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I’m speechless! Society is bombarded with posters; pamphlets and people that dictate a need to speak up, a need to voice opinions, and a need to tell all our deepest thoughts and feelings. The point when a person is often called to speak is when something is wrong. But the truth is that for someone who is vulnerable and has experienced immense trauma this can be one of the most obstructive things to be asked to do. Trauma is real and raw and can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a severe and debilitating condition. So what role can art play for the sufferer, for those who witness and journey with the sufferer and for those who know nothing at all? Art can be intrinsic in enabling a sufferer to find a voice without words, providing them a freedom without boundaries or rules. Art in a gallery space can bring a human face to an experience, allowing the viewer to engage more deeply. Art is the medium that makes the internal external.

If PTSD were a work of art, how would it look? Glass artist Jacqueline King who is a PTSD sufferer has had it described to her like this.

“Imagine you are a beautiful hand blown glass vase with exquisite colour and form sitting on a sideboard and much admired. When major trauma happens the beautiful glass vase that you are gets knocked off the table and smashes on the floor splintering into thousands of pieces. Most rush quickly to gather the pieces and try valiantly to hold it all together, to appear like they used to be by holding all the pieces together with anything they can. But there is no way to do this of course.”

When trauma is experienced it cannot be taken away. Sometimes the response is to treat it as though it can. The road with PTSD is long and sadly never ending. Those who have experienced trauma often become unaware of their feelings and are unable to understand their importance, meaning they don’t talk about their feelings or emotional preferences. There have been extensive debates over various treatment options for those that walk this road. Research and personal testimony has shown that art therapy has helped sufferers to better manage their emotions and bring a reduction in PTSD symptoms.

The basis for art therapy is visual expression that connects feelings with thought, through a process that draws on the different parts of the brain that store memory. Brain function is deeply affected by trauma and some basic information about the brain is needed to make sense of this. Procedural memory is found in a part of the brain called the amygdala. Procedural memory is linked to responses resembling, pleasure, feelings of punishment, and awareness of behaviour and the amygdala attaches emotional meaning to these feelings. Procedural memories are found in the same part of the brain that responds to trauma such responses of flight, fright, fight or freeze are found here, PTSD causes the amygdale to become overloaded and unable to function properly.

When the amygdala becomes overloaded and unable to process trauma Alexithymia, the term used to identify someone who is unable to verbally express their emotions, becomes apparent (Meijer-Degan, 2006, 167). The act of art making has the ability to access and activate procedural memory. Patients who engaged in art making in art therapy over a period of sessions were able to acquire the ability to self express and articulate their artworks, revealing how such a process is able to aid personal discovery (Meijer-Degan, 2006, 178). Art therapy provides a means for patients to have a voice, allowing them to find meaning and purpose.

Although PTSD wasn’t formally recognised as an illness until the 1980s, perhaps the best example of a sufferer expressing their experiences through art is Otto Dix. Dix, a soldier in WWI, used his experience of war as the script for his artworks. Dix described the symptoms he suffered post war which would now be identified as PTSD. He said “As a young man you don’t notice at all that you were, after all, badly affected. For years afterwards, at least ten years, I kept getting these dreams, in which I had to crawl through ruined houses, along passages I could hardly get through” His art has brought these symptoms to life for others to see and engage with.

In his work Der Krieg (1924), a cycle of 51 prints Dix reveals a real and horrific picture of the apocalypse of war and death, considering the nature of humanity through the lens of his own experience. When reflecting upon his work GH Hamilton has said that it captures the ugly realities of psychological experience. The stark imagery etched in black and white includes corpses, skulls and rats, the technique of etching creates a layered effect which highlights the complexities of war, revealing the intricate truth. Dix’s artworks have become influential across generations and could could be viewed as a form of art therapy.

Otto Dix Verwundeter (Herbst 1916, Bapaume) (Wounded soldier – Autumn 1916, Bapaume) 1924 plate 6 from the portfolio Der Krieg (War) etching, aquatint printing plate 19.7 x 29 cm sheet size max 35.3 x 47.5 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra The Poynton Bequest 2003 © Otto Dix

Art therapy fosters authenticity and ownership by the participant, where treatment is lead and driven by them. Art therapy encompasses PTSD as being a part of identity. It acknowledges that it is a condition that cannot be restored or removed, identifying and dealing with it as a lifelong human experience. Art therapy understands that recovery cannot be a compartmentalised process that disregards individual experience. Art Therapy sessions create a safe and unthreatening place where sufferers don’t necessarily have to articulate or directly address their trauma. In many cases art therapy allows sufferers to share and exhibit their work. This may be in intimate forums, online communities or in a gallery space.

So what about the gallery space? It can be a space without borders and one that is not pre scripted with a set of questions and answers. It can be unthreatening in providing a unique ground for visitors to discover new things in a shared community. A space which creates shared community involvement offers a platform for building relationships and strengthening communities. The evident impact of PTSD is strong, incapacitating and often its sufferers are unable to express the weight that such a condition has on them each day. The gallery space has the ability to knock down these barriers, removing stigma, raising awareness and starting conversations. People are open to engage, reflect, express and respond, which results in an enhanced understanding. Some have made it their lives works to put such collections together that do this, providing a voice on behalf of those who suffer. The reflection given by those who have curated and created works for such exhibitions have articulated that when an intervention creates an empathetic response it leads to social change as those who are disconnected become connected.

Artist Ben Quilty uses his art to advocate support for returning soldiers suffering PTSD. He has challenged the creation of war art being from a distance and not looking past and on to those who have and are experiencing it. Quilty was an official war artist sent by the AustralianWar Memorial. He has engaged with soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan and in his studio. His work is not attempting to depict the site of war, but the reality and aftermath, which is carried in the heart of the raw soldier. His works reveal the fragility of the soldier in a unique and special way, capturing the numb expression of soldiers trapped between the past and present, lost in personal anguish. On ABC’s Australian Story Quilty spoke about the young soldiers being discharged because of PTSD. He said that PTSD is “perceived as sort of ultimate emotional weakness, and for those young men, they feel that it’s innately dishonourable to be discharged that way, and I can’t help seeing that, without wondering whether there will be an increase in suicides by these young men and it will be obvious who is to blame”

For Quilty the process and creation of a work is just as important as the finished piece. He takes special consideration when deciding on colours, applying boldly layered grave tones of paint to canvas with a palette knife to capture the overwhelming nature of war and trauma. He wants to ensure that the vulnerability of the human body and the emotional burden of war are accurately defined, telling each personal story the way it is. Quilty’s work brings both the icon and ritual of war under scrutiny. He is very sensitive in his approach as he personally engages with soldiers. He has got to know the soldiers that he has painted very well. He would take photographs of them while they were staring at the blinding light of the sun out the window of his studio, he reflects that “To me, this symbolises what they’re facing, something immense and overwhelming”. His series of Afghanistan portraits expose a dissonance between the private and public expressions of soldiering.

One of the soldiers painted by Quilty is Commodore John Oddie who has expressed the ability Quilty has in building rapport with his subject. Oddie remarked “what these paintings do, [is] put on the table the things that we won’t tell our families. The things that we won’t, for embarrassment, or fear, or uncertainty of reception, we won’t put in front of you as we walk down the street”. By enabling these things to be put on the table Quilty meaningfully encapsulates the spirit, the identity and the humanity of the soldier. This allows important conversations to be had. These conversations lead to finding effective ways a means to better support returning soldiers, particularly those experiencing PTSD.

Ben Quilty, Air Commodore John Oddie, After Afghanistan, no.3, 2012, Oil on linen, 190x140cm, Permission given by the artist

Being a voice for the experience of PTSD is an important one. Artist Kate Hallen, like Quilty, has used art as voice. She has walked alongside and witnessed PTSD first hand watching her father, a soldier who recently returned from an undisclosed war. She has observed the detrimental effect that war has had when it is posed as a mere spectacle. The viewer becomes desensitised and war is suppressed and trivialised as mere entertainment (Hallen, 2014, 8). Her works cause the viewer to slow down and take in each layer of what is painted. War is not a part of history to be hidden and should prompt a considered response. Past Australian war artists Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker have expressed war to be an “irresistible force in helping guide their hand when creating images of humans damaged and deranged”.War art needs to connect to an experience. It is significant to note that the concept of a hand being guided by experience is the basis for art therapy practice.

Hallen in her series of work PTSD: Post traumatic Shoaling Disorder and Flight//Fight has spoken of the process and role that painting plays in becoming the vehicle for communicating the tension and evoking the seriousness of PTSD and war (Hallen, 2014, 16). The title of her Flight//Fight is reflective of how the brain responds to trauma. Hallen points out the conditioning nature of the military, portraying the commanded military response alongside the innate civilian response in a situation. She questions whether the response would be one of fight or flight? This is captured in each work, positioning animalistic allegory representative of the human alongside war machinery representative of the military. This operates to create a PTSD a story that transcends across multiple platforms, not necessarily reliant on an underlying plot. In PTSD: Post traumatic Shoaling Disorder Hallen has identified that when fish are removed from their school their respiratory rate increases, causing stress. This stress is the same type of stress that a soldier can feel when they return from war they become isolated, experience guilt and have to readjust, working out how to survive and function. She gives fish human qualities, positioning them as military.

Kate Hallen, Stunned Mullet, 2013, Oils on canvas 121.3×84.3 cm, by permission given by the artist

These narratives of war are not purely based on the final work but very much in the experiential approach taken in the painting process. In speaking of her work Hallen like Nolan and Tucker has articulated that her hand is guided by prompts within her memory and the experience of painting is very much sensory (Hallen, 2014, 11). She uses painting to immerse herself into a narrative she has lived and created (Hallen, 2014, 25). The paintings and charcoal drawings are full of soft and subtle tones and colours that are foggy in the ambience they create. These techniques prompt a participatory response where the viewer is invited to immerse themselves in the work, observing the subtle details to construct a final image and find meaning (Hallen, 2014, 19). The approaches taken by Hallen capture both the cause and effect of PTSD.

There are many implications on how art can continue to be used as therapy and to raise awareness on topics like PTSD in a gallery space. Art has a place, plays a role and is an incredible medium in providing a voice for those who cannot speak. It is a powerful tool that is slowly making ground, creating a louder noise for people to see, as further research is undertaken and as information and personal testimonies are gathered. The desire is that accessibility would continue to increase and that art would become far more integrated, as a valued and effective treatment option, continuing to find its way to people in need, bringing light to their darkness.

Works Cited

Hallen, Kate. Fight//Flight. Honours Thesis. Southern Cross University, Australia, 2014. Print. 1-53

Hallen, Kate. “Post Traumatic Shoaling disorder” Kate Hallen Gallery. 2013 Web. 15 April 2015

Hawley, Janet. “Tour of Duty” Good Weekend. 4 February 2012. Fairfax Web. 15 April 2015

James, K 2011, ‘The Lingering Effects of Vietnam: Veterans’ art from Dog Tags to Nam Bang! (1992-2009)’, Art Monthly Australia issue 240, 4-10. Print.

Kellington, Stephanie. “Using Group Art Therapy to Address the Shame and Silencing Surrounding Children’s Experiences of Witnessing Domestic Violence.” International Journal of Art Therapy: Inscape 1 (2012): 3-12. Print.

King, Jacqueline. “Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – breaking the silence of the fringe dweller” National Rural Health Alliance, 2014. Web. 24 March 2015. 1-5

Mendelssohn, Joanna. “Otto Dix: Der Krieg.” Artlink 1 (2015): 44-47. Print.

Meijer-Degen, Fiety. “Alexithymia- A Challenge to Art Therapy. The Story of Rita.” Arts in Psychotherapy 3 (2006): 167-79. Print. National Gallery of Australia. “The Art of War Otto Dix’s Der Krieg [War] cycle 1924” Web. 14 May 2015.

Peterson, Adkins. “Family Trauma Support Network” Trauma: the neurochemistry of Stress. Peterson Adkins, 2007. Web. 22 March 2015.

Potash, J S. “Viewing and Engaging in an Art Therapy Exhibit by People Living with Mental Illness: Implications for Empathy and Social Change.” Public Health 8 (2013): 735-744. Print.

Quilty, B 2013, Australian Story- On the Warpath, Monday 25 March 2013, ABC

Ben Quilty, quoted in Janet Hawley, “Tour of duty”, Good Weekend, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 February 2012

Smyth, Jason “Arts and Healing: Creative, Artistic and Expressive Therapies for PTSD” Art and Healing. Foundation for Art and Healing, 2011. Web. 22 March 2015. 1-7

Streddo, Kristina. “The Art of War at John Curtin” Colosoul. Kristina Streddo, 2014. Web 22 April 2015. Yip, Andrew. “Gender War: Shaun Gladwell and

Ben Quilty in Afghanistan.” Artlink 3 (2013): 61-63. Print.

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