The Art of Connection

March 19th, 2013

Can brands improve relations through models provided by the practice and ethos of art therapy?

Recently I saw a report called ‘The Power of Art: Can creativity cure the sick?’

“It makes you feel like you can do anything really,” says Ryan, a nine-year-old leukemia patient. He sounds a pretty confident, happy kid. Hearing him go on to tell the reporter that there is nothing else but art that gives him that feeling, it seems clear to me that regardless of all the thousands of pills he’s taken, art therapy has empowered him. However, unlike the pills there is no concrete proof that ‘art intervention’ has a medical benefit.

I have a friend who is an art psychotherapist; he works with people who have suffered some form of childhood trauma, pre-verbal trauma, in fact any sort of trauma in general. I asked how would he explain what art therapy is,

“The most important thing for me is mode of expression and putting people in touch with the way they perceive the world. Art may be the end product, but the things I look at when assessing [the client] is the way they connect with their senses. Whether any emotion comes from what they do.”

He explains to me that there are three components he considers when addressing the response to a trauma: the bodily perception, emotional feelings, and cognitive thinking patterns. By starting with regressive bodily activities, like mark making with paints or handling clay, they are encouraged by the therapist in a gentle way to reprocess the particular memory, creating an element of it in an art piece. They are then able to begin to cognitively process that memory, so that it reduces stress.

The right environment is also essential in order to open ‘emotional eyes’ and become reflective. Some psychologists, therapists, nurses and psychiatrists might deduce ‘resistance to engage’ down to a pathological personal trait. That’s old school. Think of therapy, they think ‘Freud’, the client lying on a couch, going through the motions of free association without building any sort of relationship with the therapist himself or herself. With that in mind, would you be likely to open up to someone who wasn’t willing to show you the same level of trust?

“These days, there’s so much more self-disclosure at the schools where I work. It’s a nurture group, so it’s all about community, positive praise, building great relationships and encouraging and developing self-esteem.”

The effect of art therapy is shown in the relationships built between the client and the people they interact with, the emotional charge and how they are able to negotiate something between them.

“The people I work with aren’t idiots, they know why they are there, they know what they want and they know how they want to communicate.”

Bottom line is that it’s all relative to who the individual is and what their past was like. Therapists must be savvy in the assessment period and think ‘can the client handle what it is we’re asking of them – is it the right time’.

“First few sessions could involve having a conversation through mark making, and would probably look rather stark and lifeless on a piece of paper. By developing the relationship at a pace they [the client] are in control of, they eventually arrive at images that are full of vitality.”

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But in relation to evidence based practice: how can the form they chose to communicate in measure the levels of a person’s spontaneity and emotional charge? We know it’s these developments that are important when the change means a better quality of life for them.

When it comes to brand engagement, how is it best to measure the relationship with the consumer? Assessing the level of engagement based on the “90-9-1” model is probably most common: 1% of people create content, 9% edit or modify that content, and 90% view the content without contributing. It is accepted that the actual percentages are likely to vary depending upon the subject matter. Having spoken to my friend, I could be swayed to believe that it has more to do with the individual’s disposition. That’s not to say the subject matter isn’t important, but rather if a person feels accepted enough to share their perspective they would – the subject matter would only be used to guide their response.

Art therapy originally found a fixture within psychiatric asylums; a safe place with a community and wall around it so the ‘normal’ people (who are actually quite nasty) can’t get to them. If a brand chooses to measure the relationship they have with the consumer based on creating content, perhaps more should be done first to cultivate a community around the brand, within an ‘asylum’ whereby the consumers can share more personal stories with other consumers. It may be a fair point to assume that if a consumer ‘likes’ your Facebook page, they trust what you stand for as a brand, however are reluctant to create content because they are unfamiliar with who else will see it.

As a brand you should be there to witness what is happening; the emotional ties, the levels of spontaneity and movement, and most importantly to help the consumers to reflect in their own way. With art therapy that’s what happens. You’re looking at the aesthetics of their experience.

“As a therapist you’re thinking about how they see the world and how they believe the world sees them.”


Written by Adam Peerbaccus – Hyper Island graduate, now looking to develop a career in strategy. I believe that consumer research and insight should drive thinking, and am fascinated by subculture and how digital changes behaviour. 

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