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A canvas of healing

culture main photo by eleni petridou
photo by Eleni Petridou

Art can be expressed in numerous different ways. So can therapy. But what happens when these two worlds merge? ELENI PHILIPPOU finds out

Both therapy and art have been around for millennia, their fusion however is a later concept dating back to the 1940s and 50s when artist Adrian Hill coined the term after he was hospitalised for tuberculosis and saw the positive impact of painting on the healing process. The American military uses art therapy as part of its strategy to deal with post-traumatic stress. In Cyprus too it is beginning to gain recognition and is on the rise.

In between paint brushes, canvases and crayons, I was introduced to the world of art therapy, guided each time by different professionals. Lenia Georgiou guided a collaborative workshop on love at her space and Eleni Petridou Bouriti ran thematic workshops at Nicosia museums. The experience felt different each time yet the process of exploring feelings, thoughts and sensations remained a constant.

culture2 photo by demetris loutsios
Photo by Demetris Loutsios

“Art Therapy is one of the four creative therapies, alongside drama therapy, dance therapy, and music therapy,” says Lenia. “It is a form of psychotherapy that utilises the creative process and art media as primary methods of expression and communication, addressing the concerns of individuals. When words prove insufficient to convey feelings, art therapy becomes an essential form of psychological support, creating distance to explore ways of managing and coping with them.”

Sessions can be private or in groups like the ones I attended, and despite popular belief, they are not just for children. Adults and the elderly also practise art therapy as a tool to manage stress, cultivate a positive self-image and uncover deeper parts of themselves.

You don’t need to be good at art to attend a session or have a pressing issue to resolve. “Art therapy is not a recreational activity or an art class,” says Eleni, “even though it can be fun at times.”

The thought of ‘being good at it’ and producing something worthwhile did come to mind during the workshops I attended yet I quickly realised that focusing on that would be missing the point. The point, for me at least, was to give in to the creative process and observe what kind of stories my subconscious released. Drawing and painting however did not take up the whole session. Embodiment exercises, interactive prompts and discussions are also included.

“There are numerous misconceptions about art psychotherapy,” comments Eleni, “especially in Cyprus.” Therapists do not analyse drawings and perhaps most importantly, not just any licensed therapist, artist or teacher can provide Art Therapy.

“Certified art psychotherapists,” Eleni explains “are mental health professionals and are required to obtain a primary education degree in the field of art or general social/humanistic studies and then a specialisation following an intensive postgraduate programme that includes courses in psychology, theoretical art classes clinical practice, clinical and academic supervision as well as personal psychotherapy.”

In Cyprus, the profession is still gaining ground with just around 10 registered certified art therapists currently active. More attention has been given to it in the last two to three years, likely the aftermath of the Covid lockdowns when the need for a creative outlet and taking care of mental health skyrocketed.

“Post-pandemic, the arts have been recognised as beneficial to mental health, and art institutions are now acknowledged as wellbeing spaces, inspired by the widespread practices of art therapy programmes in museums and galleries abroad,” says Lenia.

Now, cultural institutions, care homes and centres have begun including art therapy in their programmes yet most of the initiatives are still privately funded. “State advocacy is important, to permit us to work in state public inpatient and outpatient settings,” says Eleni. “Only with that, we can obtain insurance reimbursement, as well as protect the art therapy profession from the threat of deregulation, which would take away the public’s ability to discern qualified practitioners from bad actors.”

Locally, there is no related training institution offering art psychotherapy postgraduate diplomas either yet changes are happening and Eleni is part of one. She is one of the founders of the Art Therapists and Members Society whose goal is to raise awareness about art therapy, make services more accessible to communities, and promote legislative and regulatory initiatives.

Recent projects in galleries and museums are bringing art therapy closer to the public and their audience tends to be mostly women. Around the world, around 80 per cent of art therapists are female, yet art has therapeutic qualities for all and when guided, it can open doors to a whole other world within.

The roots of art can be traced back to the very essence of human existence,” says Lenia. “Across various cultures throughout history, creative expressions such as singing, dancing and drawing have been employed as healing rituals.”

Art is certainly healing, less about the result and more about the process of letting the mind run free and the body to remember. Getting my hands dirty with colourful paint allowed thoughts and memories of my inner world to come out on canvas. No structure or goal at hand, just a curiosity and willingness to explore the deepest corners of the inner world.

While there is still a lot to be done to support the art therapy profession in Cyprus there is a growing interest in the field and what a fascinating experience it can be to get to know yourself through artistic intervention.


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