Art as a Language

By Kelsey Butler


You may know quite well the tune “It’s a Small World” (sorry to get it stuck in your head…again), but it’s not only smiles and tears that are a universal human language. Art has a way of cutting through language barriers to form an intimate connection between people of entirely different cultures. Not only that, but “the use of art for healing and mastery is at least as old as the drawings on the walls of caves,” (Rubin, 2005, p. 6). Throughout time and history mankind has attempted to share their internal experience with their community. Art ranges in styles and media depending on the culture, but it is consistently seen as a source of releasing, processing, and understanding. That’s what makes art so special – it crosses gaps in conversation in a way that few other things can.

As an art instructor at a children’s art studio in town, I’ve witnessed how preverbal children are able to communicate through markers or paint even when they can’t form words. It is instinctual to our human nature to create, to share, to sublimate. What is sublimation in art, you may ask? That’s an extremely important part of why art is such an instinct for people of all ages. In the most basic definition, to sublimate through art is to formally externalize the internal world. As humans we have a drive to create an external representation of our internal experience, to create formal expressions through art media as a way to process our lives. In doing this, we allow ourselves to psychologically and physically act out our impulses in a socially accepted way. For more on sublimation check out Edith Kramer’s works, particularly the chapter called Art Therapy and Sublimation in Art as Therapy (Kramer, 2000).

When working with a client from another culture, utilizing art therapy can feel more effortless and safe than other Western psychotherapeutic orientations. Marxen (2003) found that one advantage of art therapy for multicultural populations is the client’s ability to use their own symbolization without the pressure of having to adjust or adapt to the therapist or host country’s culture. Her research also shows that “art therapy reduces the importance of verbalization so the [client] does not have to know well the therapist’s language,” (p. 1). Malchiodi (2003) agrees with Marxen’s findings, adding that “creativity and nonverbal imagery is inherent in all people…art therapy seems a logical choice in serving individuals and families of diverse populations,” (p. 384).

ImageArt History is Not Linear by Ryan McGinness


Not only is art a language that bridges people of different tongues, but it also offers a language for a universal yet incomprehensible human experience – trauma. When an individual experiences trauma they go into a fight, flight, or freeze response, regressing into their youngest preverbal self activated by the brain stem. This is an important and useful defense in the midst of a traumatic moment because it allows our psychological world to be put on hold in order to make it through the experience as sanely as possible. 

Once the trauma is over and the individual is safe and ready to process the event, it can be hard to recall exactly what happened. As you read in Chelsey’s post last week, the survivor can feel unpredictable and unstable. They might feel confused, like the experience happened in a blur or on a chaotic timeline that doesn’t make any sense. There are no words to explain their experience, but the trauma is pent up inside of them aching to be seen, validated, and released. 

When you think about it, of course these memories are hard to access – the individual was in a regressed and extreme state during the trauma. There was no way for their memory to be intact because the primary concern was staying alive. There’s no time to take in anything concrete, the only focus is on making it through this experience. That’s where art comes in.

Many times traumatic experiences are recalled primarily through images. Art allows space to bypass vocabulary that can sometimes taint or hinder parts of the exact experience. When a survivor of trauma is allowed to simply draw, mold, or paint their experience versus articulate the events, there is much more room for the true story to be told. It allows for the reconnection of implicit images and explicit memories of the experience, bridging the sensory and the narrative of what happened. In allowing for the release of the trauma into a formed expression, “the sensory-based qualities of art and expressive arts are key to helping individuals communicate traumatic memories, repair, and recover,” (Malchiodi, 2012). 

A few days after the flood in Boulder last Fall I was teaching an Open Studio class for children ages 1 – 12. Kids have the creative freedom to move from station to station to work on different art projects and materials. I stopped by the clay station and spoke with a 5 year old boy who was a regular at Open Studio.

“Will you tell me about your creation?” I asked curiously.

The child looked at me and simply stated “This is the mud that came down the mountain behind our house. See the rocks? These are the people driving away looking at it. That one is me.”

I was in awe. Without even being directed, this child instinctually was processing the trauma of watching a mudslide take down his house. As I moved through the stations, story after story was told through each child’s artwork. A flooded basement with floating legos at the painting table, a family dog wading through a backyard at the paper arts station, a demolished school covered with blue marks of “water” at the next table…everywhere I turned were more and more stories of the children’s experiences of the flood. I was in awe at the automatic response to recreate their stories, but in reality it made total sense. A traumatic event had occurred in these kids’ daily lives and they needed some way to sublimate and share.


My own art therapy – processing around the Boulder Flood


I want to be clear – Art Therapy is not solely for kids. People of all ages can benefit from finding their artistic language. The instinct is inside of all of us waiting to be let free. This language that transcends cultures and experiences can heal the most wounded of us all. Imagine if one’s life was consumed by traumatic experiences. Think about the drive to create for those populations, and how much can be done to support this. That’s my hope for our trip to Cambodia this Spring. I want to open up space to allow this artistic language to be explored. By creating a safe atmosphere and the materials to support this exploration, my hope is that the resilient survivors of human trafficking and poverty in Cambodia can look inside themselves and release the language that has been there all along.



Kramer, E. (2000). Art therapy and sublimation. Art as therapy (39-46). Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Rubin, J. (2005) Roots. Child Art Therapy (3-18). New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Malchiodi, C. (2013, March 06).Retrieved from

Malchiodi, C. (2003). Handbook of art therapy. New York: Guilford Press.

Marxen, E. (2003). The benefits of art therapy in the immigration field. Migra-salut-mental. Retrieved from

McGiness, R. (2009). Art history is not linear, panel 7 [Painting]. Retrieved from


Individual and Intergenerational Trauma

ImageBy Chelsey Langlinais 

What does trauma look like on an individual and cultural level?

While preparing for our Service Learning trip there are many different things that as a group and individually we need to be aware of before we leave, and while we are in Cambodia. An important and central factor in the work we will be doing is trauma. But trauma does not only mean that we will be working with people who have experienced trauma themselves, there is also transgenerational trauma, which the Cambodian people hold as a nation, inflicted on their ancestors by the Khmer Rouge. 

According to the American Psychological Association trauma is defined as an “emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea”.

Transgenerational trauma is defined as trauma that was transferred from the first generation of survivors that have experienced or witnessed it directly in the past to the second and further generations of offspring of the survivors.  Steinberg states that survivors can directly and indirectly share their feelings of anxiety with their offspring (1989).

What types of art therapy could be useful for working with trauma survivors in Cambodia?

For survivors, Trauma-informed expressive arts therapy (Malchiodi, 2013) is useful in 4 main ways including, the mind and body respond to traumatic events; 2.recognition that symptoms are adaptive coping strategies rather than pathology; 3.emphasis on cultural sensitivity and empowerment; 4.helping to move individuals from being not only survivors, but ultimately to becoming “thrivers” through skill building, support networks, and resilience enhancement.

According to Tan, art therapy has been proven to improve the mental health of women who have been trafficked by giving them purpose and empowering them. Using art can allow for difficult emotions to be felt and expressed in a safe environment (pp. 296).

While in Cambodia we will be using art interventions to assist and teach these skills through group work and experiential opportunities. We will be working closely with the staff members at our partner organizations, to best assist the clientele in appropriate ways. Mainly we will be working with women who have been sex-trafficked, children who have been orphaned, and poverty stricken nation in general, using art therapy to assist in these healing processes.  

Examples of possible art interventions will include a puppet theater, and handmade puppets, mask making, creating dream catchers, etc. These interventions are directly helpful in working with trafficking because of the ability of metaphor to happen, and also for re-authoring of their stories to empower these women and children. In doing these interventions we hope to leave behind the tools and skills for the participants to continue the work of art therapy after we leave. “The power of art is its potential to express metaphorical life experiences of the conscious and unconscious, the individual and collective, through the creative process”(Essame, pp.  99).  

Also in the case of transgenerational trauma the“…arts provide a reference for individual and collective cultural identity… (and)…play a key role in empowering Cambodian people, who suffered a loss of cultural dignity during and after the Khmer Rouge Holocaust…”(Herbert, pp. 220).  Individual trauma could also be directly related to, or more deeply rooted within someone, because of the transgenerational trauma that Cambodian people already suffer with.  This is why it is vital for this trip to be aware of the multiple kinds of trauma that could be affecting the work we will be doing.

Examples of the art therapy techniques we will be practicing include group work, and utilizing an open studio model using art as therapy. We will provide stations with pre-planned art directives, providing opportunities to create together as a group or individually in the group setting. The goal for this kind of open studio model will be for connection to happen, a sense of community and fun, but also to create objects with sustainable materials (bracelets, scarves, eye pillows) that will be sold so they can better provide for their families.

What is my goal on this trip?

My goal on this trip is not to try and “fix” anything, because who am I to say what needs fixing, I only wish to offer what I can to people who may benefit from it. I want to share my passion for creating and the therapeutic power that art holds. I also wish to extend my heart and my hands to the people we will be working with, feel the heaviness, see the resiliency, and make a connection by using art as a meeting ground and communication tool. I also hope to gain a deeper awareness of the power art can have for myself by creating my own empathy art throughout this trip.



Artwork by Emma Ehrenthal (2014).

Essame, C. (2012). Collective versus individualist societies and the impact of Asian values on art therapy in Singapore. In D.Kalmanowitz, J. Potash & S. Chan (Eds.) Art Therapy in Asia: To the bone or wrapped in silk (pp.91-101). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Herbert, C. (2012). The integration of arts therapy and traditional Cambodian arts and rituals in recovery from political-societal trauma. In In D.Kalmanowitz, J. Potash & S. Chan (Eds.) Art Therapy in Asia: To the bone or wrapped in silk (pp.209-220). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Malchiodi, C.(2013, March 06).Retrieved from

Steinberg, A. (1989). Holocaust survivors and their children: A review of the clinical literature. In P. Marcus & A. Rosenberg (Eds.), Healing their wounds: Psychotherapy with Holocaust survivors and their families (pp.24-48). New York: Praegar

Tan,L. (2012). Surviving Shame: Engaging art therapy with trafficked survivors in south East Asia. In D. Kalmanowitz, J. Potash & S. Chan (Eds.) Art Therapy in Asia: To the bone or wrapped in silk (pp.283-296). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Response Art, and the Art of Listening Well

By Liz Maher       March 5th, 2014

As we prepare for the experience of traveling across the globe to sit with strangers, my biggest concern is my ability to be a good listener and witness. Our time together will be brief, so it is essential that when we sit with our Cambodian clients, we are fully present. Training to become Art Therapists, a big focus is on honing the ability to connect empathically to someone else’s experience while managing one’s own emotional reactions. This entails negotiating a balance between the head and the heart, being neither emotionally hijacked to the point of overwhelm, nor clamoring to the safe highground of the intellectual realm, but being able to share in the qualitative experience of the other while maintaining objective neutrality, understanding where one’s experience ends and the other’s begins.

Recently I shared something personal with a friend, and was unhappy about the way my story was received. What upset me was that our interaction felt familiar, a communication pattern often played out between men and women. As I spent a few days processing through art, I realized this is part of a pattern enacted all the time when there is a power imbalance, and realized the high likelihood of it being played out during the course of our work in Cambodia.

When someone in a position of privilege listens to a story told by someone of lesser privilege, there exists a vulnerable power dynamic. The sharer of the story places a great deal of hope in the story as a vessel for being understood. Perhaps the receiver of the story is in a position to effect change on a systemic level. Sharing a story of trauma is inherently re-traumatizing, the sharer of the story is re-living the event under the gaze of another. How that story is received can be the difference between deepening the groove of the trauma pattern, or having a transformative corrective experience.

I will share with you an example of how it might feel when a story is received incorrectly, specifically when it whisked away into the sterile realm of rationality. You have been handed a precious beating heart, something that has been the lived experience of this person for years, and has informed all of their decisions, colored their perceptions, inhabited their dreams and nightmares. Then you take it away from them, take that beating heart out of context. You intellectualize it, explain it, make it manageable. You cut it off from the organism in which it lives, and you kill that beating heart, so it becomes a dry shriveled relic, something to be viewed behind glass, easily understood and digested and forgotten. You fulfill what you view as your moral obligation, and you chose the moment where you get to walk away. This is not listening. It is holding a hot potato and tossing it before you get burned. It is the discomfort with our own feelings around that beating heart that compel us to fold it up into a neat package as quickly as possible. We tend to call something “resolved” when we are ready to put it on a shelf and not deal with it anymore.

Having their experience minimized makes the sharer of the story feel profoundly dismissed and devalued. A verbal response is not always the most appropriate response. Being a witness is what matters. Being seen, heard, and accurately reflected back to is what matters. That is where validation occurs, and where healing can begin. If the receiver begins to work out a solution before the sharer has finished speaking, the sharer feels even more alienated, disconnected, and misunderstood than before. It reinforces the message that this story is not palatable and not to be shared, and that she must bury it and be alone. This furthers the sense of isolation, hopelessness and withdrawal.

Here is some artwork I made around that communication experience.


Earlier this year, I watched the documentary “Half the Sky”, which features incredible women in developing countries who are doing advocacy work for oppressed women and girls. Several vignettes in this documentary were upsetting for what I saw as an offensive degree of cultural insensitivity in the condescending interactions between local women and the visiting celebrities. I’d like to preface the following story by saying that I do not mean to undercut the work that celebrities do when they visit an impoverished country. The celebrities who starred in “Half the Sky” do a tremendous service by bringing media awareness to painful topics that would otherwise be overlooked by Western audiences. To paraphrase a friend’s comment following this fall’s Video Music Awards, “Perhaps we should Photoshop GIFs of Miley Cyrus twerking next to Syria, that being the only way we can get Americans to pay attention to world events.”  It is an unfortunate truth about our particular culture, that we tend to pay attention to international issues only when a beautiful blonde light shines next to it. But I digress.

In this segment of the documentary, Meg Ryan is visiting with young Cambodian girls who have been rescued from brothels. One of the girls asks Meg, “Now that you have heard our stories, how do you feel?” Meg responds, “Stories have such power. When you tell your story, it has dignity, it transforms the experience…” As she speaks, the faces of the little girls glaze over. They have been vulnerable, they have shared their stories of being kidnapped and raped and sold into slavery, and then one girl asked Meg Ryan to be vulnerable and share how she felt. “Has my story made an impact?” is perhaps her underlying question. But instead, Meg Ryan begins to wax poetic about the power of narrative, taking the conversation to the philosophical realm, and far away from the table where she sits with the girls. In doing so, she effectively says “I have not listened with my heart to your story, only with my head.” It would have been much better to answer the question directly and honestly. “Hearing your story, I feel sad. It has touched my heart.”

Empathy is about sharing in the quality of someone’s emotional experience, but not it’s quantity. This evening, I turned to empathy art in attempts to sort out my feelings in regards to someone else’s experience. This week’s class readings have been all about the psychological impact of prostitution and sexual slavery. The case studies have been based on interviews from women working in the sex industry, and reading these accounts, I feel overwhelmed with sadness and hopelessness. I had the good fortune of being born into a world of privilege, so I cannot relate to the external factors of their stories. But what slowed my heart and made my bones heavy was that there is qualitatively something there that I relate to. The women speak about how they feel about their experiences, their PTSD symptoms and the psychological responses and I think, “This feels familiar.” And that connection feels terrifying. From here, I can choose to either fall into a pit of agony and be derailed for the next few hours, or dissociate and allow my feelings to be extinguished and suffocated by compartmentalizing and moving on to the next task.  To stay with that feeling and explore exactly what about it resonates for me, is a difficult but necessary task.

The reason I create empathy art is to put myself in the experience of the other. I set out to depict her story, but furnish it with elements consistent with my own experience, and it becomes a hybrid. That is the amazing thing about art. It translates experience into symbols and metaphors which other people can personally connect to. Being specific and literal makes it hard for someone to enter your experience. Archetypes, however, are big enough to contain everyone’s experience. We all have a personal context from which to understand how it feels to be hurt and betrayed, vulnerable, not in control. Art making is an escape from normal consciousness, and a place to blur the boundaries between individual and universal experience. It is an opportunity to try on someone else’s experience, to feel it in our own skin, and develop more accurate empathy.

I have not been raped by strangers and held in captivity, but I have experienced frightening situations of sexual inequality. I do not share the experience of the women whose stories I have read, but I do share in their anger, pain, and shame.

When I sit with a client, I cannot say, “I know how you feel.” But perhaps I can say, “Here is how hearing your story feels for me.” It is not an interpretation. It is not a solution. It does not take the experience away from the person who has lived it. It is witnessing, reflecting back, and letting the sharer of the story know that she has been seen and heard.