with possibilities. Something interesting happens inside of us when we let the hands engage in doing/playing/creating outside of us. Carl Jung said that the hands know how to solve a riddle with which the intellect has wrestled in vain.

When we respond to issues related to life through art, guided imagery, sand tray, or creative writing, we are able to access our inner wisdom — the part of us that is wiser than our problem-solving minds. Images and words reveal symbols that offer the best alternative representation of what is not yet known but very important to the psyche. 

Art therapy is not about rendering likeness, but about finding authentic expressions for our inner experiences.

We all have an untapped creative potential we can activate to help live our lives in a less restricted and more authentic manner. The goal is to strive for honesty. Art therapy is not about rendering likeness, but about finding authentic expressions for our inner experiences. I like to offer process-painting workshops, which take place over two months. We work the same canvas using color and texture over and over, letting go of forms as they emerge and practicing present centered representations of inner experiences.

For me, art therapy continues to be a reminder that I am indeed a free person, that I can help shape my life experiences even as I don’t always choose what life presents me. The art can hold my emotions nonjudgmentally, allowing me to give space and attention to difficult emotions. That is often all our emotions demand of us: to be released, to be felt for what they are.

Buddhist philosophy differentiates between actual suffering, such as the loss of a job, and unnecessary suffering, which might be caused due to persistent thoughts such as I will never get another job or I’m going to end up homeless. Art therapy helps us see the difference in a concrete way, materialized in front of us through the manipulation of resources. 

Something interesting happens inside of us when we let the hands engage in doing/playing/creating outside of us.

In the beginning exists the story, suffering, or symptoms that are interrupting a harmonious and peaceful life. Sometimes there is no identifiable trouble, but just the desire to listen to what the psyche has to say, what is dormant inside of us. For most of us, there is a general need to slow down, to take the time to attend to internal messages, and to replace our inner critic with curiosity and nonjudgmental observation.

The art therapy journey starts with materials. I find it helpful to surround my clients and myself with a variety of materials that could find their “just-right place” in any given moment. Materials range from the more common pencils, paints, and clay to photography, film, fabric, magazine cutouts for collage, finds from the backyard (such as sticks or grapevines), and objects from a junkyard (such as a mangled car door that survived a deadly crash), to name a few. Given any object can be used as an art material, I do a lot of recycling — tissue paper, food containers, old T-shirts and books, or used boxes end up being stored for potential use later.

For most of us, there is a general need to slow down, to take the time to attend to internal messages, and to replace our inner critic with curiosity and nonjudgmental observation.
“The Fading Leaf” (multimedia on canvas) is part of a series of horse paintings that will be auctioned in support of “Return to Freedom” — a nonprofit that is dedicated to preserving the freedom, diversity, and habitat of wild horses. Art therapists around the U.S. are creating art fundraisers for humanitarian projects.

“The Fading Leaf” (multimedia on canvas) is part of a series of horse paintings that will be auctioned in support of “Return to Freedom” — a nonprofit that is dedicated to preserving the freedom, diversity, and habitat of wild horses. Art therapists around the U.S. are creating art fundraisers for humanitarian projects.

Each material holds numerous metaphors, offering us myriad opportunities through their different qualities. For example, pencils might present control when our life is unraveling, while finger paints bid you permission to let go of restraint if there is too much of it in your life at the moment. Fabric can impart a sense of connectedness during grief, while wood can support grounding in the midst of change. Different materials call up different responses for each of us, depending on timing and situation. Allowing ourselves to merely engage with them — to play, shape, mold, or transform — creates opportunities for insight, learning, and healing.

The process is another distinct part of art therapy that can be equally fascinating and revealing. It could involve combining narrative, image, and music to create a digital story, or painting and repainting the same canvas practicing non-attachment to form that might lead to a visual emotional journal articulated through time and texture. Around the U.S., art therapists help veterans transform old combat uniforms to paper to express the inexplicable. Others change little matchboxes into precious art pieces and participate in painting marathons to raise awareness and money to help victims of human trafficking overseas. A woman in a private office desiring motherhood creates a shrine that holds and manifests the dream of parenting. A little girl on the cancer ward creates a doll to express her sadness at losing her hair due to chemo. The process is what we end up doing with the materials, which results in further growth and awareness.

The art can hold my emotions nonjudgmentally, allowing me to give space and attention to difficult emotions.

A third component of art therapy is the final product, the art piece. It can be burned, hidden, transformed all over, framed and exhibited, dialogued with, or gifted — whatever ends up being most therapeutic in a given moment. We can wind up with insight, clarity, the ability to communicate in a nonverbal way, or a way to memorialize and honor. We might create new bonds with the deceased or the living, make meaning, or simply find a workable rephrase. The possibilities for inspiration, guidance, and healing are as endless as the variability inherent to the materials, process, and product.

Sibel Ozer is a licensed professional counselor and board-certified art therapist currently doing private practice at The Parkway Center in Ann Arbor. She started her career as a clinical psychologist working with earthquake survivors in Turkey. She continued her work in the United States in hospice, hospital, and private practice settings further specializing in grief, loss, and trauma. She is a certified EMDR practitioner and a graduate of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. She gives experiential workshops nationally and in her country of origin (Turkey) on different art therapy topics. Visit www.sibelozer.com, call (303) 905-1109, or email he-artspace@hotmail.com.


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The last sentence of my last blog almost a year ago was: “Oh, the discoveries that await!,” referring to the permanent walking labyrinth I was hoping to create the coming spring. Boy, did that turn out to be prophetic! I did create the labyrinth, last spring, and have been walking it, if not daily, regularly. It is one of my proudest creations because I was so convinced initially that I couldn’t do it.

Springs feel to me like Saturdays, where you can really relax, go with the flow, and procrastinate with zero guilt, since they are followed by Sundays. Summers are the best, but there is a lurking awareness of transience that can put a damper on things. Even though falls in Michigan are rapidly becoming another favorite of mine, they are followed by winters, which require serious preparation for psychic survival. 

I had ended my last blog with the question: What are your hands going towards these days? So, I will start there today myself. I have been continuing to create little mosaic pieces on my son’s broken Taekwondo boards. What stands out to me this time around, rather than the materials, are the forms that have been emerging . . . 

In the art therapy stories I've shared thus far, I have explored various themes of change. The need/want for it, on the one hand, and the mechanism/process toward it, on the other

By Sibel Ozer

The arctic cold has taken a toll on many of us. The psyche desires to retreat with a cup of hot chocolate in one hand and a book in the other, preferably in front of a fireplace, all the while reality demands that we continue attending to our responsibilities and enter the cold over and over.

We are definitely a product/progress/accomplishment oriented society and most of our psyches are deeply craving the opposite as a result. The permission to enter and stay in the non-doing is often a gigantic challenge for most of us, let alone someone who has spent a lifetime doing what is expected of her, since it meant survival.

Posted on January 1, 2014 and filed under Winter 2014 Issue, Columns.