Deborah John, Ph.D., ATR-BC, LPAT
B.S. Art Education, University of Vermont; M.A. Art Therapy, Vermont College; Ph.D., Expressive Therapies, Lesley University
Deborah has worked with many different populations using art as a means of expression and healing. Her experience includes using art therapy with psychiatric patients, trauma victims, troubled youth and grieving elementary school students.
Since ancient times the arts have been used as a means of deepening awareness and encouraging healing. Expressive therapies are a contemporary link to these early practices and a link to our shared human history. From cave pictures to doodling, the tradition of drawing continues as a thread throughout human history. As an art therapy instructor, Deborah supports this understanding in students, who can then offer the experience of healing through the arts to others.
Like many art therapists I entered the field of art therapy with a personal understanding of the coping and healing benefits of art making. As a child I was kinesthetically oriented to the world and knew things best through movement and touch. For this reason the school requirement of staying seated and paying attention through listening was very uncomfortable. I developed the solution of doodling as a means of kinesthetic involvement. This became an ongoing way to actually stay involved in the classroom and enabled me to be comfortable in my seat. Through many years of public education I doodled every day in my notebook. In adulthood I continued doodling in circumstances that required me to remain seated.
After finishing my undergraduate degree in art education and my graduate degree in art therapy, I wondered at my own lack of art-making. Then I recognized that I had continued consistently doodling. My attempts to bring my images onto more expensive or larger paper were unsuccessful. So I began a process of saving and adhering doodled images on to canvas and integrating them with painting. These creative explorations sometimes were satisfying and complete, though often became over-worked. I realized that I needed to work in a smaller format in order to be able to create images in immediate response to ongoing life circumstances.
My next challenge was that when I carried a small sketch-book with nice drawing paper, my images were quite inhibited and did not have the free-flow that both feels good and produces interesting drawings. It was a self-critical voice that was inhibiting my creative flow. In response to this understanding, I began a series using blue-ballpoint pen on envelopes I received in junk mail. These materials allowed me to freely make images because I was using non-valuable tools, so that my doodles were again interesting and felt good to make. After completing the envelope series, I am now able to carry a small sketchbook in which I happily make post-card size images regularly.
In my doctoral dissertation, I researched the experiences of adult participants who made a series of small doodle-like drawings. Many found benefits to making these drawings. Some remained caught in a self-critical web. Because art-making has such potential for bringing awareness to self criticism, and then releasing people from their self-critical inhibitions, I am an enthusiastic promoter of free expression through art-making. Lately in teaching I have found that inhibitions can also be freed through the experience of drawing early developmental forms. Through the use of crayon and paint students can remember the expressive joy and soul-consciousness of childhood.