San Diego Marie can't really remember when it began. Her memory is hazy about the earliest days of her hospitalization. She only only knows that at some point, one of the perpetually smiling volunteers gave her white paper and ten colored pencils and urged her to draw something. Anything. A stick figure, a scribble, anything.
Marie's depression had been so deep, she says, it was beyond articulation. She rarely spoke to anyone -- not even her husband or children. When she finally agreed to be hospitalized, or at least reached the point where she was incapable of resisting, she saw life as a blank screen. "It's like, when you turn off a television, the picture collapses into that little pinpoint of light and then disappears? That's the only way I can describe it. I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't take care of myself, let alone my family. All I wanted to do is sleep."
She remembers meeting with the psychiatrist and staring at him as if he were an alien in a tweed jacket. She couldn't answer his questions. Even if she had wanted to. The effort was overwhelming. "I'd lie in bed and draw circles with the colored pencils. It was the only thing I wanted to do. I don't know why it was circles. That's just what came out. Circles made me feel better somehow. Drawing took me away from everything around me, and it was something I could do on my own."
Marie returned home on a regimen of medication that helped her cope, to relax and concentrate and feel more hopeful. Twice a week she'd see a psychologist who was a trained art therapist. "I could draw my feelings when I couldn't articulate them. I drew dreams and things from my imagination. And I could talk about these pictures because they were outside myself. It gave me a place to start."
Though Marie is no artist, she could use the tools of art to break through her verbal logjam. With no need to face her emotions directly, translate them to words, then express those thoughts in the common, censored path of language, she was free to relax and let a drawing unfold, the results as much a surprise to her as to the therapist.
We accept the visual arts as concrete expressions of emotions -- religious ecstasy in a baroque church altar or the horror of war in a painting like Guernica. But it's possible for the same emotion to infuse our drawings, paintings, sculpture, even random doodles, whether or not we have formal art training.
Art therapy, a graduate- or undergraduate-degree program taught at colleges and universities around the country, is slowly finding acceptance in a wide variety of settings: hospitals, senior day-care facilities, hospices, physical and psychiatric rehabilitation programs, and frequently with AIDS and Alzheimer's patients. In combination with other medical and therapeutic programs, it can serve as a diagnostic and a healing activity.
Scripps Ranch resident Beverly Rodgers is an art therapist who has worked in the field for nearly 20 years. She supplemented her undergraduate degree in studio art with art-therapy training and has specialized in work with children. Asked to give an example of a memorable client, Beverly relates the story of the Cave Boy.
"I was working in a residential facility for severely emotionally disturbed children. They were all very fragile. One day I was walking across the campus and I saw one of the staff members sitting on a bench, and at his feet was this ten-year-old boy who was just having fits. He was throwing a tantrum, kicking the man in the shins, pounding his fists into the ground. The poor man was at his wits' end, 'What's wrong? What are you so angry about?' I just thought to myself, oh boy, what a handful that kid is.
"Well, not a week later, it was time for me to get my new clients for their art-therapy sessions, and in walks the child I'd seen on the grounds that day. He strode into the room and started opening cabinets, drawers, handling everything, asking what everything was for. Eventually he found a big tub of Crayola Clay, a modeling clay we use for sculpture. He wanted to try it. He grabbed a huge handful; his hands were probably bigger than mine, even. He mushed it around and squeezed it and patted it for a while, then he suddenly formed it into a big ball. He held the ball in his left hand, out at arm's length, and slowly made a fist with his right and pulled his fist back like he was going to smack the clay. He got a very determined look on his face and scowled and very, very slowly brought his right fist forward and gently sank it into the ball of clay. He wrapped it around his fist, then took it off and formed it into an igloo-like shape. With six small pieces of clay, he rolled long, thin sticks and stuck them very carefully inside.
"As we talked about what he'd made, he told me it was a cave, and the things inside it were Tyrannosaurus rex bones. And when the cave was dry, he was going to paint the inside 'red like blood' and the outside brown."
Beverly's method of working (though not all art therapists work this way) draws on all theories of psychology, including the symbolism of Jung and Freud and the developmental stages espoused by Piaget. And she works initially with no background information about a child to sway her evaluations. In the bold boy's bloody cave and dinosaur bones she suspected his emotional problems had begun in infancy and were very traumatic. As she later discovered, the boy had been kidnapped and held in frightening circumstances, rarely fed, when he was only a few months old. As a ten-year-old, he had no recollection of the events, but the emotions of the ordeal remained with him. With no memory, he had no words for why he was so angry. Through his clay models and drawings, he had a way to produce a physical object that he could touch and talk about and relate to. The boy's cave was a place to start to learn to control his behavior, concentrate on a project, and express confusing emotions.
"Every client is different," says Beverly. "Adults often are very resistant to 'kids' play.' Sometimes that's just because they don't like what they see of themselves in a painting. But sometimes you see the most amazing transformations right in front of you.
"One young man I worked with, in the head-injury rehab center, was just full of anger. He'd had a fight with his father, had gotten in his car, and driven off very fast and ended up in a bad car accident. Once he'd come out of his coma and had gone through that period of combativeness head-injury patients often do, he was still very angry, first at his father, then at himself. He couldn't seem to resolve it. One day when I was working with him, talking about the accident, I asked him to draw his feelings about his father. How he felt right now about him. He took a red crayon and just started furiously marking up the paper, mashing down hard and gnashing his teeth." A slide of the young man's drawing looks like an overgrown red lawn of strong, jagged, spiky strokes. "When he was through, he sighed, raised his head, sat up straight, and I could see all the tension go out of his face and body. He'd always slumped in his wheelchair with his head down, his jaw set. It was like I was seeing a different person.
"I asked him, 'Now draw you -- who you are right now.' He thought a minute and then drew three vertical lines on a fresh sheet of paper." The figure looks like a long, slim candle flame or leaf. "He said, 'That's me. Tall Tom.'" Sometimes it's as simple as that, to break through into what words can't say.
The field of art therapy has suffered under the control of HMOs even as it gains acceptance in the medical profession. The National Institutes of Health's alternative medicine division is funding clinical studies in the field, but therapists often are certified as social workers or occupational therapists, since insurance companies frequently don't pay for full-time art-therapy workers. It's a field that is well known for its anecdotal successes but sometimes difficult to quantify.
As one who's seen the big and small benefits that come from art expression in people's lives, Beverly regrets the lack of arts in public schools. Art, she says, particularly the visual arts, aren't valued as they should be, as personal expressions and nourishers of the soul.