Therapeutic Power of The Arts

Eight years ago, at the end of a long, cold, and challenging winter, I went up to London to see the David Hockney Landscapes Exhibition, “A Bigger Picture”, at the Royal Academy. His paintings of the woods near his Yorkshire home were vast, colourful & peaceful, with the most marvellous use of light and space. I almost had the sense that I could walk into each painting and merge with the landscape, such were their effect on me. I noticed as I walked around, how quiet & contemplative I felt. My stresses and the constant chatter in my head seemed to miraculously slow down and melt away. I felt myself relax & my mood transform. The last room had a beautiful time-lapse video exhibition of the four seasons, set in his favourite place, Woldgate Woods. I sat in there for ages, mesmerised by these four works, lost in self-reflection. It was incredibly therapeutic.
Such was the power of Art on the beholder (me!).

Creativity can be vital for our well-being. Modern life is full of pressures to achieve, to fit in, to work towards outcomes, so it’s no wonder we feel stressed and head for therapy! So by building in some form of self-expression, be it poetry-writing, pottery, dance, acting, playing music, we allow ourselves to value the process and the journey over the outcome. This stimulates our curiosity and helps us to connect to our joy and our soul. It is also important to have permission to express and touch our dark side and our darkness (Jung called this the Shadow & spoke of the ‘gold’ contained within it, if we can only bring it forward to be worked with). James Hillman, in his book “A Blue Fire” talks of the blueness of melancholy and its beauty, if expressed; as opposed to the blackness of depression. Melancholia is in my view, much under-valued, and needs its place in our life as much as joy. Writers like Virginia Woolf, have used the novel as an art form to express essential human states, which need exploration, such as loneliness, the fear of death and loss, the sense of isolation and the search for meaning. By finding a medium to express and release “unbearable feelings”, we can feel a sense of healing and life can resume. This is often part of the journey in the counselling space between client and therapist and has huge value for growth, if it can be unpacked in the sessions.

Recently, an artist friend, Riga Forbes, has painted a series of paintings on a theme of Landscapes in and Around the Arctic Circle. The focus is on wild and quiet places that our ancestors knew intimately & thrived and survived in; which are now endangered. The images she has produced in her art-making, allow her and the viewer to find an inner place of connection to the natural world. I came across her paintings online and was entranced by their stillness. A single canoe waits on the water for someone to paddle it across the water to the ancient lands beyond. In another image, a Viking boat sits on glassy water, with the reflections of sea and sky. There are mystical images of the Northern Lights, with wonderful use of a blue/white and green/purple palette. All of them have a dream-like quality and allow the viewer to experience a slowing down and a kind of mindfulness practice when observed and taken in by the eye. I was aware that my heart rate had slowed after walking around and staring into these images for a few minutes; I felt rested and transformed out of the linear (left brain) into a liminal space (right brain), which connected with my inner depth, feelings and imagination.
You can currently see her work at the Lime Tree Kitchen, Lewes. Or view it online at
Her ultimate aim as a visual artist is “To communicate another kind of space beyond words.”

In my 30’s I trained as a Drama & Movement Therapist at Central School of Speech and Drama. I learnt that the art form (drama, story-making, poetry, drawing, painting & music) could act as a vessel or container for ourselves to explore our depth and our issues within it. The arts had the ability to allow us to unlock our innermost fears, unconscious feelings and trust issues, through exploration and participation. The intensive training supported me to unlock my stuckness, work through difficulties in my own past, connect to my true, more individualised self and unlock my own potential to work with others. Upon graduating, I became passionate about helping others to connect with themselves and unravel their issues, to support them to find their own process towards their authentic self.

In London, I started using stories like The Red Shoes to help my clients to explore their impulse towards self-destructive behaviours, whilst allowing them to make their own connection to the character/role they have chosen. As drama therapists, we step out of the verbal into the power of the unconscious and use Jungian Archetypes in service to the client. By bringing them back into the ‘Here and Now’ at the end of the journey they can take time to ground their energy and find the meaning and relevance for themselves. This was particularly evident to me when we worked in a well-known women’s prison, with a small group of inmates, on the 12 step De-tox programme. We brought to life the ‘Story of Icarus’ who flew too close to the sun and got his wings burnt. In the story at the end, he literally falls back down to earth. This was a very provocative story for these women and, by taking on various characters and role-playing, they reflected on it in relation to their lives and the situation they now found themselves in.

For the last ten years, I have worked more from the verbal starting–point (talk therapy), as a Counsellor, allowing my clients to guide their own process towards making the hidden aspects of themselves visible, to discover their own potency through the Counselling Relationship. But I still use art, drama & role-play and writing as a resource, when it is in service to the client, to help them to make shifts, step into their vulnerability safely, or find a deep connection for themselves. E.g. Writing a letter to your past / future self, or to your Inner Child; or using the Empty Chair (Gestalt) to dialogue with the part of you who holds repressed emotions towards a parent/partner/boss.

Lastly, I use art (drawing and painting) for myself, to process some of the deep and touching moments in counselling sessions that have stayed with me; to ground myself and find necessary insight for my future work. I find drawing and painting allows me some personal stillness, to reflect and listen to my own inner voices. It helps me to attune myself back into the flow of life, in a Mindful focus. Layering colour onto a canvas is a kind of colour therapy as well; it brings me happiness and centring into the present moment, when life outside of the art studio is passing furiously by; and I am able to take refuge and solace in being away from this, through art and creative expression.

Try it for yourself….this month challenge yourself to visit an art gallery, write a poem, try an art, dance or drama class, or listen to a favourite piece of music or a band you like ( without any other distraction). Give yourself the gift of the arts as a channel for your own healing and growth.