Let me start by saying I am not (currently) a qualified ‘Art Therapist’.  I am an artist with a passion for exploring the many ways that creativity can benefit us all. I love art’s inclusivity and this is never more clear to me than on a Friday, when I am ‘Art Leader’ at Friday Club, a drama and art workshop for adults with disabilities.

When it comes to ‘art as therapy’, there is always the danger that it is undervalued, dismissed as an extravagant ‘colouring session’ with no clear purpose or measurable outcome.  It is my personal experience that nothing could be farther from the truth; and certainly not when the professionals running these sessions have the passion and necessary skills to enrich the lives of those they are privileged to support.

Take this butterfly…

This simple butterfly drawing, provided a valuable opportunity, for focused 1-2-1 support of someone with profound and multiple learning disabilities.

Bobby, who is also wheelchair bound and in need of residential nursing support, was free to choose whether he would like to participate in this activity with me.  He responded in the positive, our time together was mutually enjoyable and I firmly believe, beneficial to Bobby’s emotional wellbeing.

Upon meeting Bobby you would be forgiven for initially thinking that he is a detached ‘spectator’; non-verbal, presenting a high level of disability and unable to take care of his own needs. However, you do not need to be in his company very long, to discover just how very wrong you are. Bobby is very much in-tune with what is going on around him, with what he does and doesn’t need/like/tolerate! Add a delightful sense of humour, high fives, belly laughs and cheeky glint in his eye – oh yes, Bobby is very aware of, and responsive to, those who choose to interact with him.

So back to the butterfly… I positioned the print-out with a tub of crayons, in-front of Bobby at the art table. All members are given choices during this session, offering them every opportunity to decline participation and/or express preferences.

Bobby did not pick up a crayon, despite initially seeming pleased about the activity.

“Bobby, are you going to colour this butterfly for me?” Bobby laughs, and makes a sound as he leans and points repeatedly at my arm, punctuated each time with the same sound.  From our previous sessions, I already know that this means “I would prefer to direct you”

Mock eye-rolling and protests from me, lead to more laughter on Bobby’s part.  The banter has begun!

I offer Bobby the tub of colours, he chooses one and puts it in my hand, then he points to the exact place on the butterfly he would like me to colour.

On this point; consider the picture I’ve included, note the alternating pattern of the butterfly’s body and the wings, and bear in mind that Bobby has made every single choice with no guidance or influence from me whatsoever.

When I colour in long rapid strokes along the wings, Bobby does the movement with me, making eye contact each time and animated sounds, with a big smile on his face. It is as if he is the puppeteer, in control of my movements – and this feels meaningful. I believe it is meaningful. Bobby is ‘in charge’-  his laughter and smiles indicate that he is enjoying this.

At the completion of each section, I put down the crayon and declare dramatically “I’m finished!”

I leave a pause… I wait… the smile creeps across Bobby’s face… he then points alternately at the next section on the drawing and me, he nods, rocks, laughs. My exaggerated groans “What…more?! Oh ok then!” elicit laughter and clapping each time.

This is repeated until the butterfly really is finished. Then there is high-fiving, lots of clapping and animated rocking with gleeful sounds from Bobby. I would go so far as to call this a triumphant celebration of our co-creating!  Bobby concludes with moving his picture very carefully on top of someone else’s which is next to us, looking at me with raised eye-brows, to say ‘that’s mine all done”.

What did Bobby gain from this? How did it serve his wellbeing?  Was it just ‘entertainment’, or did we connect on a more meaningful level with positive, lasting impact?

I strongly believe it is the latter and that some of the benefits of these sessions are:

  • Making choices – everyone is invited to participate but it is made clear that it is their choice, with regular participation; members grow in confidence when it comes to expressing their wishes. This outcome builds self-esteem and is empowering.
  • Socialising – during art everyone can relax, it offers an opportunity to interact and enjoy each other’s company as we engage with creative activities. Friendships form and social skills are able to develop in a supported, safe environment.
  • Mindfulness – there are opportunities for quiet, focused creativity.
  • Sense of ownership & achievement – projects are largely centred on the props and scenery for our production. This provides both purpose and relevance, our members are always visibly proud of what they create for their performance.
  • Team work – there are times when we will have 3 or 4 people working as a team on the same prop. Or we will all make a small contribution for the same piece of scenery. The encouragement of one another during these projects never ceases to impress upon us that our members have great respect for each another.
  • Individual Targets – we can use this time to work with individual members on specific areas of development.
  • Fun! Activities are varied and they are fun. Stimulating our imaginations and exploring new methods of creativity, we can express ourselves in new, fun ways.

As an artist on a mission to share the benefits of creativity to reach improved wellbeing, the impact of these weekly sessions, on me personally, are manifold.

I can arrive each week, confident in the knowledge that my day will inspire me as an artist, it will evidence for me yet again that art is a path to numerous positive experiences.

This article was written by Rebecca Bush