Creative Insights: with Louise Mustard
~ Michelle Saleeba
Perth artist and art therapist Louise Mustard joins us for this week's Creative Insights conversation, which I have to confess is a written down version of our not regular enough chats about all things creativity, art therapy and counselling. In fact, it was these wonderful sharing of knowledge and experiences conversations that inspired this blog series! I hope you enjoy Lou's insights and artwork as much as I do.
Michelle Saleeba: It has been said that creative work is fundamentally tied to our sense of vitality and wellbeing. Why do you think this is?
Louise Mustard: It is natural for humans to express ourselves creatively. From very early history it has been an important part of how we see ourselves and relate to others and the world around us. In modern western society we have lost a lot of the rituals that help to bind us together or reinforce how we see the world, and the arts have been seen by many as something only a few skilled and trained people can engage in. A lot of people feel discouraged from expressing themselves creatively and language can be limiting when you are dealing with emotions that you don’t fully understand, or that you may not even by consciously aware of. Creative expression allows you to get things out in a way that is beyond words and when you have externalised them you can look at them from a different perspective which can provide valuable insight.
MS: If there is intrinsic therapeutic benefit to engaging in creative pursuits, how is art in therapy, or art psychotherapy, different and why is it beneficial?
LM: Engaging in any kind of creative expression can certainly be healing and it can work on all kinds of levels. It can help alleviate anxiety by taking you out of your thinking mind, it engages your senses and puts you in touch with your body and it can be enjoyable. You can also develop skills that can increase your self-esteem and a product that can be appreciated.
Arts psychotherapy is able to utilise these benefits in a more directed way. The process is client driven in the sense that it is based on the client’s goal and there is no judgement or interpretation of what is created. It is not about the product but rather the process and what emerges during it. Facilitation of the process is key. An important aspect of what the therapist brings is knowledge of mediums and the ability to select those that best resonate with what the client is trying to express. Holding the space and witnessing is important, as is mirroring and paraphrasing, as they help the client to clarify their experience and identify themes. Any insight gained can then be consciously related back to the client’s goal and integrated helping to create change.
MS: Why art therapy?
LM: I experienced my own mental health crisis in my 30’s. During this time I was struggling to maintain a full-time job and care for 3 children as a sole parent. I could never understand why despite being exhausted all the time, for some reason at the end of each day I always had time to paint, often until the early hours of the morning. It wasn’t until much later that it hit me that my art practice was sustaining me. It allowed me to get into ‘the zone’ and away from my over thinking mind and it allowed me to just get things out of my system. A side benefit was that I created works that I was able to exhibit and sell, though my main reason for doing this was so that I could afford to buy more materials to keep painting. I really don’t know how I would have gotten through without it. Once I really understood the role that art had played for me I could see the potential to help others and I knew that I had found my occupation.
MS: Who do you work with?
LM: My work is quite varied. I have a small private practice where I see people one-to-one but most of the work I do is for not-for-profit organisations in the mental health sector. I run workshops at a psychosocial rehabilitation centre for people with a diagnosed mental illness, a non-clinical environment run on a club house model. Art therapy is a perfect fit in this environment because it is client driven and run in groups which helps provide an opportunity for people to connect and get to know each other. Each workshop is an activity which provides an opportunity for self-discovery. When I first started there was a lot of anxiety from participants about not having the skill to participate. People were also reticent to talk about their artworks. Now that fear has gone and members enthusiastically participate. Over time they have also become more comfortable with the language of metaphor, allowing them to talk with each other about their inner world in an indirect but very clear and understandable way.
I also run regular art therapy workshops for young carers and residents of supported mental health housing as well as a range of ad-hoc workshops for various organisations including corporate planning and team building days.
MS: In your view how is the creative therapies field responding to the incredible amount of research that is happening and in particular our increasing understanding of neuroscience?
LM: The more we understand about neuroscience the more it shines light on the value of expressive arts therapy. New understanding about brain plasticity shows us that we can change our neural networks right into old age but our whole experience is sensory, our brains tend to think in images and symbols rather than words, and awareness of trauma is housed in parts of the brain that we don’t have verbal access to so it makes sense to work in a more sensory way. There is a fair bit of work being done recently in attempting to understand what happens in the brain and body during art therapy, and it appears to be well grounded in research and evidence based theory. The Art Therapy Relational Neuroscience (ATR-N) approach developed by Noah Hass-Cohen is a great example of this.
MS: Research has shown the therapeutic relationship between therapist and client as paramount to positive outcomes. In art therapy there is a third element in the relationship, the artwork, how does this triad alter the therapeutic process?
LM: The artwork is an externalisation of the client’s inner world. Putting it out there allows them to see it from a different perspective and work with it in a creative way. This process also provides a bit of distance so it can feel safer. The relationship between the therapist and client is still important but the artwork is like a third party and becomes the focus. Both the client and therapist are able to observe the artwork as it evolves as well as each other’s response to it.
MS: Often therapists have a defining professional experience that enhances or solidifies the why of their practice. Have you had any formative experiences, or lessons that have impacted on you as an art therapist?
LM: There are two experiences that come to mind. The first was a with young person who had been very uncommunicative and claimed not to have any feelings. When I asked him to stand in front of an outline of his body and use crayons to transfer what was inside him onto the shape, he began, without hesitation to fill in the head and chest area with jagged red lines and thick grey. He told me that the red was the anger he felt when a certain thing happened and the grey was the heavy feeling he carried because that thing kept happening. He appeared genuinely surprised at these feelings that he had not been consciously aware of.
The other experience was with a woman who was experiencing extreme anxiety and could not settle. I asked her to draw the anxiety and she created a big black mess on the page. She drew herself in the middle of it and became very upset. She said she wanted to get the little person out of the mess so I handed her some scissors and she cut the little person out and placed her off to the side. She expressed immediate relief and then noticed that there was a hole in the mess. She looked at it thoughtfully for a while and then commented that she thought it looked more like a space than a hole. Then after a bit more consideration she started talking about what she could do if there was some space and her focus began to shift to the space as an opportunity. This was something I had experienced myself through my own art practice. When you are immersed in anxiety and stress it is hard to get perspective. In a very short time this activity shifted her state of mind and provided the possibility of something that had not been there before, and it gave her hope.
MS: Do you feel there are perceived barriers to participation in creative activities generally, and art therapy specifically? How might these be overcome?
LM: Definitely. It is very common for people to feel that they don’t really have a right to create art, that it is something only certain very talented or specially trained people are able to do. They fear that they will be judged and ridiculed. It is very important to reinforce that art therapy is not about the product or what anyone else thinks of it. It often takes a bit of time to build trust and convince people that they don’t have to follow any rules. Sometimes I will participate alongside a client to make them feel more comfortable in creating. You also have to be quite flexible as people sometimes have an aversion to certain mediums.
MS: There is substantial research about the importance of social connectivity for health and wellbeing. Art therapy is often delivered as a group process. Does making art with others enhance social connection and a sense of belonging?
LM: Yes, in my experience it can be a very positive experience, particularly when the same group work together over a period of time. Building trust and confidence can take a bit of time but people get more comfortable creating around each other and also more comfortable talking about their work with each other. They often gain insight from each other’s experience and enjoy the mutual support.
MS: Part of the art therapy process is helping clients realise the ways in which they are already resilient. How do you incorporate this process of assisting people to identify their existing strengths into your practice?
LM: Awareness of personal strengths seems to be something that often comes out quite naturally when people are able to gain a clearer perspective. Often they will say things that reflect how they have remembered or interpreted their experience but when they externalise it in a non-verbal way they are able to see more of the picture. They see their own story from the outside and their response to their own part in it changes. Mirroring and questioning from the therapist can help to draw this out.
MS: Most art therapists have their own art practice, which we don’t often hear about! Describe your art practice, are there any consistent themes, metaphors or stories in your work?
LM: My own art practice preceded my training as an art therapist and continues to be an important way for me to process my experiences. Since training as an art therapist my own work has changed significantly, becoming much looser and more abstract. There is a particular theme that has been evolving for the past few years. It started with images of fear and overwhelm which led to the artwork titled “I am all of this”. This painting was a bit of a turning point for me. It shifted something inside me because I realised that if this artwork represents me, then I am not just the centre of my own storm but everything else outside it too, including the beautiful rising sun and clear skies. It opened up the idea of space within and the possibility of moving around in it and choosing my perspective. A more recent artwork “Something’s come up” expresses the release of long held negativity which was helping to hold the storm together. The artworks capture what is happening for me but they also reinforce the process of positive change and keep the momentum going.
MS: What strategies do you employ to help yourself when you feel creatively blocked? How might you encourage someone who is experiencing creative 'stuckness'?
LM: I will always remember an older relative once told me that “Motivation follows Action”. At the time it really annoyed me because I felt my problem was that I didn’t know what action to take. Now I think I understand what he was trying to say. It doesn’t matter what action I take as long as it is something. Sometimes I will take out a piece of paper and just doodle with no expectations. Often this will take me into the zone which makes me want to keep going and sometimes images can arise spontaneously that inspire me. With clients, it depends on the individual. I might give them materials that resonate with the feeling of ‘stuckness’, such as clay that is difficult to soften and mould, allowing them to explore the experience and perhaps gain insight into what is causing the block. Sometimes I will give them free flowing materials such as watercolour or soft pastel so they can experience the opposite feeling. Self-judgement is often an issue so it is always important to create a sense of trust and freedom within the therapeutic relationship.
MS: Is there a book that has really influenced your development as an art therapist? Briefly explain its significance for you.
LM: There are so many books, but I think Lisa Hinz’ “Expressive Therapies Continuum” (2009) has been very helpful because it provides a good framework for how to work with materials in art therapy. “Art Therapy and The Neuroscience of Relationships, Creativity & Resiliency” (2015) by Noah Hass-Cohen & Joanna Clyde Findlay has also been really helpful in increasing my understanding of why art therapy works.
MS: Do you have any exciting news, upcoming projects or publications relating to your work that you’d like to share?
LM: I’m an active member of the Arts and Mental Health Network (AMHN) committee. Our main task each year is to organise an exhibition during Mental Health Week for artists with lived experience of mental health issues. This is a great opportunity for individuals to express and share their experience and promote the use of the expressive arts in the mental health sector. In 2018 over 150 canvases were on show, with works for sale and all proceeds going direct to the artists. Keep an eye on the AMHN facebook page for details of this year’s exhibition.