Cradled by the arts: 3 ways art and healing converge

Two months remain in the countdown to this year’s international conference on Expressive Arts (EXA) hosted by the Expressive Arts Philippines Network. For a second time, the founders of EXA, Paolo Knill and Margo Fuchs Knill, are flying to the country to facilitate the plenary workshops.

The event, aptly named Duyan: Cradling diversity through the Expressive Arts, aims to bridge the Filipino understanding of healing through the arts. With the mental health law being passed in 2018, we are currently witnessing increased awareness and discourse around personal wellbeing. In addition, it seems that now more than ever, Filipinos could use a safe space, a cradle, to retire and recover from various forms of stress or societal threats. Hence as a people inclined towards creative practices, the conference aims to offer EXA as a relevant approach to encourage healing within the Filipino community. It hopes to bring together leaders and practitioners in the fields of the arts, psychology, healthcare, psychosocial support in disaster response, humanitarian work, inclusive education, and social entrepreneurship.

As a primer to this upcoming event, the MAGIS team has thus prepared a list abridging the many ways in which the arts contribute to wellbeing. Specifically, we intend to shed light on the following questions: How do art and healing converge to create a safe space for diverse expressions? How can the arts be likened to a cradle providing retreat and rejuvenation?

Art meets people where they are.

To “meet people where they are” has been a time-tested adage in service professions. Effectively reaching out to anyone, in a professional setting or even in one’s personal life, takes a sensitivity to the other’s comfort zone. It takes a consideration for their needs and providing these at the right time.

The arts similarly deliver such openness and sensitivity to every person’s ability and expression. Engaging in the arts need not require talent. Exploring a medium–diving into paint with a paintbrush, taking pen to paper, or dancing as if nobody’s watching–already opens up opportunities for creative or emotional expression, learning, and self-discovery.

This is exactly what we learned at last month’s Head On Talk tackling Arts and Inclusion. Amos Manlangit, an artist, educator, and special education consultant, talked about his ladderized model for inducing creative flow for persons with special needs. As a facilitator, Amos allows his participants and students to first explore the materials as well as the process of art-making itself. The output is not judged by technique; rather the process of creation is highlighted by promoting mindfulness. There is then an invitation towards communicating ideas through symbols in the artwork or even further, attaching feelings to the creative process. These are, however, not forced nor required.

Amos Manlangit sharing his Inclusive Arts practice in Head On Talks: Arts & Inclusion, held at MAGIS Creative Spaces

The supposed “masterpiece” is not the end goal. The ladderized approach allows the facilitator to meet the individual where they are, at whatever ability level or ease of expression. The arts cradle us all.

Art provides a separate, dedicated space for safety.

The nature of creative expression invokes imagination and a sense of playfulness so that when one engages in the arts, there is a withdrawal from everyday reality and whatever troubles or issues it holds. As one of the principles of Expressive Arts therapy, this process is called decentering (Knill, Levine, & Levine, 2005). It involves feeling safe enough to let go and simply be. As therapist Douglas Mitchell (2012) has put it,

“We step away from ourselves as we know ourselves to be—lawyer, chef, accountant, candlestick maker—and release to the part of ourselves that doesn’t know, doesn’t plan, and doesn’t perceive what is going to happen next.”

The effectiveness of the arts in carving out such a safe space was exemplified in MAGIS’ program, Aesthetics of Self-Care, which we ran earlier this month for the East Asian Pastoral Institute (EAPI). The sabbatical renewal experience at EAPI services religious and lay persons in active ministry who experience high levels of stress, compassion fatigue, and burnout. For a whole week, the MAGIS team enjoined the priests and nuns to return to their childhood. Together we played, danced, and made art. These creative expressions allowed a sense of safety and made room for each to “decenter.” Ultimately, the program helped participants take a step back from the intensity of their work and simply rest through artful self-care practices.

A look into The Aesthetics of Self-Care workshop at East Asian Pastoral Institute

Art rejuvenates through self-discovery.

Resting through the arts is not an exercise of passivity. The senses are kept active (for instance, when listening to music or sculpting clay) while the mind is continually stimulated. The creator appraises the work as it takes shape and modifies it along the way.

Likewise, the finished product can be used as a tool for reflection. Artworks may be viewed as an extension of the creator so then, after finishing a piece, he can ask himself “What does this work say about me?” A simple prompt like this serves as a nudge towards self-discovery. In this way, the artistic process offers the possibility of learning something new. Aristotle referred to this as poeisis, or “learning by making.” Art-making offers true rejuvenation inasmuch as the maker is revitalized by the discoveries he makes—whether about himself or the world.


If you would like to experience EXA as a unique approach to personal well-being, or grow your professional practice through EXA, join us this November 30 – December 1 for Duyan: cradling diversity through the expressive arts. This event is hosted by Expressive Arts Philippines Network and made possible through the partnership with MAGIS Creative Spaces and Jollibee Group Foundation. Duyan is also supported by incredible Advocate Partners: Dr. Gia Sison, Art Ventures and Advocacy Network, and Media Partners: Radyo Katipunan.


Print Reference:
Knill, P., Levine, E. G., Levine, S. K. (2005). Principles and Practice of Expressive Arts Therapy: Toward a Therapeutic Aesthetics. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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