Expressive Arts Therapy and Social Change Book

The Jewish Tribune – August 11, 2011


By Shlomit Kriger

TORONTO – From Iraqi survivors of torture and war finding voice through poetry to Bedouin women’s feelings of oppression being tackled with visual art-making, practitioners featured in the recently released book Art in Action: Expressive Arts Therapy and Social Change (Jessica Kingsley Publishers) are helping diverse communities discover the power of the arts as a means to address trauma and conflict resolution.

“To focus on conflict usually means that individuals and groups get stuck in polarizing positions and are unable to see alternatives,” said Stephen K. Levine, who co-edited the book, along with Ellen G. Levine. “Expressive arts therapy (EXA) encourages a playful, improvisatory approach to conflict, decentring people from the difficulties and usual perspectives and allowing them to discover new and surprising possibilities.

“It also makes people aware of resources they might have otherwise overlooked in their focus on their difficulties.”

Pioneers in the EXA field, the Levines founded ISIS Canada, an EXA training institute in Toronto, and they both serve as deans of EXA programs at the European Graduate School (EGS) in Switzerland. The publication of Art in Action coincides with the launch of a new EGS Master’s program in Expressive Arts in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding.

In addition to accounts from expressive arts therapists working on creating transformation in different parts of the world, the book includes insights on the use of EXA on an individual and societal level from founders in the field such as Paolo J. Knill and Shaun McNiff. Knill mentions how the arts can strengthen resiliency in communities and McNiff explains the importance of arts spaces providing an “atmosphere of acceptance rather than judgment” and allowing participants to explore aspects of expression and imagination – some of which may be repressed in relations with others but need to be faced for change to occur.

Staff at Israel’s Lesley University, known for its arts-based programs in education and human services, implemented several creative interventions to aid Ethiopian Jews with integration in the town of Nes Ziona. Many Ethiopian immigrants experienced harrowing conditions during their journeys to Israel, and they have since struggled to fit into the new culture and rebuild their lives.

Through activities for youth involving music, movement, drama, visual arts, and storytelling, participants found safe means to convey and work through their suffering, identification with their roots, and their hopes and goals for the future.

“In distinction to discussion or debate, which can be purely cognitive, art-making involves the body and the feelings in a way that can be very powerful and can bind people who are involved in it together,” said Stephen.

Ellen guided a group of Palestinian and Israeli EGS students to discover how EXA could lead to “new ways of being and acting.” Having been personally touched by the conflicts in their communities, the students felt distressed to even be in the same room.

While Ellen helped the students begin to tell their stories to one another and work on arts projects, it was a spontaneous gathering of music and dancing one night that encouraged them to engage in a more relaxed way and finally created a major breakthrough in the cloud of tension. This experience produced a shift in their encounters that continued to evolve and allow them to connect more genuinely during their studies.