The Transformative Power of Art

By Terry Hatcher, PhD.

As a sad and silent 2-year-old, too depressed to speak, I was introduced to clay at a child care facility in Berkeley, California. Touching and playing with that wonderful material fixed the moment and the experience in my mind. I can still see the bright primary colors of the diminutive chairs and tables we sat and worked at. That experience marked the beginning of my being able to express myself and communicate with others.

Over the 25 years that I have taught art to children, I have come to realize that drawing and sculpting are languages. In fact, they are a native, universal language that belongs to all human beings. Images are our oldest communication tool; they are pre-verbal.

Art allows us to express those things that we know but don't know we know, those feelings—both physical and emotional—that belong to our rich unconscious lives and the life of the human collective. Learning to express ourselves non-verbally allows us to problem solve more creatively using our whole minds, our whole beings. All learning can foster positive growth, but because of the imbalance in our culture and educational system, many of us, both young and old, are starved for the non-linear and relationship-centered self-expression provided by the visual arts.

As an artist-therapist, I have observed people who can no longer speak or see paint a picture or sculpt in clay so that they may be seen and heard. I have seen both children and adults experience powerful feelings of excitement, anger and grief through drawing, painting and sculpting. They have been allowed to see and feel themselves and develop their sense of courage and confidence and freedom of self-expression. Art allows us to connect our eyes and what we see to our mind's reflective power and our heart's emotions.

It isn't enough for us as parents, educators and administrators to talk about the arts, to write about the arts, even to support the arts in and out of educational and therapeutic settings: we must experience the arts. It is impossible to express in words a non-verbal skill. Instead, it must be something we have practiced and felt; and when we embody that experience, we are transformed.

Learning to draw representationally has affected my relationships both with myself and other people. As I began to be able to render proportions accurately in my drawings, I noticed that my relationships were more in proportion, more realistic. It also affected my facility with foreign languages: my ability to absorb other languages has improved along with my drawing skills. And I feel that my verbal communication skills have definitely been enhanced by my practice with the non-verbal communication skill of rendering.

Everyone who can learn to read can learn to draw, which is to say, everyone can learn to see and accurately render what is seen. To be able to do this is to be alive, present and in the moment, it is to be powerfully connected to people and things. And this leads to the ability to create new and, perhaps, even better worlds.

Art makes order out of chaos. We mustn't let our fear of chaos shut the arts out of our lives. Through the arts we move, we take informed action, we see and are heard. Through this activity, this shake-up of old forms, we have the potential to create new forms and establish art as a reverent and sympathetic response to the passion and pain of life.

Terry Hatcher, PhD.

*Article reprinted from Children's Advocate, NOV/DEC 1989

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