Using Visual Art to Express What Can’t be Spoken

The singular focus of drawing and meditating, in the quiet of my home, cultivated a connection with something intuitive and creative that surpassed the physical realm of bodily sensations.” –Lisa Katharina

Trauma and its ripple effects affect everyone, teachers and students alike. Dr. Francine Shapiro is a pioneering therapist who defines trauma as “any event that has a lasting negative effect on the self.” Though our experiences differ, often the feelings and “lasting negative effects” housed in the body are similar. Often, the impact of traumatic events are felt so deeply that the experience is entirely beyond words. 

Engaging in visual arts activities like drawing, doodling, sculpting, textile work, watercolor, and collage, is inherently a mindful exercise. Art making enables the body to process and reintegrate traumatic experiences, encourages the development of new neural pathways, creates lasting healing, and markedly alleviates the physiological stress manifestations of trauma. Visual art exercises more fully engage creative processes, stimulate the senses, and activate the physical body. Visual artworks also provide a concrete image to look at, study, and reflect back on over time, helping us tap into unconscious thoughts and revealing details of ourselves that we might not have seen or understood in any other way.

Time spent in engaging in the visual arts uses imagery, and memories as the basis of expression, instead of language: often, expressing and processing trauma-sensitive experiences are beyond the scope of language. Dr. van der Kolk, a world-renowned expert on trauma healing and the author of The Body Keeps the Score, explains that the “creative arts provide a unique opportunity for traumatized individuals to non-verbally express emotions related to the event.”

To understand the benefits of visual arts, take a look at the body. When we experience trauma, the limbic system of our brains, or the center responsible for emotional regulation and memory making, are flooded with the stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. The overload of these hormones shuts down the higher-level reasoning and language centers in the brain and creates disorganization. Our bodies carry the physically imprinted memories of these traumas. Mindfulness and relaxation created while participating in visual arts can reduce the stress of these corporeal effects.

How can teachers provide mindful, trauma-sensitive instruction in the visual arts?

These grounding visual arts activities are designed to integrate neurophysiology, support hand-eye coordination, encourage mindful awareness, and facilitate a safe space for breathing and calm, as well as a positive focus on the body-mind connection. Teachers and students alike can practice these activities during classroom brain breaks, assign one or more as a homework assignment, or encourage remote-learning students to choose one or two to practice at home. 

A sample of these activities can be found in the Pencil Play section of the Advancing Arts Leadership website.

  1. Blind Contour: Close your eyes and ground yourself by bringing awareness to your breath for a moment. Open your eyes and draw your hand – palm side up. Make a continuous line without lifting your pencil. Keep your focus on the object being drawn and trace the image onto paper. Next, try drawing your hand in the same manner, palm side down. Notice feelings and sensations as they arise in your body as you draw.
  2. Lazy Eights: Trace the figure of an infinity sign, (the number eight laying on its side).  Go around and around with a smooth, easy glide, visually tracking the movement. Relax and practice holding your writing utensil with ease and comfort and notice the texture of the paper. Use both your right and left hand. Lazy eights can also be drawn in the air with the eyes visually tracking the movement. Use each hand individually then both hands together. ©Brain Gym by Gail and Paul Dennison
  1. Draw Your Safe Space: Imagine a bubble of safety surrounding you and/or your students. Who is with you? What colors can you see? Is it inside or outside? Illustrate the space. What music can you hear?
  2. Double Doodles: Use a writing utensil in each hand. Simultaneously draw doodles, creating mirror images across the center line of the body. Practice holding the writing instrument with ease and feel the texture of the paper. You can write with your finger in the air, or touching a wall, or floor. You can even try it lying on your back and writing with your toes in the air. ©Brain Gym by Gail and Paul Dennison
  1. Alternate Hands: Use one hand when drawing or tracing a simple shape, then use the other. This practice integrates neurophysiology on both sides of the brain/body.
  2. Color a Mandala: Research suggests that coloring a mandala pattern is more effective in reducing physiological stress and creating calm than other visual arts activities.
  3. Visualization: Form mental visual images, realistic or imaginary of an artistic product, desired behavior, or an image in a story being read or told. This activity nurtures cognitive development, prepares students for reading comprehension, and helps students in being able to visualize real-world problems and solutions.
  4. Molding Clay: According to Dr. Girija Kaimal, Molding clay is a powerful tactile and somatic way to express the emotions that accompany traumatic experiences. The “sense of touch, sense of three-dimensional space, sight, maybe a little bit of sound — all of these are engaged in using several parts of yourself for self-expression.”
  5. Felt Emotions: Lay on a large piece of kraft paper (rolls of paper are available) have a partner trace the outline of your body on it, or trace it yourself the best you can. Identify where on your body you feel your strongest emotions. Glue bunches of tissue paper or use different colored markers to mark those places. Name each one, and write down the physical sensations you experience when those emotions surface. This creates familiarity with your emotions as they surface and resurface, and reduces anxiety.
  6. Attributes: Divide a piece of paper into four equal sections. Think about four positive attributes you want to develop. Illustrate them. This exercise helps the brain create a positive, self-aware vision for the present moment and fosters ownership of our reality and forward movement.

Using the visual arts in a mindful way might make you feel uncomfortable or strange, especially when considering the effects of trauma. The purpose of these exercises is the relaxation that occurs during the process and moments of participating in the visual arts, not in the product created. Research supports the health benefits of mindfully engaging in the visual arts. As educators, coupling these tools can help reduce the “lasting negative effects” of trauma and support the restoration of our bodies and minds to a more resilient, positive place.

This blog post was written by Nora Ballantyne, a BYU ARTS Partnership editor. Nora is a New York native with a passion for pastries, kitchen dance parties, art, and books.


Image credit: www.trauma-informedpractice.com

SOURCES:

Podcast with Dr. van der Kolk: https://www.thetraumatherapistproject.com/podcast/the-body-keeps-the-score/

Effects of trauma on the brain: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181836/

Healing power of art after a brain injury: https://themighty.com/2018/09/art-heal-brain-injury/

How art heals: https://www.healing-power-of-art.org/art-and-the-brain/#:~:text=There%20is%20an%20increasing%20amount,way%20they%20experience%20the%20world.

Summative review of research literature studying how four art forms helped physical and emotional healing: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804629/

What happens in your brain when you make art: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/11/795010044/feeling-artsy-heres-how-making-art-helps-your-brain

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