Using Artwork To Help Individuals Explore More Deeply

The thoughts, beliefs, values and emotions of artists are inescapably represented in their work – and on some occasions, intentionally depicted. Three of the more familiar connections between art and the functions of the mind are the ways in which artists express their own thoughts, feelings, and mental distress in their paintings; the use of art to help individuals with mental disorders; and the occasional emergence of a person with mental illness, untrained as an artist, who proves to have a unique artistic vision.

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TJ Walsh, 2015

There are a few famous artists throughout the course of art history who have been documented to have lived with psychiatric disorders and who used their art to express their thoughts and emotions through their works. Some of these artists include: Mark Rothko, Edvard Munch, and Bernard Buffet. Each of these artists are recorded to have said that their artwork reflected their depressed mood. Smart people, like art historians and writers, have interpreted the paintings of some artists (including Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, and Jackson Pollock) as revealing evidence of various mental disorders.


Untitled, Mark Rothko, 1946

Psychotherapy clients often have a hard time putting their feelings into words. In fact, the discipline of art therapy is devoted to aiding therapy clients to express themselves without the need for language or logic. It is important to not that in these situations, a person’s lack of artistic skill or training is no barrier to self-expression.

A few individuals with mental illness were influential in the development of the Outsider Art movement, and produced works that have gained the attention of the art world. Outsider artists are not influenced by the formal art world, and are therefore free of the restraining conventions of traditional art, and thus are able to express their thoughts and emotions more freely.

As a neophyte psychotherapist and a trained, professional artist, I am discovering another intersection of art and the mind: artwork produced by the me (the psychotherapist) with the emotional experience of the client as the subject. For several years, I have used my studio practice as a time where I can create paintings and drawings that reflect what I felt after leaving one of my own psychotherapy sessions. But now, since I have begun to work with my own clients within the realm of practicum and internship experiences, I have been making paintings that depict the depression, mania, psychosis, and compulsions that they experience. The paintings have become valuable to me and have helped to give me insight into my client’s journey. My initial purpose was to enter into the clients’ world of mental illness to help me understand it better, but now I am hoping to bring the paintings into therapy sessions to show to the client and use them as a springboard for the client further explore their universe.

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TJ Walsh, 2013-15

A basic method of communication, given to us by God, is the ability to make and share images with one another. Whether or not the client creates the work him or herself or if he or she is simply responding to an image in front of them, it is often helpful for them to direct “stuck” thoughts and feelings onto something outside of the self in order to get past the hurdle that they are facing and to enter into one’s personal experience more deeply.

As I continue in my training as a therapist, my practice as an artist and my identity as a Christian, I will continue to pursue the use of God given creativity as a method and means of healing in the therapy room.


TJ Walsh, 2011

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