The Art of Art Therapy

March 5, 2010

Healing images for cancer patients

By Jennifer Cox

Although art therapy has been a discipline practiced by many professionals for decades, only recently has it become a “recognized” method of therapy. In fact, Concordia University in Montreal is the only school in the country to offer full professional, master’s level training in creative arts therapies.

Art therapy can be used to assist in treating a wide range of illnesses, from eating disorders to depression as well as those affected by cancer. Programs like the Montreal Jewish General’s Hope & Cope offers psychosocial support for cancer survivors, their families and friends, in part using art therapy. With counselling and self-help groups, they provide a variety of resources, with everything from nutrition classes, workshops that teach coping skills, a complete library, as well as several creative arts’ classes including open art, journaling, and beading.

Dr. Josee Leclerc is an art therapist who has had a private practice for 20 years, and she is also an Associate Professor and Graduate Director of the Art Therapy Program within the Department of Creative Arts Therapies at Concordia. She has a Masters in Art Therapy and a PhD in Humanities. “Art therapy really allows for an expression that words would not,” Dr. Leclerc explains. “The goal is to allow for emotions that are too difficult to put into works, or to use the image as a mirror or a witness of what the person is feeling, experiencing, or going through.”

This is particularly effective in helping those battling or recently recovering from cancer. “With cancer, the image could be used in a way to express painful emotion of this traumatic experience,” she continues. “It also appeals to the healthy side of the person or the creative side of the person – there are a lot of depressive feelings that could come with such an illness, like anxiety, fear of death, fear of leaving loved ones behind, [and art therapy] allows for expression and fosters creativity.”

Deborah Theriault in Moncton, New Brunswick is also an art therapist, however she involved cancer patients in a quilting project. “The Cancer Society provided settings in each major city in NB, and I went and did quilt projects for each city,” she says. “I had cancer survivors from age 4 to 85. The participants would [then] bring their families and friends to view the completed quilts. [This form of] therapy gave them an avenue that changed their focus and spiritually took them away from their hospital beds and away from their sickness.”

Her approach was straightforward enough – she asked the patients what they were most thankful for, and then had them paint an image on an 11×18 swatch of canvas fabric. “Sometimes the patient hadn’t been out of bed for weeks, and they sat up and started to paint. One patient took five three-hour sessions to do his art piece. The patients did the artwork and I did the sewing and assembly work. The artwork calmed the patients, and while they painted, they didn’t ask the nurses for pain medication. Many of the patients were long-term, and 11 of the 12 participants didn’t survive. The quilt is [now] a testimonial for their families.”

Despite the fact it isn’t universally recognized as a form of treatment (Theriault had to apply for research standing in order to conduct her work in New Brunswick hospitals), creative art therapy, in its many forms, is certainly gaining clout as a great alternative way of rehabilitating cancer patients. “The image is a fabulous ally – if we believe it’s a reflection of the inner person or the traumatic experience, the image speaks to the client, or the client sees in the image a part of himself or herself,” Dr. Leclerc says.

For more information on art therapy facilities in your area, visit the Canadian Art Therapy Association’s website.

About the Author: Jennifer Cox is a freelance journalist based in Montreal. She also volunteers several days a week at a Montreal senior’s residence.

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