Expressive Arts Therapy: “Body Project”

(…continued from My Introduction to Expressive Arts Therapy).

There we were, six of us chemo-balded ladies, hung all in a row, faceless and pale, with our backs flat against the wall, waiting for colour. How had it ever come to this?


“Run, run, as fast as you can; you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!” Free image from

Moments before, our live, three-dimensional selves had been taking turns with a partner, one person lying on a sheet of paper on the floor, the other tracing the lifesize outline of her body onto the paper with a marker. Now taped to the wall, our hollow outlines confronted us blankly, and we stared back, trying to visualize or project our feelings about ourselves onto our empty shells.

A little unnerved at first by this direct confrontation, I got off to a slow start. But once I had a paint brush in my hand, and freedom to use colour in any weird way I might choose, I was amazed at what happened next.

This was not a sequence of artistic know-how to get some kind of recognizable portrait. This was an exploration of process in the moment, discovering the effect of adding certain details to the picture, deciding what needs to be there and what not, being aware of the power of colours, light or dark, vibrant or pale, and what feelings they evoke.

  • The face: ok, easy start with a childish red smile, having fun here today.
  • The legs: dark streaks indicating jabbing pains from chemo
  • The breasts: one fine semicircle. But one was missing, just a scar line now. Why did my brush suddenly paint angry red strokes all over that spot? That breast had been sacrificed so my whole body would live. Weird feelings of grieving over it, and yet gratefulness for life suddenly welled up, and then came tears. I hadn’t even been conscious of such feelings before; I didn’t dare look at anyone as I processed them.Gradually, I was able to “relinquish” the breast with gratitude, and began to lovingly add a soothing hue over top of the scar area. I will be the first to admit this all sounds weird when you read it here, and it felt surprising and weird at the time, but it was in fact a very real, emotional, healing event.
  • The whole picture: as I continued painting, eventually my whole body shape ended up outlined in yellow with warm sunshine pouring down on me, and I added a green meadow with flowers all around. Hope. Survival. Love. And I felt at peace.

The session was powerful for me and certainly had long-lasting positive effects.

Next project: Cosmos Dancing

11 thoughts on “Expressive Arts Therapy: “Body Project”

  1. This was very moving Hildegard. Being able to deal with powerful, deep emotions is never easy. Thank you so much for sharing; loved how healing was able to flow via art. Makes me wonder how expressive therapy would work in different cultures.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank-you, Audrey! You present a good point, as you do work in other cultures. I think expressive therapies would be powerful in any culture. The question would be how to tap into what is meaningful to a particular person or group. Singing and dancing may be a more effective starting point in some cultures than visual art. (?) That would indeed be an interesting exploration.


    • Yes, it certainly was an unexpected/unsuspected result at the time, but amazing to experience how art can draw out and bring together physical and emotional realities. Thanks for your positive feedback!


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