The power of expressive art

Fire, Mikella Millen, 2022

From time to time, and especially when therapy is ending for someone, I’m asked what made me choose therapy as a profession. This can be a pretty long and personal answer if I were to respond completely. But regardless of scope I would have to start with the fact that I chose specifically to become an Art Therapist. I didn’t know at the time where this path would lead me, I especially never imagined myself to have a New York City private practice where I was more often providing talk therapy (or whatever you would call my version of that). Which isn’t to say that I haven’t enjoyed this path because I have, but it came from necessity of meeting the needs of whoever I’m working with. And I’ve also chosen to approach Art Therapy from a broad lens that considers that art-making and creative practice is not only about producing tangible things that we call “Art.” And I am especially critical of the distinction between “high art” and other forms often referred to as craft or “low art.”

Ultimately my decision to pursue art therapy was rooted in the healing I experienced through creative expression. Making art absolutely saved my life, it was a literal lifeline between my own depths of despair and trauma towards somethingTowards myself. It created an avenue to express what felt unsayable. It allowed me to make a beginning before I had even the slightest trust that I would ever share those experiences or even admit them to myself. Unfortunately I didn’t have an awesome art therapist who could witness this process unfold, but I was ok with that. Because I knew. When I look back, one of my most personally important pieces that I made in my art school years was an installation piece based on a particular kind of light that happens in the morning after it has snowed. It was based in a childhood memory of finding some hope and peace where there was not much to be found.

I made a video piece in that installation that managed to evoke some of those very feelings in those who watched it. It was because the context wasn’t known to them that this experience was so meaningful for me. I felt seen and joined in my memory without having to disclose anything. I felt less alone. It healed something in me.
Especially when the genres of expression intersect, we can have almost miraculous depths of expression where we join with the maker. 

When writing meets visual art meets music meets a sense of movement we can feel a deep sensorial experience that goes so far beyond what any individual discipline could express. Interestingly, two of the most poignant examples of this that I’ve experienced recently are in animated shows that bend the genre between drama and comedy. The first is pretty much the entire series Bojack Horseman, which I thought was going to be some light comedy while my wife was working late for a while and turned out to be a powerful depiction of the impacts of trauma, addiction, and fame. (I won’t go into it more because I personally hate spoilers, if you have seen it you know, and if you haven’t I highly recommend watching it!). And the second is a particular scene from Tuca and Bertie’s “Jelly Lakes” episode (trigger warning) that deeply moved me. [I don’t have the rights to link to a clip, but watch the episode and you’ll know what I mean]. This is also an illustration of how all art forms hold the ability to express emotions and experience that cannot easily be put into words. They come to life through a range of creative modes, I’m sure you have your own examples of being unexpectedly moved. The line between laughing and crying is a fine one, and energetically I’m not sure there’s much distinction.

Water, Mikella Millen, 2022

Sometimes we forget that to create is our birthright, we can all express artistically. The encouraging of those with “talent” to pursue the arts while discouraging others, the emphasis on focusing practice on skills that will provide a “stable income,” and the overall focus on giving up “childish things” to focus on more serious endeavors are just a few of the reasons why our creativity is dampened. To create is to experience alchemy, to transmute energy. In Art Therapy we might say it’s a venue for sublimation. From the perspective of the chakra system our creative drives are housed in the second chakra (Sacral Chakra), along with sexuality and passion. It is an essential gateway to access the totality of our energy, to experience flow and connection, and one of the most unique aspects of being human.

I was reminded by the presence of some pretty interesting artists in my recent mediumship class that creativity is often quite spiritual. It is being inspired to bring something into existence from the void. Sometimes it feels as if it already existed, as if it’s being guided from beyond instead of “created by us.” Inspired, this summer I started approaching my altar building as a form of art making and dropped into a creative groove I haven’t felt in a long time.

Earth, Mikella Millen, 2022

Altars are a special kind of installation art because they are not only for the viewer, they are intended to call in and hold energy. They are alive in the way a particularly inspired painting is alive, or a site of ancient rites. They honor something, become a space to visit in contemplation, they hold our intentions, and of course they beautify our homes as well. I’m reminded as we move towards the Fall and perhaps begin thinking more about connecting with our ancestors and spirits beyond the veil, that sometimes making an Altar doesn’t feel very intuitive. Or maybe we have forgotten how. There are definitely specific cultural reference points for Altars that serve different purposes, and so if you are building one for a specific purpose it’s useful to do some research about it. But you can also create one for any reason.

When I’m traveling it can be as simple as arranging a few crystals or shells around a candle on the nightstand. Or it can be as elaborate as a whole shelf or console tabletop with an array of objects representing all the energies you want to call in, arranged with balance and symmetry. Some like to leave offerings on their Altars such as chocolate or flowers. In my own home there are altars everywhere, and in my NYC abode that means when I want to create a new one there often must be space cleared. I’ve had the idea for a while of making “portable altars” or those that were actually fixed together and easy to move around. More of a fine art piece that becomes a permanent installation rather than objects arranged temporarily on a surface.

It can be hard to make art when you fear it will have no place to live. Much like singing or playing music alone in your apartment, or writing in your journal— it still carries meaning and joy but sometimes it’s even more powerful to share it. Maybe it depends on the circumstances who you wish to share it with (humans are not the only witnesses).

Who is witnessing you as you create?

What role has creativity and play had in your life? Has it saved you? Maybe it saved someone else.

Perhaps it has been a long time since you felt the creative spark, but I believe it lives within you somewhere. Where do you feel it?

Do you create altars?  Do they need to be witnessed? (send me a picture if you like)

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