Expression and healing as a universal language: notes from art therapy around the world

The call for the arts to encourage healing and resilience has brought our Director, Gina Alfonso, around the world to answer it. Although she holds clinic in Washington D.C., she has been across Asia and Africa, and is currently in South America. She works with both teachers and children, often from groups that are marginalized or have gone through trauma.

photo-21Classroom as a healing space

With background in education for grassroots communities in the Philippines, Gina’s practice in therapy unpacks the healing potential of the classroom. A productivity-centered place such as a classroom is where children and teachers have the opportunity to be in a context that need not reflect their current challenging situations. Training teachers in the arts with purpose to respond to this kind of context, trains them to be companions rather than just teachers.

The positive art experience is key to equipping teachers in becoming companions that are process-centered, as opposed to instructors that are performance-centered. With the help of imagination, creative expression can turn learning spaces into healing spaces, too – with the arts as a language that bridges different backgrounds, cultures, and personal stories.

Companionship in process

The role of the art therapist is to be perceptive towards diverse and nuanced expressions. Throughout her experience in different cultures, Gina has realized that language and culture barriers are transcended by the impact of full engagement in process and expression. She calls this the ahamoment – and it’s what she looks out for in every workshop and session she holds.

The aha moment is personal, and almost completely out of the hands of a facilitator. This is what makes it impactful to the one experiencing it.

The arrival at a moment of self-discovery is something an art therapist can help prepare the path to, but she is never there at the end, preceding the individual’s arrival. For the therapist, there is no space for judgement in this arrival; there is only the delicate work of observation, acceptance, and being led to work with exactly where an individual is at.

Expression : Expansion

In an expressive arts workshop in China, Gina had a participant who was a professor. Fixated on the theory behind the process, she found herself skeptical at the end of the workshop. It was only after six months, in a follow-up workshop, that she arrived at her aha moment.

“Now I get it. Now I understand how the arts can be so valuable for healing. Something clicked inside me,” she had said. “I have never felt this free in my life, and really appreciate how this movement taught me something new about myself. Now I feel like I’m ready to be a better trainer.”

Sometimes, all it takes to be more proficient at the work we do, or to be better people in our community, or to be better for ourselves — is to understand ourselves more deeply. It’s not an easy journey to get to the aha moment. We have to leave our comfort zones, be brutally honest with ourselves, be more fiercely compassionate to ourselves, and walk alongside uncertainty. The expressive arts and the process of creativity doesn’t promise to solve problems, though it may well do so in some cases. But it does promise to teach you something about yourself — to expand your vision and discover your inner strength on your own terms, through expression that can only come forth from you. And the great news is that creative expression is inherent in every one of us: a personal journey, but a universal experience.


Photos: from Gina’s workshops with a community situated near the Thai-Burma border. Taken by Mitos Urgel of WEAVE Women’s Network, Mae Hong Son, Thailand 

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