Georgia Straight article
October 2005 Mind Body and Soul
THE ART OF THERAPY: Sculpt Those Troubles Away
by Jennifer Van Evra
At first glance, the artworks that line the shelves in Marty Levenson’s office look like they were made by little kids. There are small clay figures, some of them painted, some still in their natural grey. Some are clear representations of things or people—one is a rough figure of a man resting in a large armchair; another is an apple core—while others are abstract shapes.

The large table beside the shelves awaits the next artist. Neatly arranged pots of paint sit next to a jar of fresh, clean brushes and a tray of coloured pencils. There’s a stack of wide sheets of blank paper, and a small wooden board and a rolling pin for clay. But chances are the next person to sit at this table will not be a child, because most of the artwork here is created by adults looking for answers through an increasingly popular form of therapy.

“She didn’t know what it was when she was making it,” says Levenson, a registered art therapist in Vancouver, holding up a clay figure that looks like a crown cut in half. “But when you look at it from the back, it looks like a group of people joining together and creating a kind of safety—and it really had to do with giving birth to something new psychologically. This one is neediness,” he explains, gingerly holding a piece that’s shaped like an upright tube, and has two fanglike pieces that jut inward toward the hole. “There’s a lot of hunger there. And she had eating issues too, so that was really interesting.”

A recognized profession since 1940, art therapy is often associated with children, because kids tend to be less capable of expressing complex feelings in words—especially when they have experienced major traumas such as physical or sexual abuse. But the same holds true not only for adults who have trouble talking about their feelings and experiences, but also for those who have done too much talking.

“I find it works with people who are really nonverbal, but it also works with people who are really, really intelligent, and who have maybe done lot of talk therapy, or are just very psychologically oriented and have analyzed themselves,” says Levenson, who does work with children, but whose clientele is mostly adults—roughly half men and half women. “But they’re just so stuck in that groove of the intellectual way of looking at things that to go back to grade school and paint an experience or a relationship or your self-esteem is really different. It can go around all of those filters and judgments and ways of thinking about ourselves that we’ve ingrained.”

According to Levenson—who was a professional visual artist before going into art therapy—one of the biggest misconceptions about the practice is that you need artistic ability to do it. In fact, he says, a highly developed aesthetic sense can actually get in the way, because concerns over the look of the work can interrupt the process. Not surprisingly, those who haven’t practised art since elementary school are often a little self-conscious, he adds. But once they realize they aren’t going to be judged on the work, that fear quickly dissipates.

“I don’t give directives, but I might say, ‘What would it be like to hold a piece of clay while you’re talking about that?’ And often, adults will just kind of doodle while they talk about their histories or their issues, and then be surprised at what’s happening,” notes Levenson, who also works extensively with his clients’ dreams. “They’re talking about one thing, but their hands are doing something different, and an object will apparently come out of nowhere.” Because most people aren’t used to making art, he adds, it gives them an unconventional route into their psyches. “I think it’s a place where you kind of chew up your experience and make it digestible… I think talk [therapy] can do that too, but working with images does it very differently. It’s like another language—and there is always the unconscious component that keeps it really lively and surprising.”

One of Levenson’s clients is a Vancouver marketing executive who got a certificate for a session as a Christmas gift. The giver wasn’t implying that she needed therapy, jokes the client, who prefers to remain unnamed; he just thought she might enjoy trying something different and creative. Still, having recently experienced a stillbirth and a separation from her husband, she quickly discovered that the therapy had significant benefits.

“The symbolism that can come out is really amazing, and I think it really cuts through the crap,” says the client. “There is all of this unconscious stuff coming up, so for me it’s very effective, because it really gets to the heart of issues. When you don’t have to put everything into words, there’s another element that reveals itself, and it cuts through barriers.

”Art therapy isn’t necessarily the most appropriate route for everyone, and it’s important to note that many art therapists are not registered psychologists or psychiatrists, who may be better equipped to deal with certain more complex conditions. However, Levenson emphasizes that the practice can be used in conjunction with traditional psychotherapy, as well as with medical treatments such as antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications. He also builds safety measures into his own practice. Although his clients—many of them survivors of sexual abuse—often delve into the darker corners of their lives, he stresses the importance of creating works that represent comfort, safety, and strength in order to prevent people from getting stuck in their pain. And because making the art is about the sometimes difficult process and not about the end result, many clients don’t keep their finished work. But unlike thoughts that are fleeting and ephemeral, the pieces that they do hang on to can have a lasting impact.

“I have some things on my windowsill that are from the therapy I did when I was going to the Vancouver Art Therapy Institute, and their meanings continue to unfold over time. And sometimes, people extend it into ritual. They’ll frame something or put it on a shelf. Or sometimes with things like grief, they’ll take a clay piece and go put it out at low tide,” says Levenson. “Then they’ll sit and watch it dissolve as the tide comes in.”