Inevitably, people ask me what I do. When I tell them I develop arts programming for people with disabilities, many respond with, "Oh, you mean art therapy."
Actually, I don't.
Instead, I mean I offer people with disabilities the same quality of art education, materials, and resources that artists in the general population have access to. While some resources might be in an adaptive format, or I may use accommodations, therapy is often the furthest thing from my mind. My focus is on making the creative process accessible.
I want to give these artists the tools and the freedom to make art for any reason they choose. Why do people make art? To communicate, express themselves, make a statement, learn about themselves, learn about others, learn about the world, learn new techniques, improve skills, explore materials, pose questions, examine ideas, experiment, become a keener observer, make themselves laugh, make others laugh, pass the time, develop their imaginations, make money, shock, inspire, collaborate, share, give, connect.
Does art have the power to heal our spirit, or aid us through emotional trauma? Of course it does.
But why should we assign people with disabilities this one role for creative expression? If a paintbrush in the hand of someone with a disability immediately brings therapy to mind, aren't we limiting that person's creative choices? If we only see art as a means of healing a person, doesn't it say we already see that individual as broken? Aren't we focused on their disability, rather than their possibility?
I want to pause to underscore the validity of art therapy, its importance and efficacy when used appropriately by a professional art therapist, either in an individual or group therapy session. If a person with or without a disability is in therapy, a qualified art therapist can use art as an effective tool in that person's mental health recovery. I personally know art therapists who I have the greatest of respect for, who use art as a mechanism for healing and wholeness with people in great emotional and psychiatric need.
However, outside of this specific mental health purpose, art therapy is no more relevant to people with disabilities than it is to anyone else. Consider the assertions of art therapist Judith A. Rubin, published in the American Journal of Art Therapy:
"The definition of art therapy does not depend on the population with whom works, any more than it is a function of the setting in which the work occurs. When art activities are made available to [people with disabilities], they may well be educational or recreational in nature. When one is teaching or providing art the purpose of constructively filling leisure time, [it} is not art therapy. Even when the setting is primarily a psychiatric one, if the primary purpose of the art activity is learning and/or fun, it is not art therapy." *
To assign a medical role to all of a person's activities, whether recreational, educational, professional or otherwise, based solely on their status of living with a disability, is to no longer see or know that individual. Such a view defeats the very purpose of social inclusion. Does a ramp into a building become architectural therapy for a person using a wheelchair? Is it vocational therapy when a qualified job applicant with a disability is hired?
Furthermore, even a person in therapy has choices. No matter what a person's mental health status or need, they have a right to keep art separate from the therapeutic process, for their purposes alone.
The act of making things translates to purposes and personalities as varied as expression itself. Compare Martha Stewart, Charles M. Schulz, Louise Bourgeios, R. Crumb, Bob Ross, Jean Michel-Basquiat, Thomas Kincaid, Cindy Sherman, Pablo Picasso and Mary Cassatt. All are artists of one sort of another; they all make things, mostly using their hands and imagination. Yet, they couldn't be more different, nor could the ways in which their art manifests.
Just as there are all kinds of artists, and all sorts of reasons to make art, all kinds of people live with disabilities: businesspeople and scientists and accountants and slackers and lawyers and writers and artists and dreamers.
Painter Chuck Close. Musician Stevie Wonder. Both are brilliant creative people and both have disabilities. Beyond their spectacular professional success, I can only speculate that the creative process brings them great joy and meaning. But does Chuck Close' paralysis define his painting as art therapy? Does Stevie Wonder's blindness cause us to reinterpret his songs as a product of music therapy? If they had been limited to this one purpose, would they have been able to reach their creative potential? Would they have been exposed to the full range of tools, skills, materials, ideas, other artists, or genres? Would their art and music have been shared with the rest of us, beyond the walls of a social service organization or hospital? I think we can agree that the world is thankful for Chuck Close's intensely realized portraits and the contagious joy of Stevie Wonder's music.
While people I teach benefit emotionally from the art making process, I also witness their growth and development as artists beyond people's expectations. When provided with quality, accessible art education, they learn new skills, are exposed to new tools and materials, and have the chance to improve, even excel in these areas. I witness their excitement when meeting guest artists, and how they gain inspiration from their contact with these professionals. I witness their joy in exhibiting and sharing their work, and the pride they experience when their artwork sells. By producing quality work, these individuals are viewed differently by the public; suddenly, they are artists, not just people with disabilities.
Because art is not just a tool for healing, for fixing what is broken, but also a tool for blossoming and becoming... or to use in any way we choose.
- Kirsten Ervin, Creative Citizen Studios
* Judith A. Rubin, Art Therapy: What it is and What it is not, American Journal of Art Therapy, Vol. 21, January 1982