The thoughts, beliefs, values, and emotions of artists are inescapably represented in their work – and on some occasions, intentionally depicted. Three of the more familiar connections between art and the functions of the mind are the ways in which artists express their own thoughts, feelings, and mental distress in their paintings; the use of art to help individuals with mental disorders; and the occasional emergence of a person with mental illness, untrained as an artist, who proves to have a unique artistic vision.
There are several famous artists throughout the course of art history who have documented psychiatric disorders and who expressed their thoughts and moods through their art. Some of these artists are: Mark Rothko, Edvard Munch, and Bernard Buffet. They each were known to have said that their artwork reflected their depressed mood. Art historians and writers have interpreted the paintings of some artists (including Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, and Jackson Pollock) as showing evidence of various psychotic disorders.
Psychotherapy clients are often at a loss to describe how they feel. The discipline of art therapy is devoted to helping individuals express themselves without the need for language or logic and their lack of artistic skill or training is no barrier to self-expression.
A few individuals with mental disorders have produced works that have gained the attention of artists, art dealers, art historians, collectors, and curators. Jean Dubuffet called their work “Art Brut,” (“rough art,” or “coarse art”). Roger Cardinal later defined a category he called “Outsider Art,” which included Art Brut and also the work of folk artists, primitive artists, and untrained artists without mental illness who were indifferent to the prevailing culture. Outsider artists are not influenced by the formal art world, and are therefore free of the restraining conventions of traditional art.
As a psychotherapist and a trained, professional artist, I am discovering another intersection of art and the mind: artwork produced by the psychotherapist with the emotional experience of the client as the subject. For several years, I have used my studio practice as a time where I can create paintings and drawings that reflect what I felt after leaving one of my own psychotherapy sessions. But recently I have been making paintings that depict the depression, mania, psychosis, and compulsions that my clients experience. These paintings have become valuable to me and have helped provide me with insight into my client’s journey. My initial purpose was to enter into the clients’ world of mental illness to help me understand it better, but now I am hoping to bring the paintings into therapy sessions to show to the client and use them as a springboard for the client further explore their universe.
A basic method of communication, given to us by God, is the ability to make and share images with one another. Whether or not the psychotherapy client creates the work him or herself or if he or she is simply responding to an image in front of them, it is often helpful for the client to direct “stuck” thoughts and feelings onto something outside of the self in order to get past the hurdle that they are facing and to enter into one’s personal experience more deeply.
As I continue on in my work as a therapist, my practice as an artist and my identity as a Christian, I will continue to pursue the use of God given creativity as a method and means of healing in the therapy room.