Spring 2024

The Healing Power of Art

Paul Kyte

The Healing Power of Art

It’s true that some of history’s most renowned artists have created their most iconic works during periods of intense emotional turmoil. Vincent van Gogh’s masterpiece “At Eternity’s Gate” and Edvard Munch’s haunting “The Scream” are indeed prime examples of this idea.

Van Gogh’s tumultuous life was marked by struggles with mental health, yet his inner turmoil fueled a creative output. “At Eternity’s Gate” captures the raw emotion and introspection that defined much of his work, reflecting his connection to the natural world and his own inner demons.

Similarly, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” is an expression of existential angst and despair, reflecting the artist’s own struggles with anxiety and depression. The distorted figures and swirling colours evoke a sense of dread and alienation, resonating with viewers on a deeply emotional level.

Art, whether it be dancing, writing, poetry, sculpting, or painting has become a recognized treatment by health professionals for people dealing with mental health challenges.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century when Adrian Hill (1895 – 1977) a British artist, confined to bed during his convalescence from tuberculosis in 1938 found that making art not only helped pass the time but aided his recovery by relieving and improving his mental state. 

In 1939 he was asked to return and provide art lessons for injured soldiers and civilians which proved instrumental in aiding their mental recovery during rehabilitation. Adrian Hill served in WW1 at the western front as a soldier and later as a war artist due to his natural artistic talent. He would eventually complete his art education, write books, and in his later years become an educator and broadcaster. In the years following his convalescence, he pursued his goal to make art a recognized form of mental therapy including the establishment of the British Art Therapist Association in 1964 along with his colleague Edward Adamson who was also a strident practitioner of the use of art therapy. 

Creating art serves as a powerful tool in promoting mental health, regardless of the form, skill level, or outcome of the artistic endeavor. It’s the process itself that acts as a catalyst for improving well-being. Engaging in artistic expression has a calming effect on the mind, reducing cortisol levels and triggering the release of dopamine.

When individuals immerse themselves in the creative process, their brains are rewarded with dopamine, leading to feelings of happiness and motivation to continue creating. This positive reinforcement loop fosters a sense of fulfillment and encourages ongoing artistic exploration.

Art provides a unique avenue for communication, particularly for those who find it challenging to express their feelings verbally. Through art, individuals can focus their thoughts and emotions, conveying them in a non-verbal manner that can be deeply cathartic and therapeutic.

The benefits of art extend beyond psychological well-being to include physiological healing. Adrian Hill’s work with wounded soldiers during World War II demonstrated how engaging in artistic activities can aid in the recovery process, offering a holistic approach to rehabilitation.

The early efforts by Hill and Adamson had a profound impact that extended far beyond England. Their pioneering work laid the groundwork for the establishment of art therapy associations in other countries. In 1969, the United States founded the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), recognizing the therapeutic benefits of art in promoting mental health and well-being. Following suit, Canada established its own association, the Canadian Art Therapy Association (CATA), in 1977. These organizations continue to advocate for the integration of art therapy into healthcare practices, supporting research, education, and professional development in the field. In Ottawa, CHEO supports an art therapy program as part of its YouthNet alternate therapy organization and there are many forms of art therapist organizations and accreditation courses around the world.

Creating art, in any form, can provide a meditative calmness, focus, and a mirror to oneself. From understanding a child’s inner fears to battling dementia, art as therapy is proving to be an alternative, holistic and companion course of treatment by health professionals. 

The QAC applauds Mississauga Arts Council’s ArtsCare Initiatives Championing the therapeutic value of creative expression.


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