I will never forget how shocked I felt when, having volunteered in my children's school to run art activity groups, several eight year olds declared loudly 'I'm no good at art, Miss!'. I thought: 'Who told you that? You are too young to feel like this!'. The sad thing was that they were all very keen to join in, attracted by the display of bright collage materials, paints and crayons, but the feeling of 'being no good at art' definitely held them back, making them hesitate. Not long ago, they would have all crowded around the table, confident in their ability to make messy and exuberant artworks full of stories and meaning: the fact that these would end up looking soggy and messy did not lessen their enthusiasm and enjoyment. However, by the age of eight, many felt that to make art, one had to be "good at it" - which meant being able to reproduce objects, people, houses, etc., as realistically as possible (so not much room for imagination and interpretation there!). The message was that being no good at art, it was no longer their business to do any, however much they may have enjoyed it - what a loss!
This message certainly has lasting power: as an art therapist, encouraging and supporting people with mental health problems to discover their creative potential through visual art has been at the heart of my practice. Although aesthetic judgment is not part of art therapy, like the children described above, many clients declare initially: 'I am no good at art!'. My research on art therapy for work-related stress also met the same response from professionals who volunteered to participate in art therapy groups.
However, I found repeatedly one striking common theme between children, art therapy clients and professionals: given 'permission to play' with art materials without fear of being judged, many reconnect with a deep enjoyment of art-making. The children who had thought of themselves as 'no good at art' became enthusiastic and regular participants in the art groups. Evidence increasingly shows a link between arts participation, resilience and improved social skills in children - it was certainly the case here but this does not stop at childhood: it works in the same way for people of all ages. Many clients introduced to art through art therapy decided to make it part of their own lives, and own it as a positive part of their identity. Some joined community art groups and built important social networks as a result. Some professional staff visited art galleries for the first time in their lives and joined art classes, having found that art-based approaches really did help to keep stress in check.
Creativity is an important factor in maintaining health and wellbeing and visual art is but a part of it - however, I feel it is time to actively challenge the belief that art is only for the chosen, gifted few. I know that art has helped save lives: within art therapy, it has enabled children and adults to make sense of thoughts and feelings when words were not enough. As an activity, it has given meaning and direction to many children and young people who did not engage academically.
The current popularity of adult colouring books is, I feel, a testimony to the real depth of interest in art and creativity - although not 'art therapy' as we would define it (in the UK, art therapy is a state regulated profession) , people have described finding the colouring activity soothing and good for stress-relief. I also think that colouring books have enabled people to re-connect safely with art-making: facing a blank page can be a more intimidating prospect than being creative with ready-made patterns. Importantly, no one needs to be an expert to enjoy colouring - the same should apply to all forms of art-making. Art is for everyone and I do hope that somehow, children describing themselves as 'no good at art' will become a thing of the past.
Young Minds Matter is a new series designed to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the UK's mental health crisis among children. To read more blog posts on the issue, click here: http://projects.huffingtonpost.co.uk/young-minds-matter/ To blog on the site as part of Young Minds Matter email firstname.lastname@example.org