November 25, 2011

Day of the Dead and "Art-as-Therapy"

Patricia O'Laughlin MFT, ATR
edited by: Amanda Alders

In the traditions of Day of the Dead, art making intersects with community. People come together to celebrate their deceased loved ones and create art that beautifully represents their lives. This year, I have been asked to volunteer at University of New Mexico's healthcare clinic, where I will be teaching children about self expression through creating Day of the Dead art work.

In the Art Therapy theory,"art as therapy," the process of making art is itself the therapy, and the art is not combined with traditional "talk" therapy. “Art in therapy combines creating art with talk therapy. Healing occurs through the internal expression and physical movements that happen while someone is making art. Educators and Art Therapists such as Dr. Noah Hass-Cohen draw from clinical neuroscience to show how art therapy affects the mind-body connection and in doing so lifts illnesses like depression and anxiety.

“Art as therapy,” is deeply ingrained into Day of the Dead holiday, a long standing Mexican tradition that is celebrated from October thirty-first through November second. It's a day when people remember the lives of those who have passed, and honor them with art, flowers, music, and food.

While art therapy is a fairly recent addition to the therapeutic world, people who celebrate Day of the Dead have been practicing a form of "art as therapy" for decades. They create alters for their loved ones, that in themselves are pieces of art. Within these alters are smaller pieces: statues,boxes, ceramic/wooden food, and pictures.

When creating these art pieces, the "mind-brain connection" may be activated. For some people, the materials and method they choose may cause the art making to become similar to meditation, aiding in relaxation and providing a sense of balance and stability. Others choose materials, colors, and processes that are stimulating and may help give them the passion they might not normally feel, passion that is necessary in combating sadness.

Constructing these alters also allows for the creator to think about their loved ones, life, and death. Within most cultures, the habit is to push these thoughts away, which ultimately causes anxiety and fear. But by having a time each year specificaly to celebrate the dead, people who celebrate Day of the Dead give themselves a major gift…the gift of contemplating the existential crisis of death head on.

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