The Stick Figure Shrink

Why making bad art is good for you.

Last summer, making art released the sociopath in me. Two classmates and I were portraying prisoners as part of a class exercise, locked in an imaginary jail in a section of our classroom. Another classmate, posing as a therapist in a mock art therapy group, directed us to color a picture depicting our feelings about being in jail. I picked up a black oil pastel and scribbled hard over a piece of paper, making a dark, thick, messy blob. I then picked up a red oil pastel and scribbled over it, violently crushing the color onto the black blob on the page. I was pissed off, but loving every minute of it.

This is how we spent a lot of our time in this class, a graduate course called Creative Arts in Therapy. That summer, I made a collage symbolizing my identity, wrote two-minute poems, and directed the class in a movement exercise to express sadness through our bodies. But the prisoner exercise was the most expressive, the most surprising for me.

Art therapists believe all people can express themselves through various forms of art, and that this mode of expression reaches beyond the traditional methods most people use to vent, reflect, and restore. I’m now a believer. Although talking can do a person a world of good, sometimes there are only so many Woody Allen-esque monologues you can deliver to your friends before you find yourself on an emotional hamster wheel, running over the same feelings and thoughts without actually going anywhere — except for the midnight trip to chew on the bars of your cage.

I must have been chewing on my cage a lot last summer. Our class prisoner exercise was intended to be a demonstration only, but my fellow prisoners and I found ourselves getting into character a bit too much at times, feeling startling emotions from passivity to sadness to homicidal urges. It became dramatherapy, and it was freeing in a way that thinking or talking or writing about my anger could not have been.

Art is not only freeing emotionally, but also creatively. It invokes a pure, third-grade pleasure in the tasks of painting, shading, cutting and pasting. The sticky part for a lot of adults — especially if they consider themselves artists or Artistes or just people who should be able to sketch better than grade schoolers — is allowing therapeutic art to be about releasing feelings and thoughts rather than being about making the most beautiful work. Sometimes the art comes out as a beautiful swirl of reds and golds and oranges. Most of the time, though, it looks like my big, messy red-and-black blob in the middle of the page — an image even modern artists might find indecipherable, but one that expresses true emotion. Of course, it is lovely to relish the beauty created through expression, but if you become beauty’s bitch, you’re missing the point. Sometimes I have to get tough and remind myself, “Hey, wake up and sniff the glue: the Smithsonian is not going to come knocking on your door tomorrow.” Only then I can allow my hands to do what they want, playing with colors and sensations and expression.

All of this may sound terribly New Age to you, a little too much Yanni and a big yawn besides. But if you’ve found yourself with a minor in mental hamsterwheelology, maybe it’s time to try something different. Make a paper airplane representing your feelings about the war in Iraq. Explore your emotions about your crummy boss in shades of burnt sienna. Release your inner homicidal maniac on a box of crayons.

Go get messy and find yourself.

Article © 2006 by Gina Mitchell