To be an art therapist is to have the soul of an artist and an interest in transforming inner psychic states. I came to art therapy as an artist who has experienced the incredible healing benefits of making images.
Originally, I trained as an illustrator and later transferred to fine arts. It took me a long time to undo all my formal training and to not hide behind technique. It was due to an experience in one of my ceramics classes with Hannah Wilke, who assessed my end-of-year project. She asked me when I was going to “finally start making art that said something about who I really am.”
The only place I knew where to start was to make images based on my experience in each moment and how it felt through the different sensations of my body. I had to stop “representing” my experience in literal terms and allow the raw sensations to come to form. What I was doing was bringing form to my inner psychic states. Making abstract images became an obsession and the process of making images brought an internal wholeness to me that was much like a spiritual practice. Though it is tempting to try to explain this process, it is difficult to do. There really is almost something magical that happens when the creative process goes beyond a personal experience and becomes a universal connection. This is the closest to what I imagine Jung was describing in regard to the collective unconscious.
The healing that can take place through the creative process is powerful, however the real healing comes when there is someone else who is a witness to this process. When the work is created, it is held symbolically by another and the art becomes a bridge between two people and it becomes possible to connect to parts of yourself that were either unconscious or blocked. At that point, being an artist merges with being a therapist.
Hannah Wilke passed away in 1993 and I remember seeing her show of the most vulnerable and intimate photographs I had ever seen. They showed her naked body in the hospital while she was being treated for cancer. While the exhibit was still up, she died.
Almost 20 years later her words still ring true and the question of when will I stop hiding continues to run through my life in various ways. After art school and during my training as an art therapist, I began to seriously study yoga. It was a new entryway into my body from that of making raw images. I found that it helped me organize my internal states and something about this felt amazing and whole. I gave up making art for many years while studying yoga. I also became a yoga teacher and stopped practicing art therapy. Yoga felt so rebalancing that I didn’t feel the
need to make images. Practicing yoga committedly also strengthened my understanding of psychology because it helped me see how the body holds and expresses our inner states and affect.
After years of practice, repetitive injuries and then an almost crippling anxiety every time I practiced yoga, I needed to reassess what I was doing. I experienced how changing deep patterns on a physical level has the power to change my emotional, mental and psychological self. I experienced how patterns and habits don’t change until we experience another pattern. Resisting the pull of habit brings about consciousness. I also experienced how yoga can be a form of control and how the discipline can also become a form of repression.
In order for me to understand what my repetitive injuries and anxiety were about, I needed go back to being an artist. That symbol and metaphor is the language of the
body. Going back to making images to understand the underlying psychological issues that were keeping my diaphragm locked and my hip aching. It wasn’t enough to just to put my body in various positions to create release. I needed to bring the experiences of anxiety and what my injuries were expressing into an image. What we are doing in art therapy is bringing the inanimate to the animate and then learning how to play with what arises. How this experience is held by another can be the beginning of deep healing especially with people who have experienced trauma. As an art therapist, I use images but creative transformation can come with just the use of words as well. I think this is one of the most interesting challenges of a teacher or therapist.
I have started working with people in my private practice combining yoga and art therapy as a unique form of therapy. Or what I call creative transformation. The field of therapy and its interest in the mind-body connection has exploded in the last few years. Much of the recent brain research shows that therapy has to go to the level of the body in order to effect change. The art of psychotherapy is becoming interdisciplinary in its approach.
In my practice, I help people make deeper connections to what their bodies are expressing and what this reflects about their relationship to life.
Liza Toft is a licensed art therapist and a registered yoga teacher working in private practice.
Thank you Liza for this beautful accounting of your work and your inspirations!