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Lesson 8

Art and Emotional Healing (Interview with Alyee Willets)

Lesson 8 Art and Emotional Healing (Interview with Alyee Willets)
Art and Emotional Healing (Interview with Alyee Willets) Art ministers can help people re-frame the way

Art ministers can help people re-frame the way they experience their life.

This lesson addresses the link between art and healing that occurs between an art minister and those they serve.

You’re probably heard the common assertion that significant emotional release occurs during creative endeav- ors. Is this reputation valid, or just hopeful thinking on the part of artists? In this week’s lesson we will more closely examine the link between art and emotional healing.

Before trying to helpl others: Examine your own emotions first. It’s a bit like putting on your own oxygen mask first in an airplaine so you can think clearly to help others. The intentional practice of feeling teaches us to become more sensitive to the emotions of others. In addition, knowing our own tendencies (self-awareness) will reduce the effect of countertransference—the risk of misplacing your own emotions onto the person you wish to help while not recongnizing or addressing your own pain, dysfunctions, or areas that need healing.

We will now move into our own emotions and art experiences. The two questions below are FOR YOUR OWN USE, not to share or to turn in. Please pray and then answer the following two questions in writing:

1. Have you ever used the arts or writing to express or process pain, either emotional or physical? What did you

do? How did you feel? Who were you with? Describe it briefly, either here or in your journal (not to share):

2. Is there anywhere you think art ‘just cannot go’? Why or why not? Be honest. (Not to share, just for you.)

Please read the paper on the following two pages, What Does Psychology Say about Art and Healing?

Lesson 8

Art and Emotional Healing (Interview with Alyee Willets)

Lesson 8 Art and Emotional Healing (Interview with Alyee Willets)

What Does Psychology Say about Art and Healing?

By Alyee Willets, 2015 with Jessie Nilo

Serving people who create artwork requires a heightened awareness of emotions and the various causes of emotions, as well as the awareness that emotions may be raw or subconscious to the artist themselves.

If you’re called to help others process their emotions through the arts, or if you wish to train others in doing

so, you will minister more effectively if each of you first asks yourself what emotions you feel when looking at

a given piece of art. Along with prayer and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, cultivating deliberate self-awareness

will give you, as a servant, a ‘gut-instinct’ about the emotions of the person who created the work. It will also give you a potential starting point for responding to the originator of the artwork, including questions you might be led to ask the artist. Be especially aware of any triggers or biases you may have yourself, and make sure to stay out of the way when helping others navigate through their own sensitive, meaningful situations.

According to psychological researchers F. Thompson and J. Allan (1987), art often reflects the unconscious mind and emotional experiences, as well as a person’s inner needs and wishes. A piece of art can be thought of as a mirror, reflecting the emotions held by the artist. Symbols or shading techniques can represent much more than what meets the eye, regardless of an artist’s ability or willingness to verbalize a deeper meaning.

Consider this kind of visual connecting point a holy moment, a God-opportunity in which ministry can occur. Identifying, observing, admiring, and/or discussing artistic symbols or techniques out loud with an artist can make room for a deeper conversation to occur that may not have taken place had the artwork itself not been present. In this way, art acts as bridge between two strangers, forming a common ground that transcends limitations of solely verbal language.

Because there are so many ways for emotions and experiences to be expressed in art, it can be very helpful to examine the content itself—but only if the artist is very open to discussing the image in detail. Furth (1988) recommends that ministers look for what is odd or missing from the image as a conversation point. Also pay attention to attributes such as size, proportions, shape distortion, repeated objects, perspective, emphasis, shading, and colors chosen. Although artists may not be aware of it, often times these choices are made sub- consciously and may connect to a deeper memory or meaning than what is actually portrayed on the image.

Much more important than the interpretation of symbols or colors, however, is a minister’s awareness of the artist. The person made in God’s image remains our primary concern, and it behooves us all to remember that artwork is often misinterpreted, no matter how much experience we may have!

Keep observations factual, not leading: “I see that you painted the sky yellow” is an open door the artist can choose to walk through or not. Craft open-ended questions while paying close attention to the artist’s present emotions. Avoid guessing at what objects are supposed to be, possible representations, or the meaning of visual imagery. A misguided “guess” can often hurt the artist more than no comment at all.

It’s also important not to generalize what you may perceive to be a “universal” symbol in a person’ts artwork. Instead, ask the artist what the symbol means to them. A skull may symbolize death in one culture or back- ground, and life or holiness in another.

Lesson 8

Art and Emotional Healing (Interview with Alyee Willets)

Lesson 8 Art and Emotional Healing (Interview with Alyee Willets)

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Awareness of the artist means being perceptive of the artist’s body language during the creation of their art:

Is the person frantically painting, portraying anger or frustration? Are they painting the same spot over and over again while their eyes brim with tears? Do they appear nervous, afraid, or discouraged?

It’s common for someone who is attempting art for the first time (or after a long absence) to shake uncontrol- lably or cry in confronting their art materials. Pray silently for them. If it seems likely they’ll be receptive, you might ask permission to offer a gentle (and very short) prayer audibly, which you’ll say while keeping your eyes open and alert. Be ready to gently usher the person through this painful process, even if it means just sitting with the art supplies if that’s all they can manage in this attempt. Simply be available, pray silently, and give the situation to God. You can suggest, but never pressure or force a person to make art, especially if they feel overwhelmed or panicked, and especially if you are not certified in art therapy.

(NOTE: Do not call any interactions “therapy” unless they are led are a certified therapist. Instead, you can word your invitations using other phrases that convey hope, emotional healing, renewal, expression, etc.)

It’s important to give people optional opportunities to express how they felt and to explain their creations if they wish, above all else (Thompson and Allan, 1987). And because artists may not be ready or willing to describe how they felt when creating a piece, ministers need to remember that artists themselves should drive these interactions. Pushing an artist too far too fast can be detrimental and leave the artist feeling raw and exposed, without proper resources or follow-up provided. Be slow to speak, quick to listen, and trust the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Remember to keep this about THEM. Do not interrupt with your own story!

Finally, please remember that you are nobody’s Savior. It is not your job to heal. Remember Who you’re working for. Offer a pathway and let others approach potential healing in their own timing, by their own free will. More than the love of people, let the love of Christ be your central motivation, because 1) there will be difficult days and 2) you cannot “fix” people. Even Christ could have, but did not, heal every person who lived in the land where He walked. People can easily frustrate and perplex us while we’re diligently serving them. If you keep the Lord as your central motive to serve, people will never be able to disappoint you.

Think of some ways for people around you to respond to and interact with their emotions through the arts. You can be a firsthand witness to the ultimate beauty of life transformations. Even better, you’ll get to love peo- ple who need God’s healing presence, and then watch God move. We pray the people you serve will experience not only the emotional healing they need, but the Lord Himself— and we pray they’ll long for more intimacy with the only One who loves them perfectly.


Furth, G. M. (1988). The Secret World of Drawings: Healing through Art. Boston: Sigo Press.

Stuckey, H. L., & Nobel, J. (2010). The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: Review of Current Litera- ture. American Journal of Public Health, 100(2), 254.

Thompson, F., & Allan, J. (1987). Common Symbols of Children in Art Counseling. Guidance & Counselling, 2, 24-32