For Wounds of the Mind, The Healer’s Art Is Art


October 29, 1997


On paper, with paint and pencil, Ibrahima Sory Bah says what he has not been able to say in words, the pictures unleashing long-unspeakable memories of his arrest and torture in Guinea a dozen years ago. An artist and graphic designer who fled his West African homeland and landed in the Bronx in 1990, Mr. Bah, a 47-year-old worker at a Long Island window shade factory, is only now coming to grips with his ordeal — another example of the growing use of art therapy to treat victims of extreme abuse.

The discipline, which has its own professional journal and is now widely accepted as a therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, or psychic wounds that show up later, dates from the 1940’s and later gained favor as a way of helping Vietnam veterans cope with overwhelming ”toxic” images and regain a sense of mastery over their feelings.

Art therapy was used to treat 28-year-old Matthew Gross, who was cut down in a fusillade at the Empire State Building in February, and it is used at the Berlin Treatment Center for Torture Victims and 40 other such clinics throughout Europe. It does not require any artistic ability on the part of the patient, practitioners say.

Looking over a picture showing a gagged and crying figure last week in the Manhattan office of his art-trained psychotherapist, Ani Buk, Mr. Bah said that picking up a paintbrush and pencil again after so many years had helped him confront his nightmares and banish depression, as well as quit smoking and binge drinking. ”It make me rule my courage and ability,” he said in halting, French-accented English. ”It give me a high morale so I’m not afraid to explain what happened to me.”

Ms. Buk, who is treating him without charge, said that while extreme stress suppressed the functioning of the part of the brain that orders memory, causing flashbacks and nightmares, making art helped reorder memories ”in the form of a concrete record that gives them a context.”

”You can put it down,” she said. ”You can make changes. You can literally put it away, in a folder.”

”We don’t analyze the artwork for the patient,” she said. ”Many things have to be left unspoken. The very reason art therapy works is because words are too painful.” The therapist is there largely as a ”witness,” she said, intervening to help contain the difficult emotions unleashed by the process.

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