By Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet, BSW, MSW, RSW
I’ve written about art as therapy before.
I’ve ventured to describe my impression that observing art is an opportunity for emotional awareness, connection and perspective. Hearing a song, we might see parts of ourselves reflected, feel connected to the composition, the images, the artist or even to the piece itself. We might even see our own struggles in their broader context, as human struggles. And somehow that awareness brings a glimmer of hope and release.
I’ve suggested that creating art is a shift to the here and now. As art creators we are focused and present. Our senses are sharp and our analytic mind is quiet. Absorbed in the process, even if momentarily, we can touch something more expansive and gain a sense of ease in our daily experience. Art can offer an opportunity for insight that can play a supporting role in our healing.
I wrote about it because a couple of years ago the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) had an exhibit called Art as Therapy. I was pretty intrigued. I was excited to see this concept expressed visually, through an exhibit that would cross oceans and international borders.
Sadly, my heart was largely untouched. I read the curators’ expectations for the emotional resonance of the chosen pieces. I tried to draw into it, and when my interest was waning, through gritted teeth and forced focus I contemplated their reflections and endured my steps from painting to painting. But I left realizing that the exhibit’s explanation of art as therapy had failed to provoke that experience in me.
Last week, while a massive collective consciousness buzzed about our true Canadian poet and the last stop on The Tragically Hip’s tour, I also just happened toward the AGO to see the Idea of The North, an exhibit of Lawren Harris’ works, a founding member of the group of seven, curated by Steve Martin, Cynthia Burlingham, Andrew Hunter and Fredrik S. Eaton.
The simultaneous experience of The Hip’s departure and the Harris exhibit, provoked in me that response I have when art does that thing it does best, when art is therapeutic. Last week, I felt it.
In my work with a new client, I do a check-up on basic self-care. We use an Indigenous model of wellbeing and split human needs into four realms, emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual. Spiritual needs are usually the most difficult to define and the most personal and even controversial to get at. I am quick to explain my focus here is not on religiosity. My aim here is to help people identify the sources of those touching, but likely ephemeral moments of peace or beauty where we come outside of ourselves for even a moment and in turn, see ourselves as part of something bigger.
To find a moment in time where we step back from our mess of thoughts and emotions in the urgency of our daily life. A moment in time when the limitations of our own life can fade and lose that urgency and we just float.
For me, the art as therapy experience runs parallel.
Depicted on the wall of the AGO exhibit is a quotation from Harris,
“Every work of art which really moves us is in some degree a revelation – it changes us.”
Art can provide a sense of familiarity and validation that allows for emotional release or expression and a touch of expansiveness. Often this comes from a piece’s delicate depiction of misery and majesty, using a forum that connects the observers by highlighting our collective experience. The pairing of the devastating and the sublime, the miserable and the beautiful, staunch reality and the human capacity to touch in with the sacred. It can’t just be shown, it must somehow be incited in the observer, the creator, or both.
What both of these artists have done, is validated us by capturing something universal about the miserable and divine in human experience. Whether this be Harris’ depiction of struggle-filled region in 1910s Toronto to his idealized mountain landscapes, or The Hip’s enigmatic, heart-opening sound that is coupled with the grounded realness in their lyrics. The Harris exhibit takes us from the depleted to the sublime. I’d also argue that Gord Downie and The Hip’s works do this in the single strokes of each song.
Moreover, the forums they use, the places we know, both guide us to engage and unify us further. The Hip more recently with their unrelenting presence on the figurative landscape of Canadian music, but both with their ability to capture our perceptions of life in this country through use of images of Canada that inspire familiarity.
For a Canadian icon, Downie is characteristically enigmatic about his views on nationalism. He has been quietly complex in defining his take on it in both his works and his personal views. Maybe we need to reframe nationalism in these works to mean a pathway to connecting the human spirit, in the manner available to the artist and the observer. The art draws us in because of our geographic commonalities, but it holds us because it mingles our experiences of earthly humanness with our sense of majesty.
There are places in this world that we, as Canadians get to see feel and touch. And to have them recalled against the backdrop of the miserable and the majestic, and to feel our commonality as a result, allows that moment in time when we step back from our daily noise. Both Gord Downie’s music and Lawren Harris’ works entwine the devastating and the sacred. They unify and connect the human spirit through our collective experience of misery and majesty using the landscapes we know so well.
In a song entitled Vancouver Divorce from his 2001 solo album Downie asks,
“If not here where do we belong?”
and ends with,
“I love your paintings-don’t take your colours away.
I’ve grown more fearful of them every day.
Swimming up their dark rivers to discover your source,
a source of strange and unrequited remorse.
And I found the end of the world, of course,
but it’s not the end of the world, of course.
It’s just a Vancouver divorce.
It’s just a Vancouver divorce.”
(photo by Lindsay Taylor Thompson)
To Gord, if I can call him that, (I’ve never met him but like so many others I feel so intimately acquainted with him), and the rest of the Tragically Hip, thank you for giving us the images, the validation and that feeling to process our collective sense of loss over your passing. And, not to mention, the enduring tools to work through the tough terrain of our own lives.
To read Part 1 of Art as Therapy go to CBTinTrinityBellwoods.com and click on “FORUM”.
I maintain a regular mental health blog on the darouwellness.com site, so check back in for more support for anxiety, depression, insomnia, emotional difficulties, trauma and general coping and mental wellness.
Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet is a Mental Health Therapist, Supervisor and Instructor.