Sometimes there are no words, sometimes there is only art

Photo by Madelayne Hajek
Photo by Madelayne Hajek

Before speech, humans communicated through symbols, drawings, and their body movements.

However in this age of words, there is still a lot that can be gained from our previous methods of communicating.

Drawing, using our bodies and making sounds are tools that are useful in expressing what we can’t or don’t know how to express verbally.

These tools are especially useful in therapeutic settings and are employed by creative arts therapists to help patients express their needs, resolve issues or come to terms with trauma.

Therapists can use a number of different media in their sessions, including art, music, drama, and dance. In the case of art therapy, the client is invited to create something in front of the therapist. The therapist and client will look over the image together and reflect on what they have created.

As an image speaks louder than words, it is sometimes easier for people to express their inner world through art. The art created by the client is an opening for dialogue and in some cases, such as traumatic experiences, the issue can be worked out through symbolically using what the client has drawn or painted.

“I’m really into abstract impressionist [art], so I just take the paints and try to blend all the different colors and after I’m done doing that [my therapist] looks at my artwork and says, Rachel* is this what you’re feeling inside?” says Rachel, an art therapy client at CSSS Cavendish.

There is no dictionary of symbols in art therapy, what a person draws is symbolically significant to them and therefore only has meaning in relation to that particular individual.

“The art is a way for them to symbolically explore their issues. After that, we look at the images and see if we can find a solution,” explains Julia L. Olivier, art therapist and president of Expression LaSalle.

Most of the people who take part in art therapy at Expression Lasalle are people who have had to deal with trauma and things that they are ashamed to talk about. It is much easier for them to express it through art or by acting it out with theatre.

“At first, patients will come in contact with a lot of emotions, like anxiety, but after awhile they will feel joy, and remember what is was like to do art when they were children,” says Sarah Brodie, an art therapist at the Montreal Therapy Centre. “You can make links between the shapes on the page and your inner world…it all leads to who we are and where we want to be.”

Sometimes, art therapy can help people discover passions they never would have discovered ordinarily. For example, Olivier had a patient who was a single mother of three children and was dealing with the fact that they were growing up. She had to find out who she was as a person, as an adult without children. Her artwork was filled with jewelry, so Olivier suggested that she should try taking a jewelry-making class.

With drama therapy, patients must act and watch others act in order to solve their problems. This technique, like art therapy, is great for people who have suffered traumas, as well as people who have trouble understanding the problems they are living with; they can understand it better by seeing other people act it out, or by acting it out themselves.

“With drama therapy, you can act out memories or fantasies, and this helps you better understand them,” says Brodie.

Patients will often set goals for themselves on their first session. This becomes the theme that they will explore during their individual or group sessions.

“We try to work on a series of goals that we need to overcome in three years time. So I have three goals that I need to overcome in the next three years. So every week we try to work towards that,” says Rachel. “One of my goals is to be more comfortable in my own skin, another one is to stop being overly stressed.”

According the Canadian Association for Music Therapy: “Music therapy is the skillful use of music and musical elements by an accredited music therapist to promote, maintain, and restore mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Music has nonverbal, creative, structural, and emotional qualities. These are used in the therapeutic relationship to facilitate contact, interaction, self-awareness, learning, self-expression, communication, and personal development.”

Music therapists work mostly with children with special needs or developmental disabilities, hospitals’ patients, and elderly populations. They also work with people who are in comas, or premature babies.

“We once had a little boy who spoke in gibberish. With music therapy he was able to make words by following the rhythm, he started saying short sentences, to say his name,” explains Guylaine Vaillancourt, assistant professor of music therapy at Concordia. Music therapy allowed the little boy to make friends, and Vaillancourt even noticed a change in the boy’s mother, who seemed to realize that her boy was smart.

Vaillancourt told another story of a patient in palliative care who was very tense and who was dealing with a lot of pain. She also had trouble talking about her disease. Vaillancourt played songs that she chose on the piano, songs that meant a lot to her. With the use of instruments and song, the patient became much calmer, and even felt less pain and slept more soundly.

With premature babies, music therapists use techniques like recording the mother’s voice and playing it to the baby. They may also record the mother’s heartbeat and play soft, soothing music for the baby. By playing these sounds, the baby is helped to feel more secure while in the incubator, and this helps the baby gain weight much faster, according to Vaillancourt.

Words are a difficult mode of communication, we can’t always find the right ones to express how we’re feeling, but with the tools used in creative arts therapies there is another avenue to which we can turn.

*The name has been changed due to the personal nature of the topic.

Expression Lasalle is located at 405 Terrasse Newman. The CSSS is part of the CLSC’s network of mental health services, for more information visit

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