I recently found a copy of this newsletter in my piles of precious printed papers. I was delight to read it again and asked Maureen if I could share with my audience. I am so grateful she said yes!
The message is timeless.
Maureen added, The following article originally appeared in a 2004 newsletter that was published by Loew –Cornell. Many things have changed in the years since then, including the closing in 2015 of Maureen Carlson’s Center for Creative Arts. What has not changed is Maureen’s belief in the role of the creative arts as a powerful source of healing.
Art and Healing
by Maureen Carlson
I am a storyteller. And, so, I begin with a story ...
Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved to make things. She cut and colored and folded and pasted, and she was happy. People praised her work, “Such a clever little girl!” And her mother hung her cut-out angels around the dining room mirror.
One day, some 35 years later, this same little girl, now grown up, was in her studio laboriously pushing out art against a deadline, and she felt a familiar fear. Circular thoughts, muddy grey, cold and swirling like flood waters, filled up her head. Maybe she wasn’t creative enough. Maybe she wasn’t clever enough. Maybe she had been fooling everyone - including herself. Who did she think she was! She flattened the imperfect nose that she had just sculpted, for perhaps the 15th time, and stretched long and tall to ease the ache between her shoulders.
She bent to once again pick up her clay, then stopped. She breathed a long breath, pushed aside her deadline, and began to sculpt a different face, one that was just for her. The swirling waters in her brain began to recede as she let go and immersed herself in the joy of creation. She sculpted reaching hands and soulful eyes, and she made clothes from a special piece of wool that had once belonged to her sister.
(Picture of cloth doll with clay face and pointed hat - Fear)
She sat back, looked at the doll - and she named it FEAR. She felt the truth of it. And the power. And she knew that she had just experienced an authentic act of creation. She returned to her work with new energy.
The little girl, of course, was me. And the feelings of fear are mine, as well. But so is the knowledge that art can heal.
I am a witness.
Journeys are a funny thing. Often times we don’t know that we are on one until long after they have begun. So goes my journey into the world of art and healing. What began as a quest to find ways to remove my own masks and become real have turned into the framework within which I do my work - and live my life. I am a novice on the journey, but I also know the power that comes from one person telling her own story. And so I will share with you what I know.
First of all, let me say that I am not a trained therapist, nor do I have a degree in art. I am an elementary teacher by training, an artist by occupation, and a life-long explorer into the journey within. I have long been enamored by the mystical connectedness with self and others that happens when people do art in a retreat-type setting. This interest led to a dream - my own retreat center - which became a reality in 1999 with the opening of Maureen Carlson’s Center for Creative Arts. The plan was to continue my teaching of sculpting, dollmaking and polymer clay-related arts, but with the addition of a dormitory for students who came from away.
As with many dreams, the reality has become bigger than the dream. A guest teacher was observing the interaction during break time one day and referred to our place as the Healing Center. While I don’t call it that, I recognize the truth of what she said. In Frony Ritter’s excellent article, The Health Connection - Freedom to “Be”, in the August 2003 issue of this newsletter, she states that she “became so amazed by the mystery of healing through painting that I(she) ended up returning to school in 1992, to earn a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Counseling...”. She further states “...it is the caring, the respect and the freedom to “be” that the teacher gives to the student, even while the teacher imparts knowledge, that gives the student the freedom to let what is meant to emerge, come out.”
For a time, I, too, contemplated going back to school in order to measure up to the big responsibility that I felt here at the Center. But now I believe that the key to health and wholeness through art are those same words that Frony used: caring, respect and freedom. And one does not receive those things primarily through a classroom, or through a book. I do think that it is important to read what others are saying, though, in order to better understand the power that sometimes nearly crackles through a room when students are doing art.
In the foreward to the book, Art and Healing, by Barbara Ganim, Michael Samuels, M.D. and Mary Rockwood Lane state: “Hospitals all over the world are incorporating art into patient care ... Art and music crack the sterile space of fear the patients live in, and they open it to the joys of the human spirit. The spirit freed then helps the body heal. Art frees the immune system so it can function at its best, relieve pain, heal depression, and raise the spirit.”
Barbara Ganim, in the same book, states that “In the past, verbal psychotherapy was the method of choice to release negative thoughts and fearbased emotions. But expressive art has now been found to be even more effective. Split-brain research, which focuses on the functional difference between the right and left sides of the brain, reveals that we think and process our experiences, feelings, and emotions as images first and words second. ... In addition, researchers discovered that imagery is the body-mind’s internal form of communication. ... if emotions are held in the body-mind as images, then imagery rather than words would be the most direct route to get in touch with these painful emotions ...”
Powerful stuff, this art thing, and not to be taken lightly! As a teacher and retreat facilitator, I am very careful to respect the capacity of art to access long-hidden and powerful feelings, and am ready to call upon health care professionals should a student need help beyond the caring and respect that I can provide. I am constantly monitoring the class to make sure that it stays safe for everyone involved, for safety - in mind, body and spirit - is the first of the guidelines by which I operate.
Most of my classes are technique classes and do not intentionally lead students along the path of in-depth self discovery or healing . If a class requires some kind of introspection, such as my Alter Ego Doll class, I am very careful to label it as such. I also conduct these classes under the guideline of “you always have the right to pass”, meaning that all self revelation is optional. I believe it is this respect and freedom that lets the inner self feel safe enough to share its personal imagery and symbols through art.
I also hire guest teachers who have extensive training to teach the classes which I call my Healing Art classes. One such teacher, Barbara Kobe, teaches The Creative Journey: A Game-making Experience, based on the hero’s journey concept, and The Dollmaking Circle: A Creative Process for Personal Growth and Healing. Both of these classes help students access their personal symbols through meditation, journaling and art.
I have been a student in the Game class twice and in the Dollmaker’s Circle four times. In the last Dollmaker’s Circle class I made another Fear doll, some 10 years after my first one. Through this doll I unexpectedly accessed another layer of my journey toward understanding fear and its role in my life. When I completed the doll and showed it to the group, they encouraged me to make it pretty by weaving in ribbons and flowers through it wire mesh mask. The doll made them uncomfortable. But I knew that it wasn’t ready yet for pretty. It needed to be first accepted for what it was - stark, unlovely, masked. I still haven’t added the ribbons and flowers, though I am ready to do so now, as I have heard her message and understand her song.
There are many ways to use art as a healing tool. Among them are the raising of self esteem that happens when a technique is mastered, or the joy that is experienced when a thing of beauty is created. These are powerful forces at work. Self esteem and joy are incredible rewards for work well done. If that was all that was accomplished through art, it would be well worth all of our efforts as teachers, demonstrators and working artists. But, there is another, still deeper level at which art can heal. I have experienced it myself in all its exhausting and exhilarating power. I have learned that these points have been critical for accessing that layer where my personal imagery lives:
1. The art is created for the maker, and not for an audience.
2. It doesn’t have to be pretty or well done, in fact, it can be ugly.
3. It doesn’t have to please anyone.
4. No one has the power or the right to judge it.
5. The intuitive voice is important to the process. Listen!
6. It is important to have a witness who hears and sees, with respect, what has been created.
I have watched the above guidelines work over and over again. When I hear a student share the story of their doll or game or picture, and the hairs rise on my arms in response to their image or words, I know that I am witnessing a sacred mystery. And I feel blessed.
For more information about Art and Healing, see the following, all of which have extensive links or further suggestions for reading:
Ganim, Barbara. Art and Healing. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999
Markova, Dawn, PH.D. No Enemies Within. California: Conari Press, 1994
Maureen Carlson, from Jordan, Minnesota, is a practical mystic, teacher, designer, storyteller and author. She has written 10 how-to books, around the topic of polymer clay characters, all of which were published by Design Originals or North Light Books. She and her husband/business partner, Dan Carlson, create Push Molds and teaching videos to help other people bring their creative imaginations to life. For more information: www.maureencarlson.com or www.weefolk.com