Art and Expressivity

This week we are pleased to featured an interview by Dr Giselle Roberts with Dr Patricia Fenner.  Featured in the most recent SHE Review, this interview explores the power of expressivity with particular reference to recent work undertaken by Dr Fenner in a two-week art therapy program at the Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, Malaysia.


A picture is worth a thousand words, or so they say. After meeting art therapist, Dr Patricia Fenner, it’s hard not to be thoroughly inspired by that idea, or the transformative power of art to express the most profound, and difficult, aspects of the human condition.

For mental health patients, dementia sufferers, the marginalised, aged, abused and traumatised, art therapy can reduce medication needs, improve personal and social skills, and lead to greater effectiveness in healthcare delivery. “One study recently found that you only need to engage with art for 45 minutes to reduce cortisol levels,” said Fenner, “and having done so induces the desire to continue.”

Patricia Fenner is leading the creative charge: she’s a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology and Public Health, course co-ordinator of La Trobe’s pre-eminent Master of Art Therapy, and an expert on the role of art making and art therapy in mental health recovery.

Creative intervention


GISELLE ROBERTS: Study after study confirms that art therapy has huge benefits for health and wellbeing. Where did this discipline come from?
PATRICIA FENNER: Art therapy emerged as a way to treat combat-affected soldiers in the wake of World War Two. They were suffering what we know of today as post-traumatic stress disorder: they came back in a bad state, they were hospitalised, and no one knew what to do with them. A British artist, Adrian Hill, who was unwell himself, had started working with art in hospitals. From this impetus, doctors and psychiatrists recognised the potential for using art to help the ‘shell-shocked’ veterans, and theories started to develop about the benefits of art making. Initially, art therapy focused on the visual, which is what we specialise in at La Trobe. Today, arts therapies encompass other expressive modalities including music, dance and movement, and drama.

GR: How prevalent is it in Australia?

PF: Increasingly prevalent. Art therapy was initially seen as a mental health intervention, and it still is. Within the mental health sector, our private psychiatric hospitals and many public hospitals have art therapists. But over the last ten years, the profession has broadened considerably. Art therapy is part of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, because it is ideal for people with disabilities. Our graduates have found employment at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre, in palliative care, and school counselling services, where communication is significantly enhanced by having art involved. Art therapy is also used to support communities after traumatic events like bushfires. In these situations, group activities using arts modalities bring about a sense of belonging and empowerment, help with psychological and emotional rebuilding, and reduce stress.


Finding meaning

GR: Clearly, there’s a lot more to art therapy than just making art. What’s involved?

PF: Art therapy is making art under particular kinds of conditions and in a particular kind of relationship. At La Trobe, we adopt a person-centred approach, which focuses on helping the individual find their own meaning by expressing emotion though non-verbal means. Sometimes it is to help someone to live, to support that person to find ways to make life meaningful. That is a very serious contract. We are not interested in the beauty or aesthetics of the final piece. Unlocking expressivity in the client is at the heart of what we do.

GR: Then there are the meditative-like benefits that come with art making – that feeling of being fully in the moment, but being lost in it too.

PF: Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes that feeling as flow, where the individual is completely absorbed in the creative process, and finding pleasure and meaning in it too. Our students get taught about that and how to support facilitating such experiences with our clients.

GR: And even observing art can have therapeutic benefits.

PF: Studies show that if one looks with intention and follows, for example, the sense of where a brush stroke has gone in a painting, something happens in the brain that replicates that experience. So there is an empathic response to the process of viewing. Galleries are also increasingly being used by art therapists to help people with dementia. They provide a way for people to identify with their own experiences, expanding conversations that have been reduced by an overall decline in memory and behaviour.

Visual roadmaps

GR: You have just returned from Malaysia, where you were working with a group of divorced women in a very traditional Muslim setting. What was that like?

PF: It was deeply moving. It was a two-week art therapy program undertaken in collaboration with colleagues at the Universiti Malaysia Terengganu. The group of women we worked with had become divorced for various reasons. Some had left marriages where the husband was heavily involved in the drug trade, others had left when their husband took another wife. In all cases, divorce left them marginalised and with very little support. These women didn’t have mental health issues. Their major issues were loss and grief. Through our program, the women were able to reflect on their emotional experiences, identify their strengths, and the support structures available to help them.


GR: What was the nature of the intervention?

PF: In the sessions we worked with a variety of themes including deeply emotional work and also the more cognitive tree-of-life metaphor to explore individual and social support structures. Later we worked on their aspirations. Suddenly the women could see their lives before them. Anchoring their stories in visual metaphor had a different effect from just talking about it abstractly. They saw their lives represented visually, which created a different kind of understanding and remembering.

GR: And the art helped transcend the language and cultural differences?
PF: I am yet to receive the transcripts, but I believe it did. I received expressions of great appreciation and even love. I always go with humility, knowing that I am very much the learner in this. Wherever possible, I use traditional art forms and materials. In this case, the capacity to connect with these women through meaningful work was profound. I was changed by that. I sit here in my office and I teach students about working in a culturally responsive way. But when you find yourself as an outsider in a culture that is so comfortable with itself, and doesn’t question itself, it’s moving. To make art, to see other people’s art, and to be able to share experiences and stories through images is phenomenal. People just have to feel comfortable enough to experiment.


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