Art For The Heart: The Healing Powers of Creativity

 Art for the heart2by jessie

[CN: mental illness, incl. depression, anxiety and psychosis]
A summer provincial landscape, inspired by Van Gogh’s ‘A Wheatfield with Cypresses’. In the foreground there is a golden field of ripe wheat, bordered by banks of thick green grass. Behind, a green cypress tree towers over an overgrown country path that winds between olive trees and dense shrubbery. The sky swirls with blue and clouds of white, and in the background there are distant mountains of a deep purple colour. Van Gogh painted the works that inspired this piece shortly after discharge from the psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy.

Mental illness is in many ways an illness of isolation. It is scary to think that we are the only ones who truly understand the thoughts, emotional states and experiences of our own mind.It is therefore not surprising that when we find ourselves in a state of psychological distress, this feeling of loneliness is magnified. Anxiety compels us to decline party and dinner invitations; depression prevents us
from getting out of bed in the morning; psychosis alienates us when others do not see or hear the delusions and hallucinations which form our own reality. You cannot see mental illness, neither hear, smell, taste or touch it, and this means that even when those closest to us share experiences similar to our own, our suffering can feel so terrifically lonely.

This is why talking therapies, alongside reaching out to friends and family, are so integral in the treatment of many different mental health conditions. However, experiences so unique, abstract and formidable can often seem indescribable, evading capture in a GP’s quick referral form or in the pages of a CBT journal. This is not, by any means, to discount the immense power and importance of other types of therapy, but sometimes a new language is needed to communicate our own intimate, personal suffering; a language of our own.

A black and white pencil drawing of an adolescent girl leaning against a wall in an empty room. She is wearing a swimming costume and stands awkwardly, as if she feels like too much of her body is on show. She has long legs – disproportionately long, perhaps – and her right hand is clenched in a fist. She looks at the ground just to the left of the viewer, lost in her own thoughts. On the wall behind her is a web of overlapping shadows. The shadows are as real as she is, and they almost seem to be moving of their own accord.

Creative expression, whether it be through the medium of art, music, drama or dance, has the potential to communicate our inner psychological state, externalising it and transforming nebulous, shapeless thoughts and feelings into something that can be seen, heard or even enjoyed by those around us. More important than any audience, however, is the way in which we ourselves can reflect upon and digest the work we have created; it can clarify our own understanding of how our minds work, boost our confidence, and even separate our mental health difficulties from our true selves, by externalising destructive thoughts and containing them in say, a painting or a performance.

Most of all, art therapy can be fun, and can bring paints and pastels and pencils of all colours of the rainbow into our lives again, even when we are going through the darkest of times. Art For The Heart, a new OSDC group which ran its first course in Trinity Term, is the first group in Oxford to use visual art and creative expression to start a conversation about mental health. One of the most valuable aspects of the group is that it is open to everyone – (as after all, everyone who has a mind, every human, is affected by mental health) – in the hope that the artistic medium might ignite curiosity in mental health across campus.

Art For The Heart in action! A member of the group sits at a table covered with newspaper, beginning a piece of artwork. The table is littered with paints, canvases, scissors, glitter, feathers and other art materials. A box of Celebrations stand open, with a few chocolate wrappers scattered among the artmaking. We can only see the hands of the artist; they have made a bold streak of red paint on a white background. The theme of this week’s session was “Sight and Vision”.

The sessions are given a framework by a theme each week, such as ‘Masks and Identity’ or ‘Maps and Journeys’, but members of the groups are always, always free to follow their instincts  and use the art materials in whatever way they wish. Art For The Heart will be continuing fortnightly this coming Michaelmas Term, alternating with a new Support And Recovery group, where we will be exploring subjects such as self-esteem, negative thinking patterns and personal goals through a range of group exercises and discussions. Both groups will be held on Tuesday evenings, and I really do hope I will see you there.

Art, photography and image descriptions by Jessie See
Edited by Sam Pugh


3 thoughts on “Art For The Heart: The Healing Powers of Creativity

  1. A H September 30, 2015 / 12:09 am

    what an insightful and intelligently written piece.


  2. For justice! March 1, 2016 / 5:47 pm

    Publish this in the guardian! Abslutley brilliant piece!


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