A Creative Guide
Published April 22, 2013. Last updated 11:07 a.m., April 25, 2013
Amy Barry Shares the Expressive Arts
When we're children, expressing ourselves creatively is second nature. But, in the serious, always-dialed-in 21st century, it can be difficult to recapture that sense of imaginative abandon as an adult.
That's where Amy Barry comes in.
"What I do is kind of like being a midwife...guiding the process of self-exploration," says Barry of her role as an expressive arts facilitator.
The expressive arts, she explains, include anything from dance and drumming to drawing and writing. The latter two activities are the focus of Barry's workshops.
The expressive arts are "an opportunity to get playful, to facilitate healing from illness, loss of a loved one, or navigate any of life's difficult passages in a supportive group," says Barry. Guided exercises "help participants explore the intuitive, imagistic right side of the brain and transform negative thoughts and emotions into positive, life-affirming responses."
Activities that rely on too much analytical thought or structure-for example, prose writing and drawing with a rigid pencil-are cast aside in expressive arts workshops in favor of freer-form activities like stream-of-consciousness poem-writing and mandala-painting.
Because, "as a culture, we're very end-result versus process-oriented," Barry says, doing for the sake of doing can be difficult for some people.
"When they start to ask too many questions, I'll just say, 'Let go of it; don't worry about it'...You have to trust in this process-that it'll be okay and something will come out of it."
If that something is a great work of art, Barry says, that's just a bonus. The real benefit is the positive transformation that can take place when one taps into his or her subconscious. She recalls the revelation one workshop participant had after a guided visualization exercise.
Barry had asked her participants to "imagine where they hold stress in their body and see what color it is and what shapes they might see it take." She then asked them to draw what they envisioned.
"One person was dealing with some kind of personal issue, and they really weren't aware of what it was...They didn't even realize they had drawn this part of their shoulder area where they were holding stress-they didn't realize until they were looking at it that that's what it was. All of these things started coming together for them about why that was happening in their body and the other things that were happening in their life that were contributing to that.
"By actually, physically drawing... them people transform these very negative [feelings] into this more positive place...If you find a way of letting it out in this creative way that is positive, it takes it out of your body and then it's here in front of you-it's a poem, or it's a drawing-and there's something about that movement that's very, very healing," she continues.
This "clicked" for Barry herself when she was working on a results-driven project a few years back. She had been writing a novel and she started to notice that there was a lot of peer pressure to publish.
"What was really exciting to me about writing the novel was that it was a cool process to be having these characters come alive and not knowing where it was going. But everyone would say to me, 'Do you have a publisher?' 'Is this going to be published?' 'When are you going to get it out there?'...It was interesting that this idea of just doing something for the intrinsic value of it and to explore your own creativity is not what people are thinking about."
Barry began to realize, "there are so many classes out there-to write a memoir, to structure a novel, to learn watercolor techniques"-but there weren't any opportunities for people to just create for the joy of it. That's how she happened upon the expressive arts, ultimately completing a certificate program through Salve Regina University's Expressive Arts Institute.
When it came to designing her workshops, leading writing exercises seemed natural-after all, Barry's made her career as a writer and editor, including as a longtime contributor to and creator of this paper's Living section. Incorporating art exercises was a bit more of a stretch for her-"I don't think of myself at all as someone who's good at drawing or painting," she says-but it's one that has proven to be very useful. By asking workshop participants to respond artistically to prompts by drawing, she says, it opens up "the more intuitive, imagistic right part of the brain-and then once we've opened up that part of ourselves, the words we respond with will also be more free and fluid."
She's also called on her experience as a bereavement counselor and support-group facilitator in creating her workshops.
Barry lost her first husband when she was just 30. As a young mother of young children-her two sons were only four years and nine months old, respectively, when their father died-Barry quickly realized how valuable support groups could be. She became a certified bereavement counselor. This spring, in addition to two other workshops on the shoreline, she'll lead another at the Cove Center for Grieving Children in New Haven to help adults express their own grief around their children's loss.
"I've always been a writer, and I've always been interested in the psychological side of life...and now this work combines the support-group facilitation with my creative side."
Some of the principles that apply to traditional support groups apply to Barry's workshops. Confidentiality is expected, for example. But, unlike in support groups, the individual is seen as distinct from the group in expressive arts workshops.
"The group is there to be supportive, but it's not your traditional support group that's about talking about all of your feelings; it's about, individually, people coming together to be creative, and, in sharing it, that's where the group support comes in. Nobody's critiquing one another....It's not about me and being the teacher at the head of the class; it's about them and helping them to find answers, or even questions...The most amazing thing is just watching people have these epiphanies and 'A ha' moments."
Barry stresses, "I'm not a psychologist or a therapist. This is not art therapy-they analyze what the person did and they're using their professional expertise to help somebody with whatever issues they're dealing with...My role is to help them to express something in the way that they want to express it-to help them to get to that."
In addition to drawing and painting exercises, Barry often has participants create acrostics using the letters of their name. They start by assigning to each letter a word that reflects how they perceive themselves. Then, they create a second acrostic that reflects how they think others perceive them. Sometimes there's an overlap; sometimes there's not. The goal is to encourage self-understanding and acceptance.
With an approach that relies heavily on improvisation and an ever-expanding array of "endlessly creative" exercises, it might seem surprising that there is one prerequisite for Barry's expressive arts workshops.
"You have to agree to take this leap of faith with me to do this kind of work."