How art therapy creates beauty from pain By Hanna Shae Smith
Bent over her canvas, Nyah Larson puts the finishing touches on a painting depicting a cluster of prickly pear cacti set against a bright yellow backdrop where an emerald hummingbird flutters.
“For most of this painting, you can tell I was pretty peaceful,” she says with a thoughtful air that’s wise beyond her 23 years. “I’ve definitely made paintings that were really scratchy and I needed them to be scratchy.”
Her art studio is her bedroom floor. The room is brimming with stones, flowers, bones, sketches, macrame, and more paintings—many which she created. Countless others were gifts from children she’s worked with over the years. Growing up, Larson’s mom provided physical and music therapy for kids. Although art therapy wasn’t well-known at that time, it was an active part of the program—including customized coloring books Larson designed.
“I feel like art therapy was always in my life,” she says. “Art is therapy but, most importantly, it’s therapeutic. It can be anything creative that can be taken on as a therapeutic intervention.”
Larson points out an intricately carved wooden spoon hanging on the wall. When she worked at a rehabilitation camp for teens, spoon carving was an opportunity to tap into creativity and individuality. Her voice grows softer as she explains she attended the camp before working there. At 17, Larson struggled with self harm. Attending the camp transformed her creativity into self-healing through activities like making primitive fires, building shelters, and carving spoons.
“There’s a lot of creativity in that; a lot of having a heart at peace,” Larson says. “I think art and creativity are a great way to experience that. Sometimes you can make art and be mad or be sad and show expression through that and let it go and leave it on the canvas.”
This is the beauty of art therapy, Brianna Reinhold agrees. She’s a licensed professional counselor and the owner of Northern Lights Therapy. For 12 years, she’s counseled children and adults processing trauma, including through art therapy.
“Art is a great way to get inside somebody’s brain and help process whatever is going on there,” Reinhold says. “When you have trauma, you can’t always explain what’s going on with just the use of words. You can draw scribbles, though, and that tells us a lot.”
The Science of Art
Although art therapy wasn’t formalized until the 20th century, expressing oneself through art has been integral to human behavior since the dawn of time. The American Art Therapy Association defines this modality as one that “helps individuals through active art-making and creative process in a psychotherapy setting.” According to the American Psychological Association, the healing power of art lies in its ability to access imagination, authenticity, and spontaneity to achieve “personal fulfillment, emotional reparation, and transformation.” This is one of many reasons why Reinhold prefers modalities like art therapy to traditional talk therapy.
“In talk therapy, we get really good at separating our emotions from what we’re going through,” Reinhold explains. “(Art therapy) processes stuff for you.”
It allows emotions to flow organically. One of Reinhold’s clients, Jonathan, found this to be true his entire life. As a kid, Jonathan didn’t know he was doing art therapy. All he knew was that his chaotic world suddenly felt peaceful when his brush met the page.
“Those moments that I would pour myself into my art, my mind felt more free, my body felt more free,” he recalls.
Growing up, Jonathan’s younger brother’s severe illnesses made daily life unpredictable. His parents weren’t positive influences, so this meant Jonathan had to figure out life on his own—including how to cope with undiagnosed ADHD.
“It brought me where I’ve been today. But when I look back, I think that was a lot to handle at that age,” he says. “I didn’t get to enjoy being a child anymore. … There were a lot of times when I’d end up at the end of the day where I didn’t feel like me.”
Art made him feel authentic, however. So, when Reinhold suggested art therapy, Jonathan was immediately on board. Not everyone is as thrilled as he was, Reinhold says. Art therapy can be intimidating at first.
“Sometimes we have to do an extra art session for the ones who are nervous because they need to work through the nerves. You have to get past the anxiety,” she says. “Once we get through, they start to really enjoy it because they can be free.”
Reinhold says art therapy is very fluid and client-directed. It doesn’t strictly involve a canvas, either. Art can also encompass music, dance, theater, or poetry. One of Reinhold’s clients created comedy shtiks. Jonathan is passionate about photography.
“What naturally in your life brings you joy or do you gravitate to? That’s what’s going to help in therapy,” Reinhold says. “All of that can speak for a client and help express the self in ways they might not be able to express normally in the session.”
At the beginning of art therapy, Jonathan says there was a lot of trial and error, but he could feel his mindset changing as he got into “artistic mode.” It also allowed him to reconnect with his inner child who had set down the paintbrush all those years before.
“If I was having a bad day or my thoughts weren’t what I wanted them to be, it was, ‘Let’s go out and paint it out and see what we come up with,’” Jonathan says. “It could be great or it could be a scattered mess and that’s okay. Then I’d go back to Brianna and talk about how I handled it in the moment of artistic creation and what that looks like now. … Now it’s become something that’s a positive outlet for me. I can look at it and say, ‘I did this and I did it myself and this is why I did it.’”
Jonathan declined to share his artwork with Maricopa Life Magazine, saying it’s something he’d like to keep cherished and private for himself. Art, after all, does not need to exist for show—it only needs to exist for personal enjoyment, growth, and fulfillment.
Art for All
Art therapy is used with all ages, and can be important for children because it does not require a large vocabulary or certain degree of introspection to express feelings. Susan Cameron is president elect and secretary of Maricopa Friends of the Arts. She’s also a wildlife artist who volunteers at the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Sun Corridor at Santa Cruz Elementary School. Every week, volunteers bring art projects to the kids and encourage them to engage in their creativity. Cameron sees firsthand how creating art allows children to fully express emotions that may be challenging to articulate otherwise. It also helps them learn more about themselves.
“They’re very proud of what they’re doing,” she says. “It’s about encouragement and getting them to tap into things. The next thing you know, they’re motivated. It’s a matter of how people like to process their thoughts.”
Jim Irving, volunteer coordinator for Maricopa Unified School District, walks the halls of the District office and marvels at the walls which are resplendent with art created by students.
“Art is a way to express themselves—who they are and what they’re about—without a lot of judgment. Where in school we give you letter grades, we test you, art is yours,” he says. “It’s what you think. That’s why art is so important. If you look, that’s all art is. It’s what the artist felt at that time.”
Cameron and Irving both point out that art is also a powerful way to connect with culture and community. The therapeutic benefits aren’t restricted to the therapy office either. It can happen anywhere. Which is why Irving encourages parents to teach their children about art and invest in involving them with art projects.
“Art can be beautiful. With art, you don’t have to share your story by speaking about it,” Reinhold says. “Art is a voice for our community.”
Open to Being Open
Today, Larson works as a first article inspector where she tests the quality of metalwork. As a trained machinist, she creates intricate objects from a single piece of metal. It’s a creative environment where she’s found success and happiness. While she has an eye for precision and perfection on the job, painting has given her a medium to confront imperfection.
“It gives me time with my ego, which not a lot of people are comfortable with and that’s why I think some people struggle with their art,” she says. “When I hate myself, I hate my art more.”
When she was younger, Larson threw away most of her artwork—her mom often dumpster diving to salvage the pieces. However, things have changed. Nyah’s room smells of herbs and light streams through the window onto her painting. Her boyfriend walks through and comments, “She’s really good, isn’t she?” Larson feels good, too, and that’s reflected in the way she treated her art with compassion. She’s transformed her narrative, painting something beautiful from her pain.
To struggle is to be human, and Jonathan says it’s critical to equip oneself with healthy, reliable, and resonant coping mechanisms. Not having these positive modalities can result in tapping into unhealthy mechanisms that numb rather than heal.
“When I am overwhelmed and stressed and feel like there are no resources for me, turning to art has been my coping mechanism and I’m happy to say it's been a healthy coping mechanism,” Jonathan says. “You’ve got to find a positive, healthy outlet; a positive coping mechanism that replaces the negative thoughts and retrains that negative headspace.”
Jonathan’s brother was his best friend and inspiration—someone who he lost at a young age. Today, Jonathan says he asks how his brother would want him to live and that pushes him to keep creating art and healing.
“We weren’t designed to be robots, we were designed to be free and to live our lives through expression,” Jonathan says. “There is so much possibility that can come from it if you tap into that.”
Art is an integral part of Northern Lights Therapy. From left: Clients' art adorns the practice, a chalk wall for teen clients to use during sessions, and an art station for child clients in the play therapy room.