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


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