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Art that Heals

Arts & Culture | March 7, 2016

On April 8, 2000, Mark Hogencamp was heckled, harassed, and beaten by a group of five teenagers outside his favorite bar, sustaining brain injuries serious enough to render him comatose for nine days. Mark lost all of his memories. Financial assistance from Medicaid allowed for Mark to seek limited therapy, but after his federal support ran out, he was essentially alone in his recovery.

That’s where the dioramas came in. When therapy expired, Hogencamp began making art in the form of a hyper-realistic, meticulously crafted a 1/6 scale diorama of a small World War II Belgian town—populated by Hogencamp, his family, his friends, and his attackers. Hogencamp would film scenes with the dolls that mirrored his new life—a life he was trying so desperately to make sense of. Through crafting this alternate universe, Hogencamp, now 53 years old, recovered from his trauma using the increasingly popular method of art therapy.

This is one extreme example of an instance in which art was used as a method of therapeutic stress reduction. Art therapy has proven useful in the treatment of a wide range of both mental and physical illnesses from severe depression to everyday stressors. According to the Art Therapy Journal, the first documented use of art therapy occurred in 1938, when therapist Adrian Hill convinced his clients in an English sanitarium to paint to take their minds off their illnesses. Since then, the practice of art therapy has expanded to include many mediums—water color, collage, stenciling, filmmaking—in a variety of settings. While some art therapy is directed, wherein clients follow specific instructions from their psychiatrist to achieve specific results, the most common forms of art therapy is non-directed, and oftentimes outside of a clinical setting.

Under the broad umbrella that is the field of art therapy, there is the informal, self-led category of “art as therapy,” in which individuals, perhaps not in any other form of therapy, use art as a coping mechanism, an antidepressant, and a stress reliever.

Everyone—artist or not—can practice art as therapy.

Art in April, an exhibition of Tufts and SMFA students’ mental health themed artwork, exemplifies this universality. Partnering with the student mental health advocacy group Active Minds, dual degree students Conor Ward and Conrad Young are organizing this year’s annual Art in April gallery, to be displayed for the entirety of April on the 7th floor of Dowling Hall.

The merger of Tufts and the SMFA also plays a role in the theme of this exhibit. “With the merger and the lack of transparency from both administrations, students have no idea what’s going on, and we thought it’d be a cool student initiative to create community between the two schools as they’re merging,” Ward said.

The exhibition will focus on the confluence of mental health and art, although not every piece will contain subject matter pertaining to mental health. Rather, the broader focus is on how the process of art making is therapeutic, and how art as stress relief can be highly effective within the context of a college campus.

Art therapy’s efficacy lies partially within artwork’s ability to convey emotions and meanings in a way that words sometimes cannot. Dr. Alexander Queen, a full-time lecturer in Tufts’ Department of Psychology, is a clinical psychologist with experience treating both children and adults with a wide range of psychiatric disorders. In an interview with the Tufts Observer, he said that in art therapy, “The idea is that by having nonverbal communication, the patient is able to gain insight into their problems, facilitated by self expression through art.” He cited a colleague who uses collage as their predominant form of art therapy, analyzing the significance of images selected by their clients. “Oftentimes, what people choose to pick has to do with internal conflicts they’re having, values that are important to them—things that have shaped their personality and who they are,” he said.

According to exhibit organizer Conrad Young, art conveys feelings and stories more effectively—and often more genuinely—than words. “I can’t really vocalize my feelings, but when I make a piece of art, it’s exactly what I want to say.”

In this way, art therapy has been closely compared to journaling as a therapeutic exercise meant to help individuals pinpoint the causes of their anxiety, depression, or other mental health related stresses. Having identified the root of the issue, patients can then take steps to discuss and execute plans to move away from the stressor. In a study conducted by the American Art Therapy Association, it was found that subjects who had taken a directed art therapy class were “…more comfortable expressing thoughts that they were uncomfortable expressing prior to the experience.”

Art can also act as a source of self-validation and empowerment, and for those living with mental illness, these self-loving emotions can be difficult to muster. Young agreed, saying, “I think a lot of art therapy’s success has to do with satisfaction—the sense that ‘I made this’ and it looks cool and interesting, and it tells me something about myself.”

The Art in April exhibition aims to create a space in which Tufts and SMFA students can display their artwork in conversation with there experiences surrounding mental health. As Young put it, “I hope that this can expand from just a show to something bigger that people will be inspired by and that they’ll want to join.”

Using art as therapy can be especially crucial in a college environment, explained Ward. “One of the central nodes of my college experience has been mental health, struggling personally as well as watching other friends struggle…it’s ubiquitous.” Ward explained this is perhaps an inescapable facet of life, pronounced by the myriad of pressure placed on today’s college students.

For Young, art has been an integral aspect of maintaining good mental health while at Tufts. “Coming to college I’ve learned that the institution isn’t going to give you everything you need—you have to kind of make it yourself.”

Part of what makes art as therapy so successful is its accessibility to just about anyone. With the rising popularity of products like adult coloring books, everyone can be an artist and reap the psychological rewards of taking an hour out of the day to simply color inside the lines.

Ward and Young hope that the Art in April exhibit sparks conversation about the positive effects of art on mental health, and how the Tufts and SMFA student body can continue to utilize art as a means of community building. Ward said it best: “At the end of the day, it’s to empower the artists already making work and…to inspire other students to express themselves as well.”