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Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 16:19–36, 2014

Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

ISSN: 1934-9637 print/1934-9645 online
DOI: 10.1080/19349637.2013.864542

“Painting to Find my Spirit”: Art Making

as the Vehicle to Find Meaning and Connection
in the Mental Health Recovery Process


School of Public Health, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

This study involved gaining a deeper understanding of the role

of art making in mental health recovery among consumers of
two psychosocial rehabilitation services in Victoria, Australia.
Specifically, the study explored changes over 1 year in the lives
of 12 participants who attended a variety of art-based programs.
To gain a multifaceted perspective of this inquiry mixed methods
were used, by incorporating pragmatism, empathetic phenomenol-
ogy, co-operative inquiry, as well as case study and art-based
approaches. An analysis of the findings resulted in the identifi-
cation that art making provided a spiritual aspect to the recovery
process. The art process acted as a vessel by which personal mean-
ings could be made, encouraged interdependency, and assisted the
development of multiple forms of identification beyond having a
mental illness. Future strategies within mental health services could
further integrate these aspects of art making into their practices,
which would help to enhance the discovery of meaning, purpose
and hope during the recovery process.

KEYWORDS mental health recovery, art making, psychosocial,



Gaining an evidence-base for why art therapeutic practices are of benefit for
people experiencing mental illness has been a challenging process (Howells

Address correspondence to Theresa Van Lith, Department of Art Education, Florida

State University, 1033 William Johnston Building, Tallahassee, FL 32306-1232, USA. E-mail:

20 T. Van Lith

& Zelnik, 2009; Stickley, 2010). This is partly due to that the concepts of art
making and mental health recovery involve thinking in both a convergent
and divergent fashion, so that questions about human nature are incorpo-
rated holistically (McNiff, 2008). As both art making and mental illness both
enthrall and mystify us, its meanings cannot be easily reduced to concrete
definitions of reasoning (Dissanayake, 2000; Green, 2009).

Recovery as Rebuilding Sense of Self

Sense of self has been generally described in terms of constructs such as self-
concept, self-image, and self-development (Christiansen, 1999), yet it is also
understood in terms of interpersonal aspects such as roles, relationships and
who we might become. The onset of mental illness threatens the sense of
self, as it destabilizes the very core of how we define ourselves (Yanos, Roe,
& Lysaker, 2010). This can lead to a loss of “who am I” and consequently,
fears about “where did I go,” which result in a chaotic sense of self (Estroff,
1989, 1992; Hatfield & Lefley, 1993).
The recovery process has been seen as involving the process of working
towards self-congruence, particularly for those diagnosed with schizophrenia
who might see themselves as objects separate from their selves (Andresen,
Oades, & Caputi, 2003; McCay et al., 2006; Shea, 2010). This process of
rebuilding a sense of self requires holistic transformation, as well devel-
oping a sense of purpose within meaningful social roles and relationships
(Davidson & Roe, 2007). But this is a task of great complexity, as it involves
affirming the characteristics of self that were once of value and strength while
simultaneously recognizing the need for change in other aspects (Romano,
McCay, Goering, Boydell, & Zipursky, 2010). It requires a constant self-
critical questioning and then realigning of perceptions about who we were,
who we are now, and who we want to be in the future.
Non-Western academics have critiqued these perspectives of self for
valuing individualism over an interdependent, relational, or collective self
(Hwang, 2011; Misra, 2009). Instead, Hwang (2011) and Misra (2009) have
argued that happiness and well being for an individual are inseparable from
the state of others. Therefore, they encouraged a responsible and integrated
notion of self, less bounded by the ego, and engaged in a dialectical rela-
tionship with society. Incorporating this aspect into the dominant current
recovery model requires introducing a relational component, and integrat-
ing individual attributes with the qualities of family, community, and the
environment (Misra, 2009).

Meaning Making in the Recovery Process

The recovery process involves making sense of the present life circumstances
and learning to live with the unmanageable levels of distress caused by
Painting to Find My Spirit 21

a mental illness. Anthony (1993) claimed that developing new meaning that
goes beyond the devastating effects of a mental illness involves moments that
“click,” or revelations. As Ridgway (2001) highlighted, recovery is a journey
of finding oneself and subsequently transforming through this process, with
pivotal moments that are quite subjective. A key finding from Ridgway’s
(2001) analysis of lived experience accounts was that through experiencing
transpersonal events, participants discovered humility and conscientiousness,
which led to a more robust and holistic sense of understanding of their
However, the recovery research tends to overlook the extent of the
process of finding a purpose and the crises that may in fact result from
facing this dilemma. The kind of deep questioning that the participants were
expressing relates to Szasz’s (1983) view that the search for meaning in life is
“the expression of man’s struggle with the problem of how we should live”
(p. 21). Roberts (2007) suggested that Szasz’s (1983) “problems in living”
(p. 20) related to the rise of modernity where we as humans have begun
to increase our understanding of self within the world, which has led to
an increasing burdening awareness of ourselves. According to Szasz (1983)
illness was the consequence of this confrontation.

Psycho-Social Contributions of Art-Making to the Recovery Process

Previously, I co-authored a critical review investigating the benefits of art-
based practices for mental health recovery (Van Lith, Schofield, & Fenner,
2012). Qualitative, quantitative and mixed-method research articles were crit-
ically assessed to identify the existing evidence base in support of art-based
practices. Specifically, the articles were assessed using Lal’s (2010) model
of recovery involving six dimensions including clinical, personal, self-care,
social, occupational, and contextual. The most prevalent recovery dimen-
sion was psychological recovery, followed by social recovery. The evidence
suggested that psychological recovery has been most strongly supported
in terms of constructs such as self-discovery followed by self-expression.
Social recovery was most strongly supported by the constructs of developing
relationships and social identity.
This current study builds upon the claims from previous research
through integrating mixed methods as well as the mental health recovery
values in order to maintain trustworthiness and integrity. The objectives of
the study included: to explore participant experiences of art making and
the perceived role in mental health recovery, to assist participants in eliciting
symbolic meanings from their art works, and explore how these insights may
have a role in mental health recovery, and to investigate changes during the
study in participant perceptions of their mental health recovery process and
identify their most important recovery values.
22 T. Van Lith

Study Design
Maximum variation sampling was used to recruit participants, as it aimed
to capture and describe the central themes of a wide range of partici-
pants’ differences (Morse & Field, 1995; Patton, 1990). This also allowed
for the greatest gain from a small sample (Sandelowski, 1995). I sought to
explore the entire continuum of art-based practices in these organizations
by recruiting participants from four different art-based programs. These pro-
grams encompassed a range of art-based practices along a continuum from
individual art making, studio art making, art making with emphasis on skill
development and mastery, program-facilitated and structured art groups, and
individual art making with a healing purpose to art psychotherapy (Van Lith
& Fenner, 2011).
Once I received ethics approval from the two collaborating organiza-
tions and La Trobe University Human Ethics Committee, I began recruiting
participants. In order to participate, consumer participants needed to be
regarded by the program manager and respective key worker as actively
engaged in their art-based program and satisfactorily managing their mental
illness. These criteria were important to recruit participants most relevant to
this study, as well as to ensure participants were well enough to make their
own decisions about engaging in the study.
The study used a longitudinal multiple case study approach. Three inter-
views were conducted with each participant (N = 12) at 6-month intervals
over a 1-year period, to explore the changes and development in their expe-
riences of art making and mental health recovery. Each interview loosely
followed the order: Filling out the Recovery Environment Enhancing mea-
sure (REE; Ridgway, 2005) then participating in an open-ended conversation
on the experience of art making (Finlay, 2008; Finlay, & Evans, 2009; Finlay
& Gough, 2003); and finally engaging in symbolic meaning making by
reflecting on artworks completed in the previous six months (Barry, 1996;
Betensky, 1995, 2001).
Once the interviews were completed and transcribed, I sought to cre-
ate collaborative accounts of the open-ended conversations and symbolic
meaning making reflections for each participant. The key aim was to stay
true to the participant’s words and create an accessible account for review
(Sandelowski, 2000).
For verification purposes, each collaborative account was sent back
to the participant for verification. The first two accounts were sent prior
to the third interview, and all 12 participants acknowledged that this was
true to their experiences, albeit with a few minor grammatical changes. The
third account was sent along with the researcher’s intersubjective response
of their responses, and two participants wrote back that theirs was a true
account. As I only asked for a response if changes needed to be made,
it was assumed that these accounts were in keeping with the participants’
Painting to Find My Spirit 23

experiences. A total of 36 collaborative accounts were created by the end of

the data collection process.

Thematic Analysis
The interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) approach was adopted
for the thematic analysis stage. This involved several sequential stages to
draw out themes from the lived experience inquiry and art-based inquiry
accounts (Smith & Dunworth, 2003; Smith, Jarman, & Osborn, 1999). IPA
is particularly appropriate for understanding the participant’s point of view
by identifying and empathizing with his or her lived experience (Smith &
Osborn, 2008). Therefore it is not just about analyzing the words as they
are written in the transcript; the feelings, physical responses and the silences
behind these words are also taken into account. Consequently, this analytical
process can be seen as an iterative and inductive course involving a cycli-
cal moving between the descriptive and the interpretative processes (Smith,
2007; Smith & Osborn, 2008).

Participants’ Demographic Details
The study involved 12 participants: five males and seven females. Their ages
ranged from early 20s to late 50s. The length of time engaged with mental
health services ranged from 5 years to more than 10 years. At the time of
the first interview the length of participation in the current psychosocial
rehabilitation program ranged from 3 months to 7 years. The majority of
participants were not currently looking for work or study. A pseudonym was
chosen by each participant in order to protect his or her identity.

Common Themes of the Role of Art Making in the Recovery Process

Through an analysis of the individual themes, common themes were iden-
tified (see Table 1). The themes have been broken up into two parts. The
first addresses the roles of art making common to clusters of the participants.
The next set of themes focuses on the preconditions that were necessary for
these roles to be active and to take effect.


In keeping with previous studies, the participants referred to the art mak-
ing process as enabling them to experiment with a renewed perspective of
themselves, their relationships with others, as well as with the external world
24 T. Van Lith

TABLE 1 Common Themes and Related Themes

Common theme Theme (Participant)

Roles of art making in the recovery process

Immersing myself in art I connect with parts of myself and this evokes new
making brings many understandings (Mia)
benefits The meditative process enables access to my current
emotions (Neg)
My portraits of experience are hindered by other’s
judgments (Neg)
I overcome my fears and listen to my current state
which provides guidance (Neg)
I try to elicit insights about myself (Clare)
Connecting to my unconscious through an organic
process (Kathryn)
Resolving inner conflicts (Kathryn)
I like my creativity to flow without censoring (Alex)
Through accessing my emotions I search inside for
answers (Sean)
I strive to develop skills and I allow my ideas to evolve before creating (Paul)
gain a sense of I strive for precision and accuracy (Paul)
achievement through my I am guided and progress towards feeling a sense of
art achievement (Sean)
Visual symbols provide a reminder of what I have
already addressed (Sean)
I constantly strive to improve and develop (James)
I focus on the details and seek mastery over the
materials (James)
I go through certain phases in order to develop (Lori)
Concentration helps me to overcome and achieve
My art making takes me to a Through absorption I go to a safe place where I can
psychologically safe place grow (Mia)
My art comes to life as my mental pictures are
recreated (Louise)
I feel comfort through depicting the place I feel that I
belong (Richard)
I use art as my motivational Art is my driving force when I am unwell (Paul)
force when unwell Art is my motivational force but is tested by myself and
others (Richard)
Art is there as my coping tool (Clare)
I am inspired by art making I gain new experiences and life is enhanced (Sarah)
and my mood is My mood is transformed and I am provided with relief
enhanced (Sarah)
My sources of inspiration enhance my creativity and in
turn the creative process inspires me (Lori)
I strive to be an artist My development as an artist is enhanced or hindered
by certain qualities (Mia)
I constantly strive to be an artist (Lori)
In art making I am I try to create a balance through exploring my beliefs
connected to my spiritual (Alex)
beliefs Honouring the beauty and fluidity of nature (Kathryn)
Painting to Find My Spirit 25

TABLE 1 (Continued)

Common theme Theme (Participant)

Preconditions necessary in order for art making roles to be active

In order to make art I need I re-discovered my passion for art and tapped back
to overcome personal into my fantasy world (Louise)
obstacles Obstacles provide certain limitations (James)
Being open enables self-value to gradually develop
I overcome the impact of others to do this for myself
In order to make art I need I feel a sense of acceptance and trust (Sarah)
to feel protected and I need a protective environment to reveal inner parts
accepted of myself (Clare)
Not being emotionally supported creates disconnection
In order to make art I need I don’t trust others with my work, as it is sacred to me
to trust others (Alex)
I feel a sense of acceptance and trust (Sarah)

(Howells & Zelnik, 2009; Stacey & Stickley, 2010; Stickley, 2010; Stickley, Hui,
Morgan, & Bertram, 2007; Van Lith, Fenner, & Schofield, 2011). The process
of art making also assisted the participants’ re-formation as they authenti-
cally committed to investing in the rebuilding and enhancing of themselves
(Sullivan & McCarthy, 2007, 2009). The catalyst for exploring their senses of
self through an art form was their own desire to excel at art making and
become more self-assured as a result (Thompson, 2009).
In line with the critical review of relevant literature (Van Lith et al.,
2012) the findings from the participants’ accounts indicated that art making
was found to benefit the psychological and social aspects of their recovery.
Like the artists whose experiences were described by Sullivan and McCarthy
(2007), these participants tried and tested a number of possible ways of
being, and established various different relationships with their own art mak-
ing. For example, Neg created her botanicals to please others (the socially
appreciated artist), but also created for herself using forms of expression that
were pertinent to her in that moment (the authentic self). She consciously
moved between the two, knowing that both provided different purposes.
On the other hand, Sarah would create to escape her symptoms (the healing
self), but also used art to bond with her children (the mother). Sarah, like
Neg, was conscious of the differing ways of being that she inhabited, but
knew that by connecting with herself on a psychological level she would
build resilience and enhance her abilities as a mother. Therefore, enhancing
one component of the self was seen as helping develop other parts.
The participants’ perceptions ranged from seeing their artwork as: an
expression of the unconscious self (Neg, Sean, Mia, Clare), the result of
tapping into the fantastical self (Louise, Richard), a combination of both
26 T. Van Lith

conscious and unconscious representations of self (Kathryn, Alex, Mia), the

artwork as an expression of the self in that moment (Lori, Sarah), and the
artwork as a representation of the skillful self (Paul, Louise, James, Neg,
Sarah). Art making was consequently conceptualized as rebuilding a sense
of self along a continuum from viewing the artwork as an embodied subject,
akin to saying: “Here I am,” towards viewing the artwork as an accomplished
object, akin to saying: “This is what I did.”

The Spiritual Role of Art Making to the Recovery Process

The art making and mental health recovery research identified that develop-
ing a sense of purpose was directly related to participation in an art-based
practice and resulted from having a focus beyond mental illness (Secker,
Spandler, Hacking, Kent, & Shenton, 2007a, 2007b). In this study, the partic-
ipants took this further by also seeing art making as enabling a direct link
to spirituality. They regarded art making as developing, reinforcing, and/or
re-establishing their existential constructions of values and beliefs. In other
words, it provided a vessel that enabled the questioning of what philoso-
phers call the reason for our existence: What it is like to be like this? (Brophy,
2009; Chalmers, 1996). For example, the participants used terms like “finding
my spirit” (Alex, Mia), “what is life?” (Sarah), and “a poignant danger perturbs
my broken soul. Cut back to find my spiritual roots. Flourish.” (Sean).
Although spirituality was identified by participants in this study as an
important aspect of the recovery process, it was largely overlooked in discus-
sions with art facilitators or other staff members. This finding raises the point
that spirituality is the forgotten dimension of mental health care (Rumbold,
2012; Swinton, 2001). Spirituality has been forgotten in the sense that mental
health services are currently striving to maintain a neutral stance in society,
which has come at the cost of ignoring a significant part of living, that is, the
understanding of ourselves beyond the level of our ego (Corrigan, McCorkle,
Schell, & Kidder, 2003) and what gives depth to our experience (Swinton,
As mental illness involves grief and loss as well as coming to terms with
endings in many forms, we can learn from palliative care about how one
makes meaning to understand and accept life situations. In palliative care
discourse, spirituality has been more widely incorporated as a resource for
self-understanding and reclaiming one’s unique identity (Rumbold, 2006).
Spirituality in this context can be seen as: “the aspect of humanity that refers
to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose, and the way
they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to
nature and to the significant or sacred” (Puchalski, 2012, p. 64).
Lartey (1997) conceptualized spirituality as a connecting web that links
people into life “spatially, intra-personally, inter-personally, corporately and
with transcendence” (p. 141). These connections can be accessed through
Painting to Find My Spirit 27

objects, places, rituals, reflections, relationships and/or beliefs (Rumbold,

2012). Importantly, this view means that rather than viewing spirituality as
one of many components to holistic healthcare, it is actually the core compo-
nent. As Puchalski (2012) explained, spirituality “intersects with the physical,
social, and emotional domains and may be where the presentation of and
diagnosis of spiritual distress occurs” (p. 64).
The findings of the present study when incorporated with the findings
from the critical review article (Van Lith et al., 2012) highlight how art mak-
ing works holistically through seven main aspects (Figure 1). The added
element, spirituality, acts as a connecting and meaning making component
that intersects with the other six aspects so that they develop significance.


The participants believed in a broad range of traditional and nontraditional

spiritual disciplines that had in common a commitment to developing a rela-
tionship with transcendent values and ideals. As opposed to emphasizing
their belief in a God, their accounts suggested a broader view of existence.
They focused on the destiny of life, a connection between self and others,

FIGURE 1 The Holistic Role of Art Making in The Recovery Process.

28 T. Van Lith

an appreciation of a dimension existing beyond the self, a developed sense

of beliefs and values, and the contemplation of life experiences (Martsolf &
Mickey, 1998).
The study revealed a congruence between participants’ experiences of
spirituality and Frankl’s (2006) definition of the “will to meaning,” which
he later coined “logotherapy.” Through the art-making process, partici-
pants were looking outside themselves for answers to understand what was
important internally. They knew that finding significance occurred through
responding on a level that went beyond self-interest towards a greater sense
of what it is to be human. This also followed Swinton’s (2012) view that it is
not really important how we define spirituality but “what it points us towards
that matters” (p. 103).
The interpersonal connection to spirituality through the art making
process enabled new understandings and guidance to emerge about the
meaning of life (Mia, Neg, Clare, Kathryn, Alex, Sean). The participants’ expe-
riences resonated with prominent art therapists’ perspectives. For example,
Bruce Moon (2004) declared that “making art [is] making soul” (p. 72) and is
a form of “prayer” (2009, p. 156). Natalie Rogers (1993) stated that the cre-
ative process involves working in a sacred space and this inward connection
provides restorative qualities: “creativity is a life-force energy that flows like
a river through each of us. Dam it up and we become physically ill, blocked,
and physically stressed” (p.187). Shaun McNiff (1992) wrote: “images and the
artistic process are the shamans and familiar spirits who come to help people
regain a lost soul” (p.17). Art making has been seen as having the ability to
surface that which was most critical to the participants at that moment and
then to offer reasons for existence.


It was clear from the participants’ accounts that their self-knowing could
not have occurred if they had to rely on written or verbal forms of com-
munication. Instead, it was the symbolic and metaphorical meanings formed
during the art making process that assisted in providing a sense of harmony,
inner peace, social inclusiveness, and mental balance (Erdner, Andersson,
Magnusson, & Lutzen, 2009). Swinton (2012) referred to this type of knowl-
edge as “ideographic” (p. 100) and differentiated this from nomothetic
knowledge which, although tangible, does not give us the depth we need to
understand experience to its fullest.
Recovery as the attainment of knowledge was highlighted in Deegan’s
(1996) lived experience account. She came to understand that as a conse-
quence of her illness she had become a question in search of answers, and
spoke about this learning process as involving a state of becomingness to
embrace questions of self-determination (Deegan, 1996). It is an important
idea that the recovery process is about acknowledging that one is looking
Painting to Find My Spirit 29

for ways to seek freedom from oneself and others in order to feel a sense of
Viewing the recovery process as intertwined with life-long learning was
also suggested by Griffiths and Ryan (2008), who emphasized a need to
look at how we acquire knowledge and to introduce this into recovery ser-
vice models. The authors referred to Delors’ (1996) four pillars of lifelong
learning to illustrate the many forms by which we acquire knowledge. These

● Learning to know—learning how to learn rather than specific sets of

● Learning to do—developing the capability to adapt and respond
creatively to new challenges and new demands;
● Learning to live together and with others—peacefully resolving con-
flict, discovering other people and their cultures, fostering community
● Learning to be—contributing to a person’s complete development of
mind and body, aesthetic and cultural appreciation, and spirituality.
(Griffiths & Ryan, 2008, p. 52)

These four pillars also coincide with the prominent theory that art mak-
ing helps us to come to know or see ourselves differently (Allen, 1995;
Higgs, 2008; Levine, 2000; McNiff, 2008). Engaging in art helps us to use an
innovative lens without pre-conceived expectations of a need for definitive
structures or conclusions (Liamputtong & Rumbold, 2008; McNiff, 2008).
The participants knew that many insights about their artworks were
revealed in emotive and bodily sensations, never to be decoded through a
linguistic form (Polanyi, 1966). As opposed to long coherent narratives, they
often spoke about these insights as snapshots or brief glimpses of an insight.
Sometimes the participants knew exactly what had been revealed and other
times they were vague, almost as if the meaning had not yet been fully
disentangled. Either way, no insight was regarded as absolute, as frequently
another thought would be revealed at a subsequent interview. This would
often take the form of “I have been thinking about this artwork again and I
realized this . . . about myself” (Kathryn, Neg, Sean, Mia, Alex).
Ultimately, it was the participants’ attitudes of openness and freeness
that enabled meanings to be easily refined, changed, or completely morphed
into something else. This revealed that knowledge was never in a fixed
state as new learnings were constantly being revealed. Interestingly, this
mobile and flexible attitude to their artworks also applied to their outlook on
life. As the interviews progressed, problems or issues seemed to dissolve or
slowly fade away and new issues would gradually emerge. Although during
the study important decisions were made and several crises occurred, there
was an overarching sense that the participants were managing changes by
30 T. Van Lith

living life at a steady pace. This suggested that art making had strengthened
their ability to live with adversity and the varying disruptions that come
throughout life.


Spirituality is inextricably linked to the cultural ethos within which a per-

son’s identity unfolds (McColl, 2011). This was often evident in the symbolic
representations of cultural and religious beliefs and/or heritage (Farrelly-
Hansen, 2001). For example, Mia explored her beliefs by mixing Turkish and
Australian symbols, whereas Alex fused Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist,
and Christian icons together. James frequently used the Hindu goddess
Ganesh in his artworks although he did not expand on its significance for
For Kathryn, art making “ignited” her spirituality, as she was able to
“honor the beauty of nature.” Later in the interview process the connection
to nature came to be related to her Aboriginal ancestry that, although it had
been denied, she was innately attracted to. Aboriginal spirituality is deeply
tied to the law that people are the same as the species, landform and plant
life (Grieves, 2009). Therefore, an injured animal or a dried up river is akin
to a sick or ill person, and disconnection from nature is seen as creating
disconnection from our reason for being. This is explained further as:

Culture is the land, the land and spirituality of Aboriginal people, our
cultural beliefs or reason for existence is the land. You take that away
and you take away our reason for existence. We have grown the land up.
We are dancing, singing and painting for the land. We are celebrating the
land. Removed from our lands, we are literally removed from ourselves.
(Dodson, 1997, p. 41)

Kathryn also directly related her spiritual-creative connection to her mental

health. This followed the traditional Aboriginal social-emotional-cultural phi-
losophy of health (Tse, Lloyd, Petchkovsky, & Manaia, 2005). For example
healing through the life-death cycle, an integral part of indigenous philoso-
phy, was identified when Kathryn explained about her picture depicting a
kangaroo’s womb: “I got this sense that in his or her belly could be healing.
It could contain and care for other wildlife. . . . The kangaroo is supposed to
be gentle and nurturing.”
Coming to a resolution about an aspect of spirituality through the cre-
ative process was observed by Frankl (2011), although he cautioned: “An
attempt to produce on a conscious level what must grow in unconscious
depths, the attempt to manipulate the primal creative process by reflecting
on it, is doomed to failure” (p. 43). Kathryn came to know the significance
behind her artworks through enabling an organic growth to unfold. She
Painting to Find My Spirit 31

described the artworks’ meanings in layers and saw that uncovering occurred
through description, reflection and being in a serene state. Kathryn was not
so much interested in solutions but connection and attunement with her life
purpose, thereby allowing more allegorical insights to emerge.


A few of the participants (Paul, Sean, James, Clare, Mia) were unafraid or
unashamed of discussing their perceived limitations and need for ongoing
support in certain areas of their life. Peck (1988) expressed the increasing
push for individualism in our society and the problem it creates by stating;
“ it denies entirely the other part of the human story: that we can never
fully get there and that we are, of necessity in our uniqueness, weak and
imperfect creatures who need each other” (p.56).
These participants had tried to recover on their own but, as Peck (1988)
suggested, they found it resulted in an even greater sense of loneliness.
Assisting individuals to be self-governing in their self-development was fur-
ther critiqued by Kushner (2002) who queried why mental health services do
not instead emphasize judiciousness and solidarity to determine one’s state
of recovery.
Kushner (2002) also warned that detaching ourselves from society and
relationships to solve life problems can end up increasing our feelings of
abandonment and despair. However, working within a group structure might
enhance more well-rounded ways of understanding issues that were creating
distress as well as a sense of collective experience. For example, most of us
would have experienced the positive feeling when someone explains to us:
“I missed you when you didn’t come to such and such.” We feel elated that
someone had cared to think about our absence and the difference we make
through our participation with that particular group.
Through the art making process many of the participants came to real-
ize that they were interconnected with others as well as their surroundings,
and not just spectators. Believing in a greater purpose beyond ourselves
has been regarded as one of the key aspects of connecting and enhanc-
ing of community (Kushner, 2002; Peck, 1988). Ideally, this relates to being
able to set aside one’s individual desires to focus on attaining a more uni-
versal goal. At the same time, participants also saw themselves as being
able to resolve dilemmas as well as act on decisions about their life, whilst
retaining an awareness of some of the wider community’s aspirations. For
example, a few of the participants spoke about wanting to be more help-
ful in the day-to-day running of the open studio, by helping to teach
an art class or assisting in the induction of new members. In this way,
the participants’ experiences highlighted the need for a more diverse art
offering by encouraging a range of individual and communally oriented
32 T. Van Lith

Study Limitations and Areas for Future Research

Future research could enhance the findings from this study through incor-
porating a number of key areas. For example, adding outsider perspectives
from family members or carers who can comment about observed changes
throughout the data collection phase might assist in further understanding
the social and relational implications of using art making during the recov-
ery process. The participants who decided to contribute to the current study
had a broad range of mental health issues and also differed considerably
in the length of time they had accessed mental health services. During the
study two participants moved on to live independently, but it might have
been interesting to also include participants who had not accessed an art
program for more than a year. Additionally, people who had a mental health
issue and made art on their own but were not linked in with a mental health
service could have added another useful perspective.


This study was undertaken to develop a deeper understanding of the role

of art making in the mental health recovery process. The findings from the
study provided a spiritual aspect to the recovery process that art making con-
tributed. Spirituality acted as a connecting and meaning making component
that intersects with the other six aspects so that they develop significance.
Incorporating spiritual notions of the recovery process appeared to be some-
what overlooked in staff interactions with the participants, yet it was what
inspired a sense of meaning, purpose and hope. When participants dis-
cussed their artworks, they highlighted qualities that took them beyond
an understanding that was greater than themselves. By questioning them-
selves in this way, they acquired further self-knowledge. Gaining meaning
involved commitment and persistence, as well as the reconnection with
what was important in life, particularly spiritual belief systems and close


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