Art : difficult to express emotions

Many people who have been abused find it very difficult to express their feelings of hurt, anger, confusion, desire for revenge and pain.  These are all hard to put into words; and expressing feelings of anger and desire for revenge can also cause great harm if they are not expressed in a helpful and healthy way.

Nonetheless, most professionals would agree that it is important for victims of abuse to be able to express about the full range of their emotions and to acknowledge the situations in which these feelings arose.

Art is one way of expressing these important and deep feelings without causing harm to either the survivor or others.  Women who have participated in the research around the art groups have told me that expressing these feelings in art – especially clay – has been really useful to them. They have found that their feelings “go through their fingers and into the clay” and they are able to see in their art works the feelings that have been hard to say in words.

We work with difficult emotions through art after we have done lots of other arts projects.  The group has formed and everyone feels safe and comfortable with each other, with creating, in the creative space and with the support of the artist and the counsellor.  These steps are important to the work.

One way of expressing emotions is to work with different materials – such as clay, paper, wire, fabric and nails in such a way that each will change in the kiln.  We know that the clay will become stronger, the paper and fabric will burn away leaving only ash, and the wire and nails will become brittle.  These changes give us a language.  For example, we can use the wire and nails quite viciously in the wet clay at the same time as knowing that they will become brittle through firing.  Perhaps that can help express the anger – then allow a process for it to become less intense?  One woman created a home environment using a range of materials.  It seemed to tell a story of her childhood and feelings of entrapment and insecurity.  But when it was fired, the cage became fragile.  Although she still feels the impact of abuse, as an adult she is perhaps acknowledging that she is not as disempowered as she was as a child.

Art is useful in a number of ways : firstly, it enables expression and it communicates.  Secondly, it is a slow and gentle process.  It does not overwhelm participants but does give them a way to see and feel what has often been hard to name.  Once express through an art object, participants find they are more able to understand then communicate through words.  Many feel a sense of release – and also pleasure in being able to “do what I have always wanted to do” without causing harm.

It is also a great way to share with others.  I have seen people who had not yet publicly acknowledge an abusive past respond to artworks with compassion, tears and gratitude that others have helped them acknowledge their painful past and feelings.

If you are interested in this theme, you may wish to read more about it in my thesis “The Creative Space.  Art in the shadow of Trauma, Loss and Grief” (to be uploaded soon!) in which this is discussed more fully.

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excerpt from ‘The Creative Space.  Art in the Shadow of Trauma, Grief and Loss

Strength, resilience and transformation, as well as thoughts and feelings difficult to verbally describe, such as the sensation of feeling “dead inside”, or separate from the world can be encapsulated in art.  One participant applied this metaphor of transformation by comparing the clay and the women.  Like the clay, she said, women seem soft, malleable and weak.  Like clay being made durable by the firing process, those who have survived extreme tension find they too have remarkable resilience and strength.

Through this experimentation with materials, a practice that lies outside a conventional community ceramic practice, participants developed a visual language to convey their experiences of trauma, loss and grief.As it tended to embed fragility and unpredictability into the work, this experimentation had the unexpected consequence of liberating participants from their anxieties about how their work might emerge from the kiln.  Accepting it might break, some boldly pushed the materials to their limit.

Work in this blog was created by participants in the SECASA Cranbourne Art Group, 2013.