90: The Art Speaks

90: The Art Speaks

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries

The Art Speaks

The aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.

~Aristotle

When the beautiful young woman rolled into my art room for the first time, her angry frown was the first hint that I had my work cut out for me. From reading her chart I knew that Janet’s injuries were from a car accident. She could not walk, was unable to speak, and had partial use of only one hand.

So how was she going to create art?

Without hesitation Janet halted her electric wheelchair at the table where drawing paper, markers, pencils and crayons were already set out. She reached her shaky hand for a marker and began to scribble on the paper. Each stroke grew more impassioned and uncontrolled.

For the next fifteen minutes her feelings of intense anger screamed out from the saturated paper. Panting with exhaustion, she sat back in her chair and looked up at me with a huge grin.

Part of my role as an art psychotherapist in the residential TBI treatment facility was to provide art materials and methods that would help my patients creatively restore a sense of self-worth. I felt fortunate that my master’s degree in art therapy education included interventions for and an understanding of physical, psychological, neurological and speech deficits. I also knew it was important for me to guard against being an enabler by doing for patients like Janet what they, with effort, could do for themselves.

“Feel better?” I queried with an approving smile.

She nodded a vigorous yes and began to laugh when she looked at her paper. With the help of an alphabet communications board, she laboriously told me, “I’m mad at the weather. The snow means my family is not going to come to visit me this weekend.”

Over the following months of her stay at the rehab center, Janet learned she could safely give voice to her frustrations through her artwork and explored new ways to feel successful.

Because Janet’s father died while she was in a coma, some of her anger was related to grieving his death. Family members provided photos that she used to meticulously complete a collage of her early life and special memories with her dad. She also composed a poem in his honor as the centerpiece for the collage. The artwork she created not only gave her a sense of accomplishment, it provided her a way to “speak” about his death and get some closure.

Many of my patients, like Janet, had poor motor coordination or use of only one hand. What would take me minutes to draw, took them several sessions to complete. Because of speech deficits, they drew what they wanted to say.

For my patients surviving and thriving with TBI, art is a form of self-expression without concern for aesthetic quality. With paint and paper, in color, texture, and form, their art becomes the words they cannot say, the emotions that cannot be expressed. But each of them shows me something larger: they are revealing to me a world of patience, tenacity and fortitude that I can only one day hope to attain for myself.

~Maryanne Higley Hamilton, MAT, ATR

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