Art can set you free

Therapists believe the process of craftsmanship can unlock the mysteries of the mind and heal the wounded soul

Anthroposophic Art Therapy Film by Vichapa Meethongklang. (Photos courtesy of Bangkok Art & Culture Centre)

In the dictionary of prisoners, freedom is a nonexistent word. But at the Thonburi Remand Prison, art therapist Supattana Wiriyasumon handed a group of male inmates an opportunity to feel free.

"The life of prisoners depends on schedules, from the moment they wake up until they go to bed," said the therapist. Supattana was tasked with conducting art therapy sessions for 13 male prisoners. Due to tight security protocols, all her materials were examined thoroughly including papers, watercolours and paintbrushes.

"I told them [the prisoners] that I gave them papers and paintbrushes, so they could have freedom. They could travel freely internally. They all worked on their paintings peacefully. Some of them asked me where they could learn painting if they were released," Supattana said of the prisoners reaction to painting.

Free watercolour paintings by prisoners.

Artworks created from "Freedom From Art" -- the art therapy session for men behind bars -- is part of "Art Of Elements & Therapy" exhibition currently on view at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC). Curated by anthroposophical art therapist Anupan Pluckpankhajee, the exhibition allows visitors to experience art and art therapy concepts as well as art therapeutic procedures through several types of genres including painting, sculpture, film and stage plays, all created by 27 artists. Visitors also can get a firsthand account of the symbiotic relationship of art with the very essence of life and how art therapy connects the two.

To shed light on the importance of art therapy as a way to heal the mind, Life spoke to three art therapists about the artwork at the show and the essence of the therapeutic process.

Anupan Pluckpankhajee

Anupan has been an art therapist since he graduated from Therapeutikum am Kraherwald in Stuttgart, Germany, 15 years ago. He said art therapy is important because art is the heart and soul of the human being. Art is a world that people can't live without.

Anupan Pluckpankhajee with Color Juxtapostion.

"A society without art is a society without feelings," said Anupan. "We live in a material world. A world of material and a world of art are very different. Material is logic and rigid, but art can move, adjust and improvise. Because there is art in this world, we still have lives that can see beauty. Patients commit suicide because they don't want to live. If an art therapist can help them to see beauty in front of them, there won't be an end of the road for them."

An anthroposophical art therapist, Anupan said art therapy emphasises work processes such as drawing and painting. When a patient comes to a therapy session, an art therapist analyses him or her through such processes and their artworks, such as whether the paintings have too much light or are very dark. He observes the patients' personality and how he draws and paints. At the exhibition, there are two charcoal drawings and four watercolour paintings by his patients. The first two paintings by one patient contained complimentary colours, which indicates an intense awakening.

"An intense awakening makes a nervous system overload, so [that means] the [artist] thinks a lot, and repeatedly, and might have difficulty sleeping. He or she needs a spatial dimension that expands the breathing abilities."

After colour and light balance in the painting was adjusted as guided by Anupan, it created a positive effect towards the patient too.

"Colour adjustment is like a prescription for medicine, but art therapy isn't medicine that can make people recover in a couple of hours. Yet, its procedure gradually softens the condition people suffer."

"Working with colours is to express feelings of an artist," Anupan said of his paintings on display. "Some colours signify fast movements while others give a feeling of slow movements. Colours also interact with one another. Visitors can feel movement when they experience the exhibition."

Prachayaporn Vorananta

Prachayaporn is an integrative and expressive art therapist who earned a postgraduate diploma in therapeutic arts from the Institute for Arts in Therapy and Education, University of East London. She combines mediums such as visual art, movement, music, sand play, puppetry, poetry and clay for a therapy session that is created for each patient because different people connect to different types of art. She believes art therapy is essential because art procedures create experiences and personal values whether a patient works in a group or as an individual.

Prachayaporn Vorananta with Transformation and In Transition.

"Art therapy is a creative process allowing a patient to use imagination, such as in music or movement or painting. Creators can connect to art, through which they develop their values and feelings that are meaningful to them. We emphasise their experiences during the creative processes not the final results," said Prachayaporn, also founder of Persona Studio.

Prachayaporn believes everyone can utilise art therapy -- either with or without medical conditions.

"We don't necessarily have to work on negative feelings or imbalanced conditions. Art therapy is good for everyone. We can work with happiness as well. When I was trained as an art therapist, I too underwent a therapy process. It was a sincere, pure and safe process. It gave me the courage to touch my true self through art."

Vichapa Meethongklang

This anthroposophical art therapist created a nearly 13-minute short film titled Anthroposophic Art Therapy Film. The short film details how a patient undergoes art therapy and how she reflects about the therapy session. Vichapa explained that the film was shot at Manarom Hospital, a private facility specialising in mental and behavioural health, but the subject in the film was not actually a patient. She was interested in the therapy because she felt stress from work. In the film, she discovered that slow paintbrush movements helped her feel more relaxed.

Vichapa Meethongklang with Life Blossoms.

Vichapa said many people believe art is only for artists or people who can draw, but this is not always true.

"When we were children, we drew or painted freely and nobody judged us. When I had patients, I told them that here was a safe space. It was fine that they didn't know how to draw or paint. The result isn't important. It is about a procedure. [While creating the artworks], we can feel ourselves breathing and are aware that colours gradually change us. Movements of colours imprint into our hearts."

One of Vichapa's art pieces on display is Life Blossoms, employing a veil painting technique that uses plant-extract watercolours. According to her, plant-extract watercolours illustrate life energy.

"Plants receive energy from the Sun and the Earth. Plant-extract watercolours provide very soft colours, but after looking at it for a while, the paintings gradually become clearer and the life energy of plants will imprint upon us. We currently spend our lives with vivid colours and too-bright light such as our smartphones. Working with these colours, the eyes get a chance to rest," Vichapa said.

Plant-extract watercolours are also beneficial when used in an art therapy session for cancer patients or socially-isolated people given they are gentle for the inner soul.

"They [patients] will receive energy while using the colours. An art therapist can incorporate other natural elements during the therapy session, so patients can paint and simultaneously smell nature."

  • "Art Of Element & Therapy" runs until Nov 3 at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Admission is free.
  • As part of the exhibition, the Arts Therapy Performance -- a live semi-demonstration 60-minute performance that shows the process of an art therapy session -- runs every Saturday and Sunday at 2pm until Oct 13. Tickets are 350 baht.
  • For reservations, contact B-floor Theatre at 094-494-5104. For more information visit bacc.or.th.