Friday, October 16, 2009

Art, Healing, and Elizabeth Layton

In "Creativity and Madness: Psychological Studies of Art and Artists," counselor and art therapist, Vivian Rogers wrote the following about artist, Elizabeth Layton:

“The artist, Elizabeth Layton, defied traditional rites of passage in old age. Her point of departure was a 30- year crisis of manic depression and the cruelest blow of all – the death of a child. Yet ahead was an astonishing journey of creativity and personality growth…

…The death of a son precipitated a psychological crisis when she was 67 and was the turning point in Layton’s late life development…

…It had been a rocky road, with a lingering sadness that began in childhood, a failed first marriage, the need to support five young children, and life in a small Midwestern town where, as county newspaper editor, her liberated views often put her at odds with her readers. Thirteen electroshock treatments, lithium and psychotherapy failed to bring any lasting relief. A successful second marriage and the support of loving friends and family also proved inadequate to buffer the pain.”

While grieving for her son, Layton followed her sister’s advice and enrolled in a drawing class at Ottawa University. While taking the course Layton was introduced to blind contour drawing, a technique designed to assist the artist in tapping into the right side of the brain so that he or she experiences what is drawn rather than simply drawing what is seen. “From the inward search, carried on through drawings so stark she could hardly look at them, Layton’s depression lifted, and healing came within the year and her bi-polar symptoms never returned.”

From the time Layton took her first class in her sixties, she completed over a 1,000 drawings, many of which have been displayed in prestigious galleries and museums. Rogers wrote, “At first convinced that it was the contour drawing technique alone that cured her, Layton was later to conclude that it was both the act of blind contour drawing and the finding of meaning in her drawings that made her well. She thought that those who do contour drawing experience some sort of catharsis, some relief from the pain of their emotions as, after the images mysteriously take shape on the page, the artist reflect on the meanings of what they have drawn. …Layton’s written commentary, which often accompanied her drawings, was another way she explored and shared meaning. …Layton said the commentary also provided closure.”

In "The Art Therapy Source Book", Cathy Malchiodi observes, “Art therapy is a powerful means of making painful and frightening events concrete and dissociating them from ourselves. …one of the most impressive aspects of the arts process is its potential to achieve or restore psychological equilibrium. Art therapy emerged from the idea that art can be used not only to alleviate or contain feelings of trauma, fear, or anxiety but also to repair, restore, and heal.” Therapist and author, Natalie Rogers writes, “Part of the psychotherapeutic process is to awaken the creative life-force energy. Thus creativity and therapy overlap.”

It’s not my intention to suggest for a moment that art is a magical cure for mental illnesses and despair. I wish it were that simple. However, I certainly find Layton’s story to be inspirational and one that supports my belief in the tremendous potential contained within art and other creative acts to foster meaning and facilitate healing.

A free online lesson in Blind Contour Drawing

Drawing Against Depression

Grandma Layton: Art Heals

Progress: Special Edition on the Treatment of Trauma and Creative Arts Therapy

How Creativity Heals

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