Speaking the Universal Language of Art Therapy

Face paint

How to wash off non-face paint

I blustered about the premises in search of yellow-toned paper. No one helped me this time or came trailing behind me every 30 seconds to ask for scissors or glue or colored pencils. With every step, with every passing minute that pushed me closer to my eventual return to the states, I could get a sense of the changing future; and it was then I had a deep revelation about meaning—my own life meaning—and that meaning seems to essentially drive so much of what humans do, especially children as they develop and determine their life courses.

While working at an elementary school in Costa Rica, I came face to face with a new reality. Shortly beforehand, I had noticed (partially from personal childhood experiences) that young minds respond in a particularly unique and rather inspiring way to a world so new to them, and visual art therapy has a way of extracting those innate qualities in order to facilitate an experience of heightened well-being as these individuals grow and mature. I spent months in a Spanish-speaking country, drowning in a sea of kids, and not to mention that these who were a fourth of my age on the by and large knew probably a good several thousand more words than me. So what did I do? I drew upon my desires, my own life goals and meaning, and I tapped into a universal human language that is visual communication.

Edward Hughes says that children encapsulate a “magical” innocence that is sometimes lost or diluted into adulthood, and this is understandable because the current society presents pressures and demands specific to conditions of modern times. By golly, this is true. I may have my silly moments but I doubt that I could ever truly live up to the level of unrestrained excitement over a cracked bucket of dull coloring pencils. Not all the levels of excitement were off the charts, though.

I recall one student in particular, thirteen-year-old *Kris. On the surface: the class bully, the rebel, the one eager to advertise his new mobile device and the mature music emanating from its speakers; out of the public eye: sensitive to design, interested, enthusiastic about typography. Each time I encountered him on the school campus, he had a smirk that suggested to me mischief.

I entered the school at the beginning with every expectation to maintain order, keep focus and generate excitement about sustainably crafted art projects, and Kris’ class was included. The first assignment was a means to brainstorm about the meaning of a “green world” (or ambiente verde) and I collected the first assignment from every student with their names written down on them; then I safely tucked them away into a little folder. As the weeks progressed, however, I drew a blank. Some students lost their initial enthusiasm about the foreign teacher with locs and a funny accent. So they would either skip class, ask me to say English phrases, use paper to make imaginary arsenal, spill more glue on the table than on their projects, or even use the materials as face paint. So what did I do this time? I did what all desperate budding art therapists do and I expanded my vocabulary of that universal language.

Art therapist, Anita Toutikian, explains, “In art therapy we try to minimize the cognitive part [of the mind] and try to listen to our body, or emotions.” So there it is: I had to realize the vastness of their imaginations and see what was inside their brains first, and even if there was no explicit purpose in whatever we did does not negate the potentially positive effects it would have on the students. I took into account encounters with the ones who exhibited tendencies towards dysfunction and chaos, and how they found peace voluntarily just by being guided gently to a table with pencils and paper. With those subtle details and so much more I could only imagine what would happen with the artistically inclined students. Kristy Baker would even agree that “expressing emotions” is the primary (and perhaps the simplest) reason that the youth responds so well to getting a true chance to do an art project.

This was one of those days that I had been short on ideas. I grabbed the rickety bucket of pencils and some other craft supplies, and then I directed all those who were to be working with me to a private table, Kris being one of them. He had a smaller sheet of paper at his disposal. I explained that art has its moments when it is an “open thing”, when it is a matter of “designs”, when it is “free” and “without rules.” With that, I grabbed the first pencil that I saw and began doodling circular lines, which is a shape that I often draw. I continued. Kris and the few others stood around looked on intently. I had no idea what was coming to life before my very eyes, but I had faith that it was something useful and important, especially as it pertained to these children.

After working extensively with a young and troubled adolescent, Franklin rehashes in his studies that it is very possible for the creations to take on the likeness and image of the creator him or herself. Technique and media handling, the elements of design, and procedural complications all play a role in the “wise process” so to speak—as Franklin referred to it—of revealing the trueness of one’s being almost like a mirror. Hughes, in suggestion for its cognitive behavioral component, claims that “art therapy combines art activities with verbal exploration of the art product to facilitate understanding of [one’s] issues and concerns.”

I sat down with Kris several days after an incident broke out between him and another student, who I presume he might have been teasing. We went to another side of the auditorium, in which all art classes were held, and I pulled out the white sheet of paper. It was a bit more crumpled by this time. The bold typeface of the letters he had drawn to construct his name appeared so modestly, so innocently. I held it out to him. As I spoke he looked down at it, the smirk remaining on his face but a bit weaker this time.

I explained to him that I saw exceptional talent in him—I saw myself in him. I briefly described some of the opportunities available, granted he ever were to pursue graphic design. I hoped to make him aware of his leadership potential. He was very influential and it was apparent, but it was important that he use his influence for good things, that he should use his words to build up others and not tear them down. I cared not for it to make much sense in that moment but rather I hoped for him to know that I cared and saw something deeper by his enthusiasm to draw and show me his drawings done in his free time, drawings that transcended my limited—perhaps grammatically incorrect—words and pierced to the heart of their creator.

*Name has been changed

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