Survival Art: Using Art Therapy to Heal

We are pleased to bring you this guest post from our new friend Elf Lady.  Her post originally appeared  here on her blog Elf Lady’s Chronicles, where she shares personal stories of surviving domestic violence, divorce and motherhood.  Elf Lady’s blog is wonderful narrative of her journey in healing, we think you’ll enjoy reading her work. 


“Art opens the closets, airs out the cellars and attics. It brings healing.”
-Julia Cameron

As women we are artist of our own lives.  We exercise our creativity by providing healthy, hearty meals for our family, creating a cozy home, planning birthday parties and organizing holidays.  We are constantly creating.  In addition, women are the natural nurturers and healers in our society.  So what happens when we need to be healed? What happens when we need to be healed of the trauma and abuse we have experienced at the hands of an intimate partner?

As a survivor of domestic violence myself, my therapist, Michelle, recommended journaling as a means to deal with the emotions surrounding my abusive relationship and pending divorce.  I tried journaling, but it was too painful writing down my thoughts.  However, I knew from my sessions in Michelle’s office, her specialty was art therapy.

What is Art Therapy? According to the Art Therapy Alliance, art therapy is “the deliberate use of art-making to address psychological and emotional needs.  Art therapy uses art media and the creative process to help in areas such as, but not limited to: fostering self-expression, create coping skills, manage stress, and strengthen sense of self.  Art therapy has provided mental health treatment for clients who have experienced trauma, grief & loss, depression, chronic illness, substance abuse, and more.”

Michelle works with foster kids from abusive homes and other children dealing with various challenges.  She predominately uses art therapy for these children and teenagers as a means in dealing with their pain.  Her office is filled with pastels, paints, markers and sketchbooks.  The office walls are painted with colorful, bold pictures of flowers, vines, phrases, bricks and snowmen.  The paintings give me a sense of comfort and warmth regardless of not contributing to the collage of images myself.

I had been seeing Michelle for six months before I asked if I could try Art Therapy.  I considered myself a creative person.  As a child I sketched eyes and faces and wrote poetry, but that ended as I entered college to become an engineer. Today my creativity is expressed through every day activities such as cooking, decorating, gardening and at times photography.  I know  I don’t have the skills to be a true artist, and that’s okay.  Art therapy does not require skill.  It only requires you to try.

Gretchen Miller, MA, ATR-BC, CTC, writes, “Through art-making, survivors can make sense of and find their way out of chaos, frightful memories, and the raw emotion of their abuse to discover a sense of grounding, strength, safety, understanding, and hope.”

So I bought a pack of pastels and got out my sketch book.  One of the first pictures I drew in my sketchbook was of my husband.

My Husband

I wanted to draw a picture showing how I saw him that night and other nights when he was angry.  The dark blue is the coldness in his heart, my feeling of dread, and the darkness of my depression.  The fire represents how quickly my husband could explode transforming himself from a civil, normal man to a heartless, angry monster.

My next attempt expressed my feeling of being shattered and surrounded in a sea of chaos.  My marriage was shattered, my sense of self was shattered, my belief system was shattered.  Things I believed to be true were no longer true, so what was real and what was not?  Who or what could I believe anymore?


After these short drawing sessions, I was always a little more at peace.  I felt a sense of relief getting these pictures and feelings out of my mind and soul and onto paper.

Although I could not afford it, in August I decided to rent a beach cottage for the week before my son returned to school.  He brought his beach toys, matchbox cars, and books.  I armed myself with my sketch book, pastels, and colored pencils in addition to my self-help books, camera, sunscreen, and beach chair.

The sound of the ocean and the warmth of the sun has its own healing properties. Sitting on the beach listening to the waves and watching my son play in the water, I could finally relax.  I began to capture this peace and solitude with my pastels and pencils.

The Beach

I first drew the view from the front porch of our little cottage.  I could sit on the porch in my rocking chair and watch the breeze blow the dune grass and lines of pelicans fly by.  Often I would see fishing trawlers and sailboats in the distance.

Colors of Seashells

Another favorite pastime that week was searching through the vast amounts of seashells deposited on the sand after high tide.  There were so many shells it looked like a dump truck had driven on the beach in the night and unloaded an entire load of beautiful, multi-colored seashells.

The sifting and searching for my favorite shells became meditative and therapeutic for me.  I was fascinated by the palette of colors nature applied in creating the shells. So, one night while sitting at the kitchen table, I laid out an assortment of my shells and captured their colors on paper.  Using pastels, I was able to blend the colors into shades that matched my shells. I realize my drawing doesn’t look like much, but I was pleased with the result and looking at the colors has a calming affect for me.

Finding Peace and Solitude

My last drawing at the beach was a sketch in a struggle to find some peace and solitude one day. As I drew this scene of my beach chair and umbrella, I was in reality having an anxiety attack.

My mom had decided on her own to follow us to beach for four days during the time my son and I were there.  Upon arrival, she proceeded to take control of my son and whisk him away for putt putt golf or swimming at the pool of the condo where she was staying regardless of any plans I may have had.  While I was grateful for the time my son was able to spend with his grandmother and the hour or two for a long walk on the beach, I felt these decisions were made for me and my peaceful vacation had been hijacked by my mom.  Striving to set boundaries, we eventually had words resulting in her leaving in a huff.  But I was much relieved to have regained control of my vacation.

Coming full circle, I want to share a drawing of one of my injuries I received the last night my husband assaulted me. I did not draw this until the end of September, a full nine months after the assault.    Creating this drawing was triggered by registering for a 5K benefiting Interact of Wake County, the local non-profit supporting victims of domestic violence.  As a survivor, I felt a duty to run in this race.  In the days leading up to this race, I started to relive that night.  I felt the sense of betrayal and shame all over again.  Finally, I decided to capture what happened that night on paper, hopefully coming to terms with it in some fashion.

Me & Betrayal

My sketches have brought me peace during and after drawing.  At times, the drawing has brought clarity to how I felt about my abusive relationship.  At other times the benefits of drawing cannot be put into words, but I know a small tectonic shift has occurred leading me further along my path of recovery.

While we may never pay our bills with our endeavors of painting, drawing, or sculpting, we are all artists of our own life.  Every day we create a beautiful mosaic of our lives with connections to our loved ones, our friends, our hobbies and passions, and events in our life.

As women, we are accustomed to the art of creating and the art of healing. We create nutritious meals for our family, beautiful gardens, and cozy, inviting rooms for our homes.  We heal our children when sick, our partners and friends when they are down and out.  Why not combine these two worthy and natural skills to heal ourselves through art?


Using Art Therapy with Survivors of Domestic Violence

Using Art Therapy with Survivors of Domestic Violence

We are please to bring you this guest post from Gretchen Miller, MA, ATR-BC, CTC Registered Board Certified Art Therapist, Certified Trauma Consultant

In recognition of October’s National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and SpeakArtLoud’s vision and voice for women, I am honored to have the opportunity to contribute this guest post about the benefits of art therapy to help empower women exposed to domestic violence.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is defined as “a pattern of abusive behaviors — including physical, sexual, and psychological attacks as well as economic coercion — used by one intimate partner against another (adult or adolescent) to gain, maintain, or regain power and control in the relationship” (National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women).

Abusers use a variety of controlling and battering tactics to frighten, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, often injure, and sometimes kill a current or former intimate partner.

For a victim of domestic violence, often the impact the abuse is too difficult to verbalize through words alone and impacted by strong feelings of shame, humiliation, guilt, and fear around speaking about the abuse (Malchiodi & Miller, 2011).

Art Therapy

Art therapy is a way to assist survivors to safely express and contain these difficult and terrorizing feelings, cope with traumatic memories and triggers, as well as support emotional stabilization and strengthen a sense of safety.

Art therapy is the deliberate use of art-making to address psychological and emotional needs through art media and the creative process to help in areas such as, but not limited to: fostering self-expression, creating coping skills, managing stress, and strengthening sense of self (The Art Therapy Alliance). You can also find more information about how art therapy is used with domestic violence from the International Art Therapy Organization.

Working in a Domestic Violence Shelter

As an art therapist working in a domestic violence shelter with women and children exposed to and traumatized by family violence, I have witnessed the benefits, value, and power of art therapy to help provide a voice to survivors and begin on a path towards healing and recovery free of abuse, violence, and control.

Through art-making, survivors can make sense of and find their way out of chaos, frightful memories, and the raw emotion of their abuse to discover a sense of grounding, strength, safety, understanding, and hope.

Art therapy helps provide an empowering outlet for this process, where the telling of a battered women’s experience does not have to be spoken aloud, but can be communicated through the language and reflection of art expression.

This short video was created with art expressions by survivors and advocates to raise awareness and share their stories about domestic violence:

Malchiodi, C. & Miller G. (2011). Domestic Violence and Art Therapy. In C. Malchiodi (Ed), Handbook of Art Therapy (2nd Edition), New York: Guilford Press.

Gretchen Miller, MA, ATR-BC, CTC is a Registered Board Certified Art Therapist and Certified Trauma Consultant who practices in the Greater Cleveland, Ohio area. Her work specializes in children, adolescents, women, and families impacted by trauma, domestic violence, and grief & loss. Her website highlights her work, interests, and passions related to art therapy and her creative practice.

The Canvas for Dreams of the Heart

The Canvas for Dreams of the Heart

A guest post by Teresa Robinson of Right Brain Planner

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”
– Eleanor Roosevelt

The dark shadows of illness can preclude the light and beauty of our dreams. Thus, even the ability to recall our dreams in the midst of chronic physical challenges proves daunting. However, with a few gentle brushstrokes of creativity, the outlines and muted hues of our dreams rise into view once again. Sometimes doing so in a gently altered version — redefined to accommodate those things we accept as unchangeable, in order to empower us in discovering the courage to change the things we can.

How does art therapy serve as the basis for discovery and accomplishing the beauty of the dreams within the heart?

I would be hard-pressed to explain the physiology regarding the healing properties of art therapy. What I can describe is the ease and the healing that resulted after I accepted a friend’s invitation to an art therapy event. I quickly realized art could be my secret weapon against the battles of cancer. And it continues to be a way to win the proverbial war of acceptance with regard to my physical realities “after cancer” and the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Art therapy is a calming, radiant light in the constant noise and darkness of chronic pain. The mental escapes of guided imagery, various music genres, landscape photography and creative writing provide me with a place of ease — a reprieve from daily rituals and realities. Collage art is a daily practice for me. It allows me to visually (and figuratively) assign elements of color and variety (and absolute randomness!) “over” the stress (and distress) of chronic health issues.

The practice of incorporating art into my therapeutic activities has facilitated my goal of positivity in the midst of chronic, limiting physical conditions. It also produced a paradigm shift for my professional pursuits, blending creativity with the business management and personal planning services I offer as a freelancer at Right Brain Planner.

Collage, art journaling and creative planning offer a creative and eclectic alternative to white-paged, text-only documents and spreadsheets. Offering my clients a liberating and inspiring alternative as they compile, collage and journey in the direction of their dreams!

Art and War: Understanding, Remembrance and Healing

Art is a fundamental part of our social fabric, touching upon all elements of the human experience. Keeping in mind current events, I though we could look at ways in which art has been used to help both the public and veterans of war understand, remember and heal.

(Please note, this is not a pro or anti war post, instead it is a look at how art is part of the public setting and how art can contribute to our understanding and experiences with war.)


In the U.S.we commonly think of the late 1960’s early 1970’s as a time when war protest songs were popular.  However, music has commonly been a form of voicing protest against war.  The songI Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier(1915) was written as part of the pacifist movement during WWI.

I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier
“I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,
I brought him up to be my pride and joy,
Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder,
To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?
Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,
It’s time to lay the sword and gun away,
There’d be no war today,
If mother’s all would say,
“I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.”

Song continue to be a way to voice protest, this list of protest songs of the 1980’s (not all about war) from a wide range of artists may include a few old favorites.


Art has also been used in messaging promoting and supporting war. Poster art, an art form that is easily accessible to a wide population, has commonly been used to depict a pro-war stance. The Nazi party made use of poster art to promote new ideas and ideals . During the Russian Revolution (1917 to 1920) poster art was also used to encourage public support.

You Are Now a Free Woman - Help Build Socialism! Adolf Strakhov

Film has also been used as a medium used to garner support of war. The U.S. Office of War Information, established in1942, created a manual for Hollywood directors to influence film making. In terms of more current films, some have called Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down are pro-war films.


Art can be a means of capturing the experience of serving in the militaryor being in battle. Michael Fay served as an official war artist with the US Marines and captured his experiences while stationed in Afghanistan .

Sunset Patrol by Michael Fay

Poetry has also been used to document the experience of war. During the first World War a number of solders wrote verse, both patriotic and critical, documenting their experience.  Wilfred Owen’s (WWI soldier) poem Dulce Et Decorum Est (Latin for “It is sweet and right”) depits the horrors of trench warfare. 


Art serves to memorialize and pay tribute to events of war, the fallen and those who have lived on.  Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945, German) created early woodcuts and drawings that reflected her compassion toward the working poor, the suffering and the sick.  After her son Peter’s death in WWI she created The Grieving Parent, two statues that now flank the entrance to the Vladslo German war cemetery where her son lay buried.

The Grieving Parents - Kathe Kollowitz

The Holocaust Museum serves as a memorial to those lost in the and works to educate and maintain awareness of this event in world history.  Having had opportunity to visit this museum I can say that it is hard not to be moved by the exhibits. The Tower of Faces truly is a breath taking exhibit, beautiful and sorrowful all at once.

The Tower of Faces


What I think is most extraordinary about art is the role it plays in helping us makes sense of painful or difficult emotions and experiences.  Art allows us to explore our own feelings, share those feelings and begin the healing process.

In recent years art has been effectively used as a tool to help returning veterans in the healing process with the Veterans Administration and heath care centers offer therapeutic art activities.

Other art programs helping veterans to heal include The Combat Paper Project,  an innovative project where veterans turn their worn out uniforms into paper, then create works of art and the Theater of War, which uses drama to work through emotions and share experiences.

The International Art Therapy Alliance has further information on art therapy and the military.

What Does Art Have to do with Mental Health?

As a culture we tend not to talk about mental health, even though mental health issues like stress, depression, and anxiety are common place. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that about one in four adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder.  Most folks I know have a family member or friend who has experienced a mental health issue.

What Does Art Have to do with Mental Health?

A lot actually. Art can be very healing. Perhaps you’ve never though of art in this way but art has effectively been used to help individuals cope with a mental illness.  One example is making pottery as a part of treatment for depression. Art can be helpful in achieving good mental health in a few ways:

  • Expressing Emotion – Research tells us that emotional expression has positive benefits for the immune, nervous, and cardiovascular systems. Self-expression is life-enhancing and art can help us to express our feelings and share our experiences.
  • Communication is Key – Having a way to communicate difficult issues, reconcile emotions, and reduce stress is important to our well-being. Creating art helps individuals process traumatic feelings & communicate when there are no words
  • Calming the Mind – Creating art can be very pleasurable and relaxing.  The experience of painting or drawing has been shown to reduces stress, promote a sense of calmness and slow blood pressure and heart rate. 

Art can be therapeutic – for the audience as well as the artist
– Bonnie Sherr Klein

Raising Awareness of Mental Illness

Beyond individual health and healing, art can be used to help the community better understand mental illness and work to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness.

House of Artists, Gugging Center

Gugging – One of the most amazing programs I am aware of is the Maria Gugging Psychiatric Clinic, also know as the Art / Brut Centre Gugging, located in Vienna, Austria .

What stated as psychiatric treatment center has evolved into a unique cultural center for art and psychotherapy.  The Art / Brut Centre Gugging includes the House of Artists , a social care center that provides individuals with mental illness residential treatment along with artistic opportunities, a museum that houses a collection of the gugging artists work and a museum shop.

This center and the gugging artist are helping to educate the larger community on mental illness and reduce the stigma attached to mental illness.

Art Is Healing

Art can be very healing for both individuals and communities.  Art can help us to relax our mind and body and express our thoughts and feelings.

Art is also a great communication tool, allowing us to share our experiences with others and providing us a way to connect with our community.

August Walla, Gugging Gallery

A Surprising Arts Supporter

April 13th was  Arts Advocacy Day, a national event in which arts supporters speak on the importance of policies and funding to support the arts. This year I was especially moved by the testimony of a surprising supporter of the arts – US Army Brigadier General Nolen V. Bivens (retired).

LA Times Article

I first heard of Brig. Gen. Nolen V. Bivens in this LA Times article and was astounded to read of a military veteran speak to the importance of arts and culture.  The LA Times piece speaks to Bivens stance that the U. S. must enlist the arts in a new era when “our forces are adjusting to a new state of warfare…which demands new and innovative approaches.” Bivens also expresses the belief that the arts can play a vital role in the morale of troops and their families.

I strongly believe that the arts have an important role in community development, yet I do not believe that as a nation we have embraced using arts and culture as a tool in development work.  Because of this, I was drawn to read more of this retired military leader’s perspective on the arts.

Brig. Gen. Nolen V. Bivens Testimony

In Brig. Gen. Nolen V. Bivens official testimony to congress, which can be found here, he speaks to three areas where arts and culture can be utilized: (1) national security, (2) cultural diplomacy, and (3) quality of life for veterans.

I have read his testimony more than once and cannot yet express how truly moved I am by his presentation.  I know that I will spend more thinking about this piece and digesting all of what his message entails.  Some highlights for me include:

  • In discussing national security and the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad –“Future conflicts should be approached with a better understanding of how a nation values its cultural heritage, and its arts.”
  • When speaking to cultural diplomacy –“Support of the arts and artists can help to bridge many common values that lead to peaceful resolution of disagreements as well as the sustainment of cordial international relations.”
  • In terms of quality of life for veterans – “Providing support through local community arts and cultural institutions sustains returning soldiers and veterans as they transition back into their family and community life.”

I am use to hearing artist and arts advocates speak to the power and importance of the arts (Wynton Marsalis’  presentation The Ballad of the American Arts from last year will give you goose bumps!), however I have never heard a military veteran speak so clearly and thoughtfully on the value in supporting and investing in arts and cultural programs.

I am so moved that I intend to write Brigadier General Nolen V. Bivens a letter, yes a real, hand-written letter, this weekend thanking him for his support of the arts.

Our Mantra: Creating the Future

Creating the future is our mantra.

This simple three word phrase
creating * the * future
expresses what we do, what we value, what we are working toward and what we believe to be possible.

We believe that we can create the future.

We will create the future.

How are we creating the future you ask?

We think a good place to start is with women.  We know that the single most effective way to improve communities is to improve the well-being of women and there is a great deal of research that supports this. Journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn recent book and organization Half the Sky and the United Nations both offer information on how when you improve the lives of women, families and communities benefit.

“Women have plans for themselves, for their children, about their home, the meals. They have a Vision.  A man wants to enjoy himself.”
~ Grameen Bank’s Muhammad Yunus to a US Congressional Forum on why94% of his loans go to women.

How Does Art fit in?

Art is our medium in this work.  We know that art is a powerful way to communicate. The International Art Therapy Association highlights how art has been used as a tool in individual and community transformation. Our art class gives women a way to think about and express their ideas for their future. Then, our art show brings people together and gives community members a chance to view the women’s art work and think about new possibilities.

This is how we are creating the future  – Women * Art * Community

Now it’s your turn.  Take a moment and think about creating the future.  Really, go ahead, give yourself the freedom to imagine what you would like for your future. Who would you be? What would you do?  How would you feel?  Pretty powerful, huh?

Now think about the future of your community….. the future of the world.

Think about creating the future.  Then do it!

Join us in creating the future!