David Gussak Ph.D., ATR-BC

Art on Trial


Prison Art: Is It Therapy or "Therapeutic"? So What?

Making art in prison may be therapeutic but is it therapy? It depends...

Posted Jul 28, 2015

Source: Gussak

A year ago, I posted a column about how the drive to create in prison is so pervasive that it couldn’t be held back by the limitations inherent in the system. I illustrated the post  [see “Prison Art: Strings ARE Attached”] with a guitar created out of cardboard, plastic bags and shoe polish.

Source: Gussak

Since then, the prison warden who sent me the guitar has shipped me many other pieces for safe keeping, and has emailed me images of sculptures made from popsicle sticks, wet newspaper, colored pencils, shoe polish and markers.

Several months ago, I wrote about a man who used colored dye extracted from M&Ms to paint (see "The Candy Man"). Over the past year I have had several guest bloggers who facilitated amazing art programs in various correctional settings (see "Anathema Art" and "Brush with the Law").

Notice the orange tie? Yeah, she didn't either...
Source: Gussak

This past winter, I had the good fortune of presenting with Piper Kerman [author of the book Orange is The New Black]. We talked about the benefits of prison art programs. She recounted how her peers in the federal women’s facility would create to rise above the dehumanization and the limitations the prison thrust on its wards, to reclaim self-worth heretofore taken away.

Concurrently, a gallery show was curated to display a number of prison art pieces for public viewing.

It brought into sharp relief the creative beauty hidden behind the walls.

Source: Gussak

All of these underscore what I continue to stress--that  there is an inherent drive to create, a need to make something out of nothing in these restrictive, suffocating environments. That there is a real therapeutic value of making art in prison.

However, is this therapy?

Well, it depends.

Undoubtedly, I support arts programming in prison. I have consulted with a number of artist facilitators around the country to help bring the arts inside. I recognize that those who use and facilitate the arts promote therapeutic benefits.

Independently alleviating ones anxiety, decreasing stress and escaping from fear is valuable; however, being able to replace these with healthy coping skills and good mental health requires deep, explorative therapy with a trained professional.

We are a culture of DIY. We want to pick up a recipe book to follow pre-ordained steps for a better us. We rely on coloring pre-drawn images to self-soothe and cathart on the page. We want to simultaneously self-diagnose and self-treat.

Is this enough?

Without an art therapist working in relationship with the client through the art—the materials, the process, the symbolic language, the product—to facilitate a true therapeutic trajectory, then:

-Catharsis may occur, but without sublimation.

-Dissipation of anxiety may occur without understanding its roots.

-Escape from bleak surroundings is possible, but advancing towards wellness is unlikely.

Source: Gussak

Whether an art piece created independently or made in an art therapy session, the end results may be the same—the soap may still look like an elephant, the mask may still be colorful and the guitar may still look cool. How these pieces are used is where the difference lies. It is the art therapist --trained to look at the art, to use the process, to facilitate dialogue and understanding--who can use these creations to fulfill true therapeutic rapproachement.

Research on art therapy conducted in prison demonstrated that true therapy occurs [see posts here, here and here]. Yet, the prisoners making the art just thought they were simply drawing, painting, and sculpting.

So what?

To be clear, art therapy is not better than "being therapeutic"-- Art therapists are not shrewder than artist facilitators, and artist facilitators are not more creative nor more fun than art therapists. It is not an “us versus them”.

Facilitating arts programs in prison is necessary. Inmates must create. The drive to do so is too strong. Artist facilitators establish these programs to allow this to occur. As championed in previous posts, programs like Anathema Art and Brush With the Law continue to be extremely valuable and necessary.

In addition, an art therapist, a trained clinician, can take advantage of this drive to create and the inherent qualities of the material to facilitate true therapy.

My clients don’t talk; at least there are no deep discussions that are mistakenly associated with proof of "real treatment". There are no voiced vulnerabilities, self-realizations, no  grand "AHA" moments—yet therapy happens. Deep, meaningful change transpires through the art and through the influential communication that occurs through the visual, wordless dialogue between the two of us. That is therapy.

Another M&M painting by The Candy Man of a Nole Conquering a Gator; its a football thing...
Source: Gussak

But lets face it, sometimes therapy, particularly in prison, is neither desirable nor sought. Sometimes escape is enough, a momentary alleviation of stress and anxiety to get through the tedious day is all that is wanted, and the accolades that come with creating a beautiful art piece is all that is sought.

And that is good.

A true therapist is not threatened by the ability of others to facilitate the therapeutic use of art materials. Instead, he or she recognizes their value, even benefits from their ability to do so, and can work in conjunction with them.

We all want the same thing.

As long as we keep in mind that ‘therapeutic’ and ‘therapy’ are not mutually exclusive concepts fighting for dominance but instead two ends of the same continuum, then there is a place for all of us.

I see and champion the value of art making in prison as a gateway to everlasting therapeutic change.

I will continue to promote the arts in corrections as a much-needed therapeutic program, but when it is therapy-- mental health through meaningful change -- that is wanted, then let us call an art therapist.