Art therapy workshops encourage self-discovery

BEIRUT: Can the path to self-discovery be as simple as taking up watercolors and an easel? Lebanese art therapist Anita Toutikian believes it can be, and that adults and children alike can benefit psychologically from the simple exercise of creating a collage or a self-portrait.

“In art therapy we try to minimize the cognitive part [of the mind] and try to listen to our body, or emotions,” explains Toutikian, an artist turned clinical psychologist who has fused her two passions into work as an art therapist.

“It can be dance, music, movement, poetry, theater, writing, any kind of expression that leads us to identify what we feel. That can guide us to make better decisions and to feel better.”

On a recent evening, Toutikian leads a group of 17 adults in an art therapy workshop. The attendees sit at large white tables in a circle drawing their own bodies and using different colors to represent where they physically experience or hold certain emotions.

After about 20 minutes of work with their pastels and notebooks, the group begins to discuss their self-portraits with Toutikian, who acts as facilitator.

One woman holds up her portrait, describing how she holds anger in her throat, colored in red. The group questions her, leading her to think for a moment then explain her difficulties with expressing herself when she’s angry, a trait that she’s keen to change.

Toutikian insists that art therapy can be the perfect tool for this kind of self-discovery. It’s not about clinical diagnoses or treatment of mental illness, but rather, an opportunity for anyone to process their emotions.

It’s about “creating the space to feel comfortable,” Toutikian says of her workshops. “People can become lonely in their houses. This is a chance out of the norm to talk about emotions and even everyday life stresses.”

According to Toutikian, the practice has its roots in the work of groundbreaking analytical psychologist Carl Jung, who proposed artistic expression as a method for his patients to alleviate feelings of trauma or emotional distress.

The therapy uses art as a means of therapy in itself or as the medium of communication between patient and psychologist. Through symbolic interpretation facilitated by the psychologist, the client is able to communicate feelings that can be difficult to express in a straightforward manner.

In the United States and Europe, psychologists can obtain licenses specific to art therapy. Toutikian is one of the pioneers to bring this type of therapy to Lebanon and the first clinical psychologist to pursue a doctorate at Beirut’s Saint Joseph University with a focus on art therapy.

The practice is used widely in a variety of clinical and non-clinical situations. It can be especially beneficial for clients dealing with painful experiences or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, especially children.

But, Toutikian insists, any individual can discover something about themselves or benefit from the process.

“Living with emotional discomfort because of anger, frustration, regret, abuse, neglect, humiliation and other emotions can take control of our behavior and limit our life journey,” she says.

But art therapy can also serve as a creative outlet to help clients, “expand awareness, mindfulness and consciousness and to find [their] individual voice.”

As part of her masters in clinical psychology and as she continues to pursue her doctorate, Toutikian’s research has focused on art therapy with a particular emphasis on the benefits in schools.

Introducing art therapy into schools can help children who have trouble in the classroom, Toutikian has found, by giving them a way to express things they may not yet be able to articulate.

“[Children] tell stories like where they went yesterday or what happened on their birthday – it’s like a stage for them. Someone is listening to them and they can explore with the drawings and by talking,” Toutikian says.

“[Because] the child is coming out of the class, he or she feels special. Someone is there to listen to them. That is also a benefit.”

For the past three years, Toutikian has also held workshops for adults. These usually span four sessions involving drawing, watercolor painting, self-portraits and collages with facilitated group discussions.

As it is a new concept for Lebanon, many people come to see what art therapy is all about.

“Most people want to find out what art therapy is. After they bring up issues and discover what they want from it,” Toutikian adds.

Toutikian’s latest session includes a doctor, graphic designers, art teachers and other psychology students.

One of the participants, Mary Rizk who is a student, says she signed out for the session out of curiosity but has found the session to be a “visual form of expression.”

“It’s been a chance to get in contact with myself in a new way.”

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 17, 2012, on page 2.




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