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The real power of art therapy

Concordia researcher Josée Leclerc helps patients unlock long-repressed emotions
February 12, 2014
By Lucas Wisenthal

Josée Leclerc According to Concordia researcher and Acfas presenter Josée Leclerc, “Art has the power to bear witness to emotional dimensions that we are not necessarily aware of.” | Photo courtesy of Josée Leclerc

Art therapy has its skeptics. But in the 25 years she’s practised it with patients, Concordia researcher Josée Leclerc has witnessed the impact first-hand.

And although she winces at the sound of phrases like “healing properties,” Leclerc has seen people moved to tears by the images they create in therapy, which often depict feelings they buried years before.

“Art has the power, the potential, to bear witness to emotional dimensions that we are not necessarily aware of and to foster psychological and emotional health,” Leclerc says.

This spring, the associate professor in the Department of Creative Art Therapies and her colleagues will explore that potential and discuss their findings at the 82nd congress of the Association francophone pour le savoir (Acfas). The event is taking place this year at Concordia for the first time, from May 12 to 16.

A large part of Leclerc’s research is devoted to developing an epistemological model that frames how a therapist might interpret a piece a patient created: the practitioner assumes the role of the witness — not just of the final product, but of the material the patient chooses to work with and the way he or she uses it. “And then, again, I look at the effect the image that was created has on the viewer.”

The results of this work continue to fascinate her. “Often, especially in the case of trauma, where the experience can be extremely hard to put into words, creating an image or symbolic representation within the therapeutic context can help people work through a difficult situation,” she says.

As Leclerc’s research outside of her private practice has shown, those images can prove both revelatory and inspiring. She is now carrying out a project that explores portraits drawn by women imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II.

“Those drawings bear witness to a situation that is extremely traumatic,” she says. “But they’re also a powerful testament to the preservation of the creative drive in an environment of human destruction.”

The drawings can also help contemporary viewers make sense of a past they haven’t experienced. In research workshops, Leclerc presents them to an audience that is then asked to produce pieces of its own, known as response art.

The idea behind this method is, she says, to foster an awareness of conscious or unconscious sentiments the viewer might harbour. “The goal is to encourage a deeper understanding of the impact of hidden racial discrimination.”

Leclerc is using the workshops to gather data that she will later analyze through a phenomenological lens. “I want to understand what, specifically, is the lived experience of those who have taken part in these research sessions,” she says.

But the relevancy of her work extends beyond those who participate in it. “Wars and genocides and conflicts continue to occur, so this is my small contribution. I want to show that, as Hannah Arendt said, we all have the potential to do harm — and to do good.”

The Acfas colloquium “Art, créativité et mieux-être: avancées et défis de la recherche en thérapies par les arts” takes place on Monday, May 12, and Tuesday, May 13. See the Acfas conference site for event-specific details.

Find out how another Concordia researcher and Acfas participant is unlocking the secrets of aging.

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