Art Therapy

One of my long term goals is to pursue and earn post-graduate credentialing in art therapy within the next 5 years. Considering my other long-term plans and the fact I live outside the U.S. I think that time frame is fairly realistic. As a developing art therapist, the theme “art therapy” is likely to recur on this blog. I decided to create this page in case any of you are wondering:

What is art therapy anyways?

Sometimes it’s easier to define what something is by first defining what it’s not.

Let’s dispel some myths.

Art  therapy is not:

  1. Only useful for children.

Although it can be very useful for children and is often used in rehabilitation with children who are experiencing physical illness, autism, ADHD, trauma, homelessness, difficulty in school, poverty…and the list goes on.

2. Only helpful for, or used with, those who have artistic talent.

In fact most people who encounter art therapy are not self-proclaimed artists. Some are. Whether or not a person is inclined to the arts does not determine whether art therapy will be a successful choice of treatment for them.

3. Any version of the Rorschach ink blot test.

I used to get this a lot. “So you show people pictures and ask them what they see?” No. I ask people to create their own pictures, and then yes, often I ask them what they see.

4. Music therapy, drama therapy, dance therapy.

Art therapy is a discipline of its own, as is dance therapy, as is music therapy.When combined or discussed collectively they could be called the expressive arts therapies, but art therapy and music therapy are not synonymous. Art therapy is focused on the use of visual arts in healing.

5. The indiscriminate interpretation of symbols in client’s artwork.

Art therapists are trained to observe form as content in artwork, but interpretations are not made blindly based off a list of symbols and their meanings, and are only made after collecting as much information from the artist about their own artwork as possible.

Art therapists are master’s level clinicians with a strong background in both art processes and psychological theories and practices.

Art therapy:

My one sentence definition of art therapy: Art therapy is the use of art processes such as painting, drawing, and sculpture within a therapeutic setting and relationship to help people creatively express themselves in ways that are often new, uncomfortable, insightful, pleasing, growth promoting, and in service to the persons’ overall well-being.

The long story:

Art therapy was historically developed in two “camps.” One, “art as therapy” holds the belief that art making processes are in and of themselves therapeutic and as such provide healing potential to those who participate in them.

One criticism of this idea is that there lies a fine line between what is considered art as therapy, art education, or just plain art. I truly believe that art making processes in and of themselves can be therapeutic. I also believe that when they take place in the presence of a trained art therapist the space is created and held in such a way to purposely and skillfully foster this therapeutic quality of art making, therefore creating a group or session that is clearly art therapy. Are there elements of art teaching within art therapy? Often I think yes. Do I believe that therapeutic art takes place with or without being called art therapy, and sometimes without an art therapist present? Yes.

I think the key here is that the creative process itself is focused on, fostered, and participated in with therapeutic goals in mind.

A second camp under the umbrella art therapy, “art psychotherapy,” holds the belief that we can unleash subconscious communication through expression with art materials, and this art product is then used to enhance verbal psychotherapeutic approaches. The emphasis here is placed on the product and what it communicates rather than the art process itself.

I would guess that most art therapists today use a combination of both “art as therapy” and “art psychotherapy” theories and practices in their work.

What I think defines art therapy is the three way relationship between the artist, the therapist, and the artwork. Through this dynamic relationship there is great potential for emotional, spiritual, and physical growth due to the personal expression and self-discoveries that may take place, and/or the pleasure and skills derived from making art in a safe and supportive environment. Connections can be made. Motor skills developed. Self-esteem fostered. Coping skills explored. Whether it is the art making process itself, or the insights gained from what is discovered in the product, art therapy is being used in many settings within schools, hospitals, prisons, community centers, private practices, and by people of all ages to benefit their overall health and quality of life.

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” – Pablo Picasso

“Art is the meeting ground of the world inside and the world outside.” Elinor Ulman

I am happy and proud to be an art therapist! Here is a short list of resources I find valuable in regards to what art therapy is and the development of art therapy as a profession: