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The Healing Power of Art

by Nicola on 2013-05-20

The Healing Power of Art

By Dr Nicola Davies

Art has been a part of Inuit communities thousands of years. It was first introduced as a visual aid to further reinforce reading and writing lessons as well as to facilitate storytelling. Inuit take pride in decorating ceremonial objects, clothes, shoes, and homes. Therefore, art has been an intricate part of Inuit culture for generations. It could even be claimed that using art for the purpose of expressing emotional and psychological pain and to aid in the healing of that pain is a natural form of healing for Inuit.


Art does not need to be used in a therapeutic context in order to offer therapeutic benefits. Many Inuit artists use their art to express their emotions, such as their fears of losing their culture. It is also often used to recount traumatic experiences in residential schools. For those who are in need of healing but are unable to talk about their trauma or adequately express how they feel, art is a particularly valuable self-help tool. Art therapy is also a very personal and individual form of healing, and therefore a typical form of western art therapy would not necessarily be a successful form of therapy for Inuit.


Art therapy can make use of any medium, such as:


  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Carving
  • Beading
  • Sewing
  • Basket weaving
  • Mask making
  • Drum making
  • Traditional cooking
  • Tanning hides
  • Making sealskin shoes and kamiiks


Photo courtesy of David Ho.

Performing arts such as singing, dancing, drama, storytelling, song writing and poetry are also important forms of expression in Inuit culture and vital to the healing power attributed to art.


Being able to create images provides the individual with a level of control that they cannot maintain while talking about a trauma. The meaning in their art can be extremely personal, so that they alone can understand the aspect being dealt with. This provides time to learn how to manage the emotions connected with the event before revealing it to others.


Many who were affected by the residential school system were punished for talking or for expressing themselves. For them, it is very difficult to begin speaking about the trauma that they endured in the residential schools and art is a crucial part of healing the past and being able to express the pain and anger some of them feel. Furthermore, the physical act of creating art keeps the person in the present and grounded in the activity. Emotions are given an expression and allowed to be externalised and dealt with. It also helps to relieve stress and tension.


Photo courtesy of David Ho.

Mental healing comes from being involved in the process of creation, where organising thoughts and planning the progression of the project provide the individual with a different perspective on the trauma. Spiritually, art also provides a connection to the spirit that may have been lacking.


For Inuit, art therapy is a means to build trust in the healing process and in the counsellor. If used without professional help, it facilitates the individual in gaining trust in themselves. It also assures the individual that they are in a safe environment where their emotional well-being and cultural integrity are of highest priority.

Art can also be a way of Inuit reconnecting with their cultural and spiritual beliefs. Cultural healing uses traditional healing methods such as Inuktitut language, traditional art, drumming, singing, dancing and storytelling to teach about the culture, spirituality and traditional knowledge that was lost to them. Rediscovering this lost or forgotten way of life gives an individual a sense of belonging and nurtures cultural pride. Traditional cultural arts used in healing include sewing, beading and drum-making. Very often, these skills, which were an intricate part of Inuit life and survival, were not passed on to the children who attended the residential schools. They, in turn, could not pass them on to their children. Learning these crafts heals part of the wound caused by the residential schools by regaining something that was taken. It not only restores cultural pride, but it also builds the individual’s self-esteem and makes family bonds stronger.


For children, art therapy is an extension of play. Very often children find it difficult to vocalize themselves and their emotions adequately. Using art to give them a voice allows them to overcome these difficulties so that they can start to heal without words. Participating in art and craft projects comes more naturally to children than talking as they are less inhibited and their imaginations are not restricted by their limited vocabulary. In addition to this, a child does not feel the pressure to produce a master piece like an adult might, so they tend to benefit more from the therapeutic aspects of art than adults do.


Pauktuuit is a non-profit organisation that has taken an active role in helping Inuit women get involved in artistic healing through the creation of a virtual quilt. Inuit women in a number of groups throughout the four Inuit regions are encouraged to undertake a creative project and document the progress on photo or video. Each group’s project will occupy one square of the virtual quilt on the Pauktuuit website.


Nunavut women’s correctional centre has a volunteer art program. It was not initially intended to be therapeutic, but the participation in the art classes by the inmates has already given them more self-confidence, as well as provided a form of stress relief. The classes have become a coping mechanism and a method of managing difficult emotions such as anger.


Whether done alone or in a group, art can assist in healing the mind, body, and soul. So don’t delay in getting creative, choosing whatever medium most appeals to you. Art has been an important part of Inuit culture for centuries and with new insights into its therapeutic benefits its popularity is likely to continue for centuries to come.


Author Bio:

Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychology Consultant and Freelance Writer with an interest in health and well-being.  Her publications can be viewed at Alternatively, you might like to sign up to her free blog:




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