Art therapist Colleen Steiner Westling talks about the power of art therapy for
The London Art Therapy Centre is situated in a cosy house at the top of Archway’s Bickerton Road. Behind the petite front-garden so much colour is hidden in the privacy of a centre where psychotherapy, counselling, psychology and eye-movement desensitisation and reprogramming (EMDR) therapy are provided by a team of registered art therapists. Less-Stress London met with Colleen Steiner Westling, co-ordinator and one of the centre’s most popular therapists.
Colleen comes from a background in toy design, where she always sensed that her skill-set might eventually offer a deeper purpose. As a Goldsmiths graduate with an MA in Art Psychotherapy, she decided to change careers whilst working for a non-profit organisation providing art instruction to adults with learning disabilities. There, she began to understand the potential that art has to open up through creative expression, and the power of the individual experience from simply using art materials.
“Just like snowflakes, no two art pieces are alike, and no two people are alike,” she says. “If we take the time to pay attention to someone’s expression and listen, we might learn something about someone else, and we might also learn something about ourselves. Art therapy allows a deeper communication between human beings.”
Colleen explains that art therapy is rooted in the psychoanalysis of a person’s past and their relationship to themselves and others, and their life experience as well.
“Art therapy provides the play,” she says. It’s an opportunity to free something up, she says, as there is no need for coherent thoughts or sentences. Participants can experience a raw feeling first and make sense of it later. Creating art is a direct way to express oneself non-verbally. As Colleen points out, “many of us don’t necessarily know exactly how we feel until we’re able to move away from our experience of the world”.
“There, in that moment, when the art materials meet the paper or the hands meet the clay, we come to a sort of edge. We can understand this edge as a surface where the earth and the body and water meet.”
Creating art connects the body and mind, enabling people to express their inner selves and communicate their most profound thoughts and feelings to others
There is a strong scientific base to art therapy. Neuroscience demonstrates the benefit of using art as a means of mentally processing in a non-verbally way. It allows us to go to a calm place where memories may express themselves in a different way.
“Every time we use our hands, we are using our motor cortex and deepening our brain and body connection. We might still be verbalising, but down here something else has started to happen. We are simultaneously expressing ourselves in a more sensory way and allowing a different kind of experience; it is a mind-body practice.
“If we look at the cortical homunculus in the brain, it is a physical representation of the human body – basically the map of the body our brain reads. We have a tremendous amount of body sense in our hands. Of course we experience the world through smell, sight, sound and taste, but touch is a really big one.”
She believes the art-making process itself has a benefit in terms of being in the moment, taking risks, having a go at something.
Art doesn’t have to be beautiful, or liked, in order to be made. Art is a vehicle to express the self and communicate
Art therapy can offer a unique opportunity for positive change when combined with other therapeutic practices. It’s also a form of expression well suited to people in rehab recovery or those who have been institutionalised, through prison for example. There are many charities and pilot programmes in institutional settings using art therapy as part of a healing programme.
It has also been used quite successfully with some cancer patients, encouraging them to externalise feelings about what they are going through, as well as providing a positive, creative experience.
“We are all children from a neurological perspective. The developing mind is different from the adult brain, but we know that the brain is always evolving; it’s never fixed. It just might take a little more work.”
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