Drawing the unspoken: A story about the transformative power of art

It was one of those beautiful summer evenings in a coastal town of the North East of England. The children of the neighbourhood, including my 7 year old twin girls, were playing out all day. The sky was clear and blue and the sun was hot enough for everything on this earth to thrive!

I was sitting in our front garden, watching the children riding their bikes, chasing imaginary monsters and enemies. But now it was getting late and I could see they were getting tired. So, I left my deck chair and I called them back to our house as usual. The children, one by one, ran into the house and sat comfortably around the table for a refuelling snack. I watched them munching the treats fast and gulping the fresh, cold juice with pleasure; sweaty hairs, rosy cheeks, tanned skin, bright wild eyes full of childhood glory!

I sensed that they were not ready to depart from each other’s company but equally they had run out of energy. Luckily, I had bought some fresh supplies of drawing paper and markers recently and in the sight of colours and blank canvases, the children immediately settled down.

I sat discretely with them, admiring their gazes, their spirit, their splashes of colours! And then, I noticed Max (not his real name). He was frantically filling the white paper with red-on-red blotches and lines. This red was so intense and aggressive for Max who although had ample bravado and harshness in his pockets, he was only a young and tender child. Max was a small boy for his age and it was not hard to see that under all his swagger, there was just this subtle vulnerability and softness that I so much appreciated about him. He was always welcome to our home and there was only one rule he needed to follow – he was not to call the children any names because then he would have to go home. Of course, Max had broken this rule enough times to test the boundaries and accepted gracefully the consequences every time. However, on this glorious day, there was no acting out. On the contrary, he was completely immersed and focused on his drawing.

Slowly, one by one the children began to finish their work and began to look at each other’s drawings. I noticed Max had not raised his gaze from his work. To encourage him, I reflected on his use of red. He then slowly tilted his little head – half looking at his work, half looking at us – and began to unravel effortlessly, confidently and unashamedly the pain he felt during hospitalisation and the amount of blood that had emanated from his little body some years ago.

I checked on the rest of the children who by now were staring at Max with their eyes and mouths wide open, totally absorbed in his narration, amazed and scared at the same time from the painful experience their friend was so eloquently narrating. I validated everyone’s experience gently and I asked the children if they had anything to say to Max. “Woooow Maxl!” and “Oouch Max” and speechless stares! The more the children empathised with Max, the more Max was gaining in confidence, maintaining eye contact with everyone and smiling contently.

It was only later that I realised the full significance of the event. Something very important had taken place for Max that evening; his drawing had taken on the full force of his experience and had set some part of him free. His intense strokes had ceased his incapacitation and he was now in control. His frantic colouring had released his anger safely on the paper. His blood had now become a benevolent colour. All the gruesome and graphic details, feelings and memories sprawled out abstractly and defiantly in red colour on blank paper, they had now transformed into simple, courageous words. Words that made sentences listened and absorbed by his captivated audience, his little friends and me, the caring witnesses to his story, who had all survived the experience just like him!

As I walked Max back to his home that night, he seemed a little bit taller. “Good night Maria”, he simply said and I knew he felt like a superhero!

A glimpse behind that story

The memory of this story came to mind when I was invited to contribute a piece of writing for this glorious and celebratory page about children’s art. Of course, at the time of the event I was under no professional capacity, I was a mother and a responsible adult for other people’s children. But I find that this little glimpse of ordinary life is a small but powerful testament of how therapeutic art can be for children and grownups alike.

Just like with Max, drawing bypasses the defence mechanisms registered in areas of our brain and our nervous system, activates and in time can reinstate cognitive functions, which alter during traumatic experiences. Drawing releases happy chemicals which contribute to feelings of wellness and promotes the safe expression of things words cannot describe. It is a communicative, non-intrusive experience which taps into alternative routes in our brain and expresses memories, experiences, events.

Drawing and all arts trigger narrations, viewpoints, respite, conversations, healing. Oh and of course for young children – and for some adults too! - drawing is just the utter art of splashing and dripping and covering hands - and other surfaces!- into glorious paint and colour, where the messier it gets the most wonderful the joy and the discovery!

*Maria Vafeiadi holds a BA (hons) in Modern Art, Design, Film, an MA Art in Cultural Management and worked for over a decade within the contemporary arts in the UK and Greece. She went on to become a fully qualified Adult Counsellor and Psychotherapist and to develop her own private practise. Although counselling and psychotherapy are known as talking therapies, creative methods can apply, and drawing was one of the methods she used to successfully facilitate the therapeutic needs of her clients.  

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