Expressive Arts for Healing and Growth


What is “expressive arts?”  How does it help?  Why does it help?  Doesn’t it work best with artists?   Expressive arts are mainly for kids, right?


As a counselor and teacher, working in a variety of environments, these are the common questions I encounter about my work.  I work in a middle school.  I see clients in my private practice.  I direct a training program for helping professionals.  In all of these arenas, the arts become a vehicle for helping individuals and groups create more satisfying and healthful lives, the arts become 1000 lumen brightest head torch in the world in people’s life.

Expressive arts is the use of drawing, writing, poetry, painting, movement, clay, collage, music and theatre for the purposes of growth and healing.  Through the arts we learn to be creators in our lives, not just on canvas or the dance floor.


Through the arts we have an opportunity to build resources.  A mature woman in her late sixties,  writes the stories of her life and organizes a lifetime of photographs, which later become a slide show, a multi-media celebration to play at her 70th birthday party for friends and family.    A man hoping for a new career collages a poster of images, choosing those images that represent the new life he is in the process of creating. He begins to notice those elements showing up in his life.


When a college campus begins to groan under the strain of racial tension, the student government association creates a series of open microphone evenings where students can come to share music and poetry.  Students begin to have musical jam sessions afterwards and through improvisation, musical cultures are blended to create a new musical form.

Through the arts we create new perspectives.  Middle school students draw pictures of their class as an expression of how they see the social groups.  These drawings become the basis for poetry writing and play-writing. Through the arts students become more sensitized to the feelings and needs of others.   An elementary teacher uses dancing to teach students to add, subtract, multiply and divide. Students have a body experience of math and they remember what it means to put two students and 4 students into two groups of three.  Math becomes kinesthetic.


Through the arts we develop coping skills. A young woman struggling with depression takes a yoga class and later begins to create dances that express some of her ambivalence about her family.  Over time, she gains clarity, which catalyzes her to begin some important dialogues with her father.


A young man exploring relationships uses dance and movement work, in the company of others, to explore partnering and dancing alone.  A young mother uses journaling and poetry as a way to give expression to the multitude of feelings accompanying her divorce and her new status as a single parent.


Through the arts we develop the mind-body-spirit connection.  Faculty and staff at a school create a mural in the front hallway, which expresses the mission statement of the school and contains the handiwork of all the faculty and staff. The mural serves as a welcome for students and a touchstone for faculty to return to for encouragement and inspiration.  A grieving father begins to carve a set of wooden animals for the child who will never see them and later finds himself donating them to patients in a children’s ward at a local hospital.

Through the arts we identify and express our emotions.  We digest life’s experiences and transform them into something new, some new form, some new way of moving through the world.  As our emotional resiliency increases we are capable of greater awareness and sensitivity. We develop a greater sense of compassion for ourselves and learn compassion for others.


When we work and play in the arts, we are cultivating an artists “sensibility,” (sense-ability, the ability to use our senses).  We become more open and “sensitized” to beauty and to joy and we have more resources for coping with our sorrow.  We develop more confidence as we develop a greater range of response to our lives and develop a greater capacity for self-expression.


We live in an information age, where the stimuli of constant information and images bombard us.  Even the basic routines of living become more complex now as our lives speed up and the rate of change in the world around us accelerates.    Systems that used to work, don’t work anymore. Ideas that used to make sense don’t make sense any more.  The speed and intensity of “daily life” in this world is changing and the rules are changing with it.  How do we learn to adapt to the demands of this time?


As we learn to create a piece of art, we learn a process for change and rejuvenation.  As we learn to make a dance or draw a picture, we can increase our ability to work with clay, to write, to sing, to paint for each artistic form contains the skills and sensitivity that can transfer to other art forms.  These same resources and strengths can also be applied to creating our lives.

Expressive arts is a resource-based model.  We do not focus on problem-solving.  We use the creative process as a stimulus for change and renewal.  We learn a model for working with the tension between what is and what we dream of, the tension of being in the unknown.  We learn to use the tension of the creative transformative process as a catalyst for launching a next step.  We learn how to create options for ourselves, we learn to be proactive instead of reactive.  We have the resilience to take risks and to recover from losses.  We learn to start over again, or keep going, or let go.  As we learn how to be the creative force in our own lives, we often outgrow old patterns or find new solutions to old problems.


Expressive arts are not just for artists and are definitely not just for kids, although children and young people respond to this model enthusiastically.   We all have the ability to be creative, to be artists.  Most of us have not had enough opportunities to find our own creative niche.  There are numerous avenues for creative expression and they correspond to our inherent strengths, interests and personalities.  In expressive arts we get to explore numerous artistic outlets.  Working in a medium where we have skill can teach us to develop further mastery, to move into more refined levels of expression.  Working in a modality where we have no skill, we meet our own vulnerability and come into contact with the raw materials of emotion and intuition.  We learn how to learn. We learn how to listen.  We learn how to “follow our gut,” to trust, move one step at a time.


Now, more than any other time in history, we must learn to see beyond what is to what could be.  Through the arts we cultivate hope.  We must learn to create beauty and to notice it and let it heal us.  We must learn to build a relationship between our emotional and spiritual and intellectual selves.  We must foster resiliency and cultivate sources for renewal and joy.  As humans, art-making is part of our natural inheritance. May we use this inheritance wisely to create more satisfying lives for ourselves and our communities, ultimately for our world.


Terri Chester

September, 2003

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