With the accessibility of digital tools for creativity and self-expression, the phenomenon of digital art has overwhelmed channels of online and print communication. The application of digital arts in educational, professional and creative settings has become commonplace. Now, the recovery community is being exposed to a more deliberate use of digital technology in healing as many people who are seeking to recover from addiction and trauma are turning to digital arts.
Conventional art therapy and its benefits are well known. However, the more recent introduction of digital arts into some therapeutic environments has raised important clinical and philosophical questions: Can the use of digital art have the same or similar impact on those in recovery as traditional art? What is art? And, should we embark on the mission of narrowing the definition of “digital arts” for purposes of art therapy if we are to embrace digital arts at all?
Greg Liotta is an addictions counselor, digital artist and mystic who has found some of his own answers to these profound questions. He went into long-term recovery in 1990 and was not aware of how essential the arts were for his journey. However, it eventually became clear that his artwork and his recovery were running along parallel paths.
“Compulsions, addictions and avoidance are really about becoming disengaged from reality, which becomes so painful that you want to escape and modify it to make it more tolerable,” said Liotta. “I felt a real constriction in my heart – but even when it was painful or difficult, I realized that to be present for that pain was good for the heart.” He then expressed that art is an important practice for opening the heart and becoming present to reality by means of a non-rational process.
Liotta is not alone in opining that art is an important method for coming to terms with reality. Among many other organizations and prominent researchers in the field, the American Art Therapy Association affirms that art therapy “improves reality orientation.”
One issue that problematizes the use of digital arts in healing is that many art psychotherapists adhere to traditional artistic methods, and shun digital forms of art claiming that it is not real art. A research study on art therapy conducted by Marna Swanepoel at the University of South Africa in 2013 demonstrates that new instruments of digital creation are pervasive to the extent that many people, especially the younger generation, “construct their social, educational and personal life worlds in digital media and use it for the majority of their time.” Along with Swanepoel, there are an increasing number of researchers and therapists that seem opposed to the one-size-fits-all methodology in art therapy.
The current stance of a large community of conventional art psychotherapists, which essentially denies the legitimacy of digital artists, can be discouraging to say the least. The notion that digital art is merely pressing buttons grants more agency to the tool than to the artist. This is both false and disempowering.
The idea that art might be limited to narrow definitions did not sit well with Liotta, who has experience in both traditional and digital arts. Of late, he uses an application called Procreate® and uses a stylus just like he would a brush. “You have to develop skill and learn to use it in the same way you have to learn to use different brushes with oils. You can’t just put together a masterpiece on day one.” He reconciled the debate on the legitimacy of art for himself very quickly, expressing that the question itself was nonsensical. “There are no rules in art or recovery. Art is really a process of facilitating a flow of creative energy wherever it wants to go.” Even picking up mud and wiping it on a wall can be art, in Liotta’s definition, as long as the artist is genuinely inspired to self-express in that way. “Nothing in the universe remains static,” said Liotta. “Everything is morphing into something new, and art needs to reflect that process.”
Although many prefer to stay within the realm of the conventional arts, some groundbreaking programs are proactive in including digital art. One such program is Williamsville Wellness, a residential gambling and alcohol addiction treatment center in Virginia, which is making use of tablet PCs and the iPad as part of their new Digital Art Therapy program.
In the digital age, therapists and artists must also confront the increasing importance of public art and the question of how social media plays into recovery. Many artists never leave the studio and are content with a solo experience. However, others feel that the inherent purpose of art is communication, connection and understanding. Social media provides a platform for interaction with artistic images and other human beings, and therefore, may in and of itself become an important forum for recovery. On this important topic, Liotta feels that “this is the elixir of the recovery movement – the spirit of love: the capacity to be vulnerable and experience acceptance and compassion within a given community. As we engage with life, we get out of isolation, make meaning and start connecting.”
The Parallel Journey of Hearts
Liotta took a sabbatical in 2009 and traveled to an ashram in Virginia. He lived among a strong and supportive spiritual community. After that beautiful experience came to an end, he went to the West Indies where he lived in a state of great physical and spiritual contrast to what he had experienced at the ashram. It was painful and alienating. He felt cut off from the spiritual and recovery principles that he had relied on. After a year, Liotta began to feel a profound constriction in his chest and did not know how to manage it. Although he had pastels, paper and other physical materials available to him, he resisted using them. “That’s when I started working with digital art. I lay in my hammock and pulled out my iPad. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just needed to facilitate the opening of my heart. I started painting hearts that had openings. They were flowing, and light was moving in and out of them.” Liotta then described how he reengaged with his body, his feelings and reality. “For a few months – I just laid there and created hearts and started to feel myself opening up again. Using art as a mechanism of spiritual practice within my recovery saved my life during a time when I didn’t have a sense of community.”
The below pieces show a few of the hearts created by Liotta:
A few more vivid pieces by Liotta:
More of Liotta’s art and insights on recovery can be found on www.gregliotta.com.