Today we return to talk about “Art Therapy”; the creative process which is understood as a means of producing well-being, health and improving the quality of life. Art therapy includes a set of techniques and methodologies that use visual arts activities (as well as music, dance, theater, puppets, construction and narration of stories) as therapeutic tools, aimed to aid recovery and growth of the person. This can be beneficial for emotional, affective and relational development. This activity is actually rooted in very ancient times. The history of the arts, in fact, has often crossed paths with that of mental health. Already in ancient Egypt and Greece art and health concepts were often combined, while in more recent times, but not so frequently, during the industrial revolution in England mentally disturbed individuals were often accommodated in special centers where activities took place such as art and music. But now in the twentieth century, thanks to the studies of Freud, we get to witness more accurate theories of beneficial effects that the arts might have on certain mental disorders. But the real mother of this discipline, is Edith Kramer, who devised a precise methodological approach that focuses on the healing process caused by the act of creation. From this perspective, the work of art becomes a “container of emotions” as well as an expression of the unconscious that can foster the development of a sense of identity and promote an overall maturation and integration of the individual. To learn more about these concepts, last year I interviewed Dr. Giovanni Castaldi, psychologist and psychotherapist, head of the Psychiatric Disorders Center in Milan (Italy) and author of a series of articles on psychology and art.
According to Dr. Castaldi, art therapy is a very useful clinical technique and the only in some cases, that can “cure” a severe psychological defect. Not only this, but it can also be instrumental in improving the quality of life in patients who have other demanding medical disorders, traumas or who have to undergo invasive surgical operations. Making a drawing, depicting people and things through colors, manipulating and reshaping objects, play – are all concrete actions, which use touchable materials, unlike the spoken word.
Today let’s talk about art therapy with Giovanna del Magno, a 38 year old artist, and art teacher for 15 years who has suffered from multiple sclerosis since 2011. Giovanna has taught art to high school and middle school students, where she still works with loving patience. Giovanna had to also fight against another evil illness, in addition to MS, and has always done that so with an incredible strength, strength that she found within herself thanks to her great passion for art which she had since she was a child. Giovanna answered some of my questions about her relationship with art and I hope that her words can somehow spark your creativity, as much as they did with me.
Tell us about you and your disease. How important is art in your life?
My name is Giovanna, I was born in Rimini, and I’m 38 years old. I have always worked in art since I was a child. I felt a real attraction to this branch of knowledge when my father took me to the port of Cattolica and I saw a group of fishermen intent on their work. Watching their faces in the sun, so marked by the time, with their skin deeply furrowed by wrinkles, had made me think that those were nothing more than marks of the art of living. From that moment I started to love art; the first drawing I realised was shortly after this, then the first tattoo I had, and so on: since then I never abandoned art.
Now for me art is all I am about: it’s my passion, it’s my job, it is what I am, my identity as a woman and a human being. Once diagnosed with relapsing remitting MS, in 2011, I immediately vented my emotions in art and I struggled from day one, thanks also to the strenght I received from a person who was by my side, my dear aunt, who fought against her own evil illness. Through art I managed to free myself of my concerns, my anxieties, my fears. I created at the time of my diagnosis up to three works per day, just to get rid of the emotional burden that I carried inside. With art I was able from the start to scale back in some way the disease, playing down the non-acceptance of pain and irony about my condition. It was almost like I could make fun of a disease that occasionally still leaves me motionless and dulls my perceptions and makes me unable to fully enjoy the senses. Art, in particular, helps me to manage the pain that constitutes a big part of my condition. The discomfort, pain, illness are for me a source of inspiration and renewal.
When did you make the decision to dedicate yourself to art as work?
I started working as an art teacher in high school after earning a Degree at the Academy of Fine Arts. As a teacher, I try to convey my passion. The most difficult time for students in the first year is the initial thoughts they have, when faced with a blank sheet. They wonder: “And now what do I do?”
To help them overcome the “blank sheet of panic”, I often allow them to dirty the sheet, with tea for example, to prove that error can be useful to start an artistic career. Obviously towards the third year I expect the pupils realize their works more flawlessly, but at first I do approve of using an approach of this kind, so as to not cause excessive strain to the students. Initially I prefer that students learn quietly, because even if you make mistakes at the beginning, or you feel insecure, with the time and concentration you can then refine your work, and certain works of art are born from the mistakes. I refer to the work of Marcel Duchamp‘s “The Large Glass” which was born out of a “mistake” because the glass on which Duchamp worked, at one point, was accidentally cracked. The artist considered this event as an intervention of the case and decided not to ask for any remedy. He left the broken glass and today that is considered his greatest work. Errors, breakage, such as illness, are not always bad things, but rather they express moments of change and evolution of our ego.
In addition to work as a teacher, then, I continue to realize my works and to update my website www.giovannadelmagno.com where you can view images of my works ranging from paintings to sculpture, to photography.
I noticed that some of your works seem inspired by your illness. How is art “healing”?
Artistic creativity has a cathartic value, because it means we know how to engage with our pain and can therefore cleanse the mentally pathological condition.
Personally I really love the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and her passionate representation of pain. Kahlo is a kind of guru for me, but there is also another painter from which I took great inspiration: Artemisia Gentileschi, daughter of Orazio Gentileschi (also a painter), who was sexually abused by a friend of her father . In her paintings she always represented women; strong women who are capable of asserting their rights.
Art is a way of being, a way of expressing tensions and in order to externalize my illness I have realised several special works. For example, I use canvases depicting my MRIs, and generally in my work I represent skinny naked bodies, as if they were objects or casings for the soul. Last year in March I made a Christ, half green and half purple representing the passage of the body and spirit. It was displayed in Rome with the group “Il Punto Rosa” that welcomes women who have been operated for breast cancer. At that time I was not able to walk a lot following a relapse, and was forced to use a wheelchair.
I went with my friend, Laura, who accompanied me to the bottom of a large staircase. I had brought with me the picture of Christ carefully packed, and at the end of the Mass, not being able to get close to the Pope, I left my painting with a guard. Within the framework of the painting I put my address and the association’s brochure to which I belong. After a week my father told me that an orange envelope had came from the Vatican addressed to me. Inside was a letter from Pope Francis, who thanked me for the gift, and he enclosed a rosary blessed by him. It was really kind.
However, all my art usually focuses on the study of the body. Often involving the creation of leather masks, as symbols of human frailty, which hide our insecurities, the weakest part of our ego, which we often have to hide from others. My masks, then, always hide tears.
Would you recommend that people with MS hone their artistic creativity?
Yes of course. Art is accessible to all, to those who live with a disease, but also to those who are not sick. It is available to those who have studied art, but also to those who have never studied. In fact, even an illiterate person may be able to realise incredible works of art. Given the fact that we all have a sense of aesthetics and an idea of what we like and what we dislike, we all are able to make art. Art is a means of freedom of expression that otherwise would not find another way to be voiced. In fact, art has a thousand different voices, a thousand techniques to express an idea or an emotion.
When I create a work, whether it is a drawing or painting, I start from the feeling, from what I feel when I take the canvas and brush in hand. For me it is a moment of “exploration” of my innermost self, and when I paint I like to use my body. Use your hands for example, for that dab of color and by doing so you become one with the work that you are realizing. Art, in fact, is not only a beautiful image, like a photograph or a painting, but it is also our body that changes in it’s daily life. Our freedom of expression is a work of art.
In your opinion how can art help the MS patient?
I recommend anyone to approach art and develop their natural creativity. Art can be of great assistance to those who face a disease such as Multiple Sclerosis. It is very easy to approach art based on observing it in all its forms and appreciating it for how it manifests itself around us. Making art is simple, it is natural, it does not need to be based on precise patterns. Art is made with the aim of releasing an emotion; like being inside an empty room and beginning to paint all the walls in total freedom. The shapes, the colors, the canvas, are all pieces of what is an outlet for the artist, and the same goes for the patient and for those who want to use art to describe a feeling or an emotion in a direct and passionate way.
If you want to take a peek at all the works of Giovanna or ask for her advice, visit her beautiful website: www.giovannadelmagno.com