Special Qualities of Digital Media
Digital media generally play an important role in both, art education and art therapy. Carlton (2014) defines digital media as “any type of storage, transmission, or product in digital format including hard drives, networking or communication modes, and computer-generated text, graphics, animations, photographs, sound files, and video used in many types of art forms such as theatre, music, graphic design and writing, visual arts, and dance (p.19).” Malchiodi (2000) states that the field of art therapy is increasingly influenced by the growing use of computers, technologies, and electronic means of communication (p.13). “Large-scale utilization of computer tools and new technologies has shifted our communication, cognition, and behavior (Carlton, 2014, p.20).” Various forms of digital media that have been used in the art therapy field since the 1970s (Malchiodi, 21) include photocopying, photography and video, and later—Photoshop and digital drawing.
Digital media has inherent documented qualities not found in traditional materials. Natalie Carlton (2014) points to playback and immediacy, emotional distancing, and elements of pause, movability, mobility, and re-presentation being the main aspects of new technologies that she recognizes in her research on digital media in art therapy. Immediacy of playback and pause, gives participants an instant sense of satisfaction, allowing them time for self-reflection and exploration. It heightens the sense of control over the created imagery as well as one’s emotional state. Emotional distancing of digital media “supports the containment of affect and impulse control for clients”. Through reviewing the material, making instant changes and corrections, participants have an ability “to change their stories for empowerment and trauma resolution goals”. Movability is a quality of digital media that refers to one’s ability to watch his or her recorded physical movement and experience the sensations of those movements, sounds and interactions” from an objective perspective of a viewer. It allows for self-reflection and detailed analysis of all layered multi-sensory components of the recording. Mobility of the digital media refers both, to tools and equipment being easily transportable and to accessibility to sharing of the creative products, which in turn, can give certain participants a sense of inclusivity (especially individuals, who might not otherwise benefit from the traditional forms of art therapy because of disabilities, illness, or physical limitations (Malchiodi, 2000, p. 23)). Carlton defines re-presentation as a “media quality where digital media has become a vital part of documentation and saving of artworks from analogue to digital formats to save, submit, or show later”. It is a digital diary—a timeline representation of visual content. It is also a quality of expressing one’s interpretation of both outer world and internal thoughts and feelings.
Animation in Art Therapy and Education Environments
An interpretation of those qualities can be extended onto the specific analysis of animation in art therapy and education environments. Animation Therapy’s Helen Mason describes the organization’s approach to applying animation in therapeutic settings as “person-centric”, rooted in a belief “that every person is unique and experiences the world, through their senses, in their own individual way (Mason 2011, p.40).” As a powerful tool of expression, animation can be used as an extension of one’s reality. Through the use of play, stories, narratives, and visual metaphors, it allows communicating complex and subtle ideas, difficult themes, thoughts and experiences. Through this process, the client is an active participant of setting therapy goals and a key decision-maker. “Therapeutic goals are set with the individual, drawing on what she or he perceives to be meaningful (Mason 2011, p. 41).”
Helen Mason (2009) states that animation is one of the tools having an ability to cross generational gaps through its familiarity and accessibility to both, children and adults (p.111). That familiarity of animation being a popular form of entertainment, allows animators and therapists alike to introduce aspects of collaboration and “omnipotence” of animation. “The need to work with other people (either directly or non-directly) makes it useful for exploring relationships; connections needed with other roles in the animation team can be facilitated through the computer interface as well as the creative process graded by the experienced therapist (Mason, 2009, p. 112).” Lisa LaBracio, a freelance animator working in various therapeutic and social settings with children and young adults, often introduces aspects of patience and collaboration in animation through a discussion about commonly known (in the West) examples of hit Pixar movies (number of the creators and amount of time spend on a feature). “I usually give people specific titles like director of animation, cameraman, etc. That makes kids feel very powerful. It's very nice to have a name […] It puts gravity on everything that they [participants] are doing (personal communication, November 24, 2015).” By employing traditional roles used in animation studio and therefore, developing role-playing scenarios, therapists and clinicians are able to support less confident participants within a group—whether it is a family or a workplace structure—by breaking preexisting hierarchies and group dynamics. Members of the group, who normally might not experience leadership roles (ex. children, interns) can be put in a position of “power” as animation directors or lead animators, while the more dominant participants (ex. parents, CEOs), can take a role of an intern (Ashworth & Mason, 2013, p.10). This aspect of group animation allows for gaining, shifting and understanding power dynamics and ideas of control. LaBracio, who has created numerous animation workshops in homeless shelters, orphanages and a refugee camp, states that “kids in general have very little control over their lives so it's always very fun to give someone a tool that they have complete and utter control over.” In creating her workshop curricula, LaBracio focuses on three tiers of experience: cognitive, emotional, and social—putting special significance on the emotional one, because as she states, “the other two can’t happen without it.” As a main building block of a safe environment, attention to a positive emotional experience creates trust and respect necessary for meaningful and open relationships within the group (L. LaBracio, personal communication, November 24, 2015).
In a family therapy setting, animation is a tool used to analyze and build parent-child relationships through child-led exploration. Reported positive outcomes of incorporating animation “ranged from enhancing self-esteem and worth, encouraging parent/child communication (attachment), learning and experiencing through role play and psycho-education (Mason and Ashworth, 2013, p.10).” Animation therapy is also meant to be versatile. Through the use of different tools and approaches, it can be “incorporated into skills based training (social skills, anxiety and anger control programs)” and modified according to a client’s needs, abilities or skillset in either individual or group settings (Mason, 2009, p. 111-112). “The versatility of animation as a therapeutic activity makes it possible to move with the client’s interests and skills, to get the level of challenge just right and, hence, to engage the person fully in the activity. Opportunities are created for therapeutic distancing, the use of metaphor, symbolic expression and storytelling (Mason, 2011, p. 41).”
As in other forms of digital technologies used in art therapy, time is an important quality, separating animation from traditional mediums. Along with the self-reflectivity provided by digital “time travel” (playback and pause), the physical passage of time, while creating animation, allows for a deeper connection and understanding of a subject. Mason (2009) describes an example of patients during long periods of hospitalization whom “animation enables to project into a world of imagination to offer hope and prepare for change (p.112)”. The slow processes of creating animation “can support positive developmental skills and tasks such as frustration tolerance and delayed gratification (Carlton, 2014, p.94).
In their clinical practice, Ashworth and Mason (2014) use haptic animation—stop motion of physical materials that are moved or altered in each frame to create a sequence of movement—which allows for relating perception and object manipulation using the senses of touch and proprioception. By controlling everyday objects, one can attribute a new meaning to them, which in turn can be used within a therapeutic setting. On the other hand, using pliable materials such as clay in animation creates “opportunities for expression and creation in that any shape can easily be made, or destroyed (p.6)”. This focuses the attention of treating the material in a certain way. The process of creation of the object and its transformation might act as a metaphorical tool of the animator’s / client’s self-expression. As client is responsible for the creation of all elements, including characters, backgrounds, props, story and time itself, those (conscious or unconscious) choices and relationships can be later discussed and analyzed. They “reveal a meaning that is perhaps not immediately fully formed, but can lead to an understanding by the client or the therapist, with the potential for provoking questions.” That sense of being in control can translate to empowerment and self-affirmation and hopefully trickle into the client’s real life (p.4-9).
Through my own experiences teaching animation to both children and adults, I have observed a great appeal of this art form that presents itself differently than other types of digital media. As my students generally understand a video camera technology (its use, capability to capture movement, and basic processes used in a video creation), animation basics are not as transparent. The novelty and “mystery” of this medium, enhances the process of learning about it and heightens the gratification of seeing the finished product. The sense of power, control and accomplishment that comes with creating an illusion of movement empowers and motivates students. The long lasting effects of mastering an understanding of the software and the creation process itself can have powerful therapeutic implications in various learning or community environments.
Joan Ashworth and Helen Mason describe animation as an effective medium through which one can express complex and subtle ideas. “One of the many interesting qualities observed from using animation is how the process can enable the visual externalization of thoughts and feelings that may be difficult or impossible to verbalize through talking based therapy approaches alone.” In their clinical practice, Ashworth and Mason use haptic animation—stop motion of physical materials which are moved or altered in each frame to create a sequence of movement—which allows for relating the perception and object manipulation using the senses of touch and proprioception. By controlling everyday objects, one can attribute them new meaning, which can be used within a therapeutic setting. On the other hand, using pliable materials such as clay in animation creates “opportunities for expression and creation in that any shape can easily be made, or destroyed. (It focuses the attention of treating the material in a certain way).” The process of creation of the object and its transformation might act as a metaphorical tool of the animator’s / client’s self-expression. As client is responsible for the creation of all elements, including characters, backgrounds, props, story and time itself, those (conscious or unconscious) choices and relationships can be later discussed and analyzed. They “reveal a meaning that is perhaps not immediately fully formed, but can lead to an understanding by the client or the therapist, with the potential for provoking questions.” That sense of being in control can translate to empowerment and self-affirmation and hopefully trickle into the client’s real life. On par with my own understanding of therapeutic approaches in a classroom setting, Ashworth and Mason state:
The evidence is pointing towards the need to think about the person as a whole: their mental, physical and spiritual health. Through using evidence based theories and approaches that underpin modern day therapy practice across non-traditional boundaries, animated activity has the potential to enhance clinical outcomes and experiences for people accessing services in inpatient settings as well as in their community and everyday life. (2010, p. 11)
Should art education be therapeutic?
One of the most important questions of my research is: Should art education be therapeutic? My research was designed around my own root belief that therapeutic means should be used in education due to many of my students’ hardship in everyday lives and animation specifically, could have therapeutic qualities if desired so by the educator. Met with contradictory views and teaching philosophies from many educators whom I shared my belief with, seeking an answer to this question became a personal mission. Furthermore, I believe that the separation between art education and art therapy stems from semantics and core definition of the word “therapeutic”, which is as fluid as the discipline itself. At no point, do I argue that art education should substitute therapy, nor do I say that art teachers are equipped to practice art therapy in a traditional sense. Instead, I try to understand how art therapy can influence education settings; where the boundaries are; and how bridging of the two disciplines and understanding some aspects of art therapy by educators can benefit students.
Historically, the two disciplines of art education and art therapy developed parallelly; therefore, there are lingering similarities between them. Person-centered approach of therapy is parallel to critical pedagogy, where the client / student is the main force behind decision-making of their treatment / education plan. Holistic approach to a person in art therapy, realizing the importance of social, emotional, physical, and cognitive aspects for an overall well being of the client, along with understanding human and artistic development is similar to aspects of social-emotional learning (SEL) in education. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) at http://www.casel.org , SEL “enhances students’ capacity to integrate skills, attitudes and behaviors to deal effectively and ethically with daily tasks and challenges” through focusing on five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness.
Generally, the traditional ideas of art therapy being primarily a diagnostic tool or means used in pathological situations, are often rejected by currently practicing art therapists, who understand their broad role of enriching the patient’s lives through arts integration and collaborative processes (Fuller, 1984, p. ix). Reaching out of their discipline and working with professionals from other fields, like science, education, and theater functions as a tool of incorporating art in variety of ways and benefiting the individuals on a wider scale. Fuller writes about a growing trend among contemporary psychoanalysts, who started to consider primary and secondary therapeutic processes as “being complementary rather than opposed: they argue that both are adaptive, and necessary for creative and healthy human life at every stage of development” (p. x). In my research, I have met with many art therapists who had similar theories on interdisciplinary collaboration and were open to the idea of working with me, an educator, in art therapy environments. On the other hand, in academic circles I found more opposition to the idea, as considered potentially “unethical” to work in therapeutic settings without formal education. I do agree that the line should be drawn as soon as educational practices become harmful in any way to a student, regardless the environment or situation, but unfortunately, we are not always aware of a student’s need for therapy. One could argue that we might all benefit from therapeutic approaches at school, home, or workplace. Often, the understanding of separation between the two disciplines of art education and art therapy only focuses on the purpose of art making— in art, “the final product is an end in itself, and is exhibited as a work of art; the process of creating is secondary” […] In therapy, the person and process become most important, as art is used as a means of non-verbal communication” (Dalley, 1984, p. xii). But what happens when we circumvent the traditional labels of each discipline and allow ourselves to cross the systemic limitations, often reinforced by the institution? This research showed me that though, there are limitations to what I can do in the shared fields of art education and art therapy, the outcomes of such interdisciplinary collaboration can be extremely fruitful and successful. I believe that it must be my conscious choice to incorporate therapeutic approaches in my teaching practice, but if I can benefit my students in any way, academic, social, emotional, etc., my role as an educator is fulfilled.
Ashworth, J., &, Mason, H. (2010). Animation in Therapy: The innovative uses of haptic animation in clinical and community therapeutic practice. Retrieved from http://www.animationtherapy.co.uk/professional-home/professional-research.aspx
Carlton, N. R. (2014). Digital media use in art therapy (Order No. 3682148). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I. Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (1657428250).
Dalley T. (1984). Introduction. In T. Dalley (Ed.), Art as Therapy: An introduction to the use of art as a therapeutic technique (pp. xi-xxviii). London: Tavistock
Fuller P. (1984). Foreword. In T. Dalley (Ed.), Art as Therapy: An introduction to the use of art as a therapeutic technique (pp. ix-x). London: Tavistock
Malchiodi, C. (2000). Art Therapy & Computer Technology: A Virtual Studio of Possibilities. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Mason, H. (2009). Dare to Dream:The use of animation in occupational therapy. Mental Health Occupational Therapy, 14(3), 111-115.
Mason, H. (2011). The re‐animation approach: Animation and therapy. Journal of Assistive Technologies Journal of Assistive Technologies, 5(1), 40-42.