As an art therapist, it's my mission to help people understand what art therapy is and what it is not.
I'm lucky to be passionate about my work. It's not just a nine to five day job for me.
I find art therapy to be an amazingly powerful option for anyone and everyone. Not only can the art therapy process be healing and soothing, but it can also be challenging and fun. Through everything, we learn.
Human beings experience and gain something from each experience, whether they know it or not. Art therapy lies somewhere within the realm of opportunity for growth and change, when it can also appear as just a cool way to experiment with color, shape, line, texture and, sometimes, getting your hands a little dirty.
Art therapy is a non-intrusive form of therapy that can be used to work through difficult feelings, thoughts, memories, or experiences.
This type of therapy is non-intrusive because it allows those feelings, thoughts, memories and experiences to come out through the art-making process or the creation itself, instead of requiring that a person talk about them directly.
The creative process offers a different way for people to express themselves. Many times, putting words to our thoughts, feelings and experiences is not quite as simple as we would like for it to be.
Especially during times of stress, trauma, grief, or overwhelming emotions, art therapy is a good option for working through things that are difficult.
And, as humans, we all have something difficult to manage and progress through, from time to time.
Art therapy helps externalize thoughts and feelings, so that they are then separate from the person. This distance allows an easier way for the person to then observe and discuss what was or is occurring inside of them. Creative expression through art therapy allows for a larger range of communication styles.
By giving a person different ways to express his/her/their internal conflicts, it allows for a more powerful reflection which, in turn, allows that person to grow, explore, and empower themselves on a deeper level. Art therapy provides a colorful range of approaches to the therapeutic process. Though questioned by some, an art therapy session must be done with a trained art therapist, or it cannot technically be called art therapy. If someone is not trained in techniques, they are not really going to be able to adequately facilitate an art therapy session. Things can come up really quickly for people when making art, whether it is a feeling of not being good enough, a frustration with the materials, a question about what is true or not true, a trigger of a painful memory or experience, the relationship between the client and therapist itself, or the relationship between the client and his/her/their creative and expressive process. Making art can be fun, but it can also be a lot of other things.
Art therapists are trained to see things in the artwork and in the art-making process that other people may not see.
The artwork is a way in, for both the art therapist and for the person creating the art. It can offer a different set of lens, a different perspective, when things do not seem as clear otherwise.
Art therapists are required to go through a very extensive training process and receive a high level of education before being able to practice. One cannot become an art therapist without acquiring a master’s degree in that field, where the focus is both on psychology and studio arts. Yet, this is only the beginning. Training and education continues with counseling concepts, along with the application of theories and techniques of human development, psychological development, group therapy, art therapy assessment, psychodiagnostics, research methods, multicultural diversity and, of course, knowledge of and skills in using visual art (drawing, painting, sculpture, and other art forms) and the creative process.
When people typically think of a therapist, they might think of someone sitting on a couch doing talk therapy.
Art therapists are trained to do that same thing, going through the educational process that a "regular" therapist would go through, but also having the expertise and proficiency of using creative and expressive therapy techniques.
Art therapy focuses on the process of the client’s art making, not on the product.
For those who think that they cannot benefit from art therapy because they’re not artistic or creative, I tell you that this is not true. No skill or artistic experience is necessary to participate in and benefit from art therapy. Everyone can create and, therefore, is creative.
We are human, so we make marks in and on this world. Making marks gives us meaning and purpose. And this is where art therapy begins.
A variety of materials can be offered during art therapy sessions. Anything from clay, sculpture, painting, drawing, collage, sand, Lego and building blocks, to written or spoken words, dramatization, games, and costumes can all be utilized in the therapeutic context. These are just a few of the many options available.
An art therapy session is a safe and supportive place for someone to interact with their artwork, and with themselves. Clients can create and re-create, tell a story and have the option to re-tell that story in a different way, with a different ending, if they like. They can rip up their artwork, throw it away, or leave it unfinished. They can come back to it at any point, once they are ready, if they need a break from it. In this way, art therapy sessions can offer practice for managing and alternative solutions to real-life problems, when a person might want to do the same thing to a person or situation in their life. As the artist or creator in the session, it is your art, therefore, it is your right to do with it what you will.
There is a myth that art therapists have a person draw something and that the therapist then interprets it, analyzing and coming to a conclusion.
This is not the case. In a typical session, art therapists prompt the client to create something and can then assist with the interpretation of what the art might mean. Clients are the experts on their own art and no assumptions are made by the art therapist without checking in on the creator's intentions or experience of the process.
Simply put, art is a way to help people communicate thoughts, feelings and experiences that can be difficult to express verbally or otherwise.
Art therapy and art psychotherapy can help people relax and achieve insight into their struggles. All that is needed is a person's willingness to give the process a try.
It can be as simple as drawing stick figures, shapes or lines; as collaging and layering textures and images, as forming symbols or other representations out of clay or other materials. There really are no limits, as long as the space remains safe and reassuring for the client. As an art therapist, I want to focus on a person in a way that makes them feel important, feel seen and heard.
Art therapists are not here to tell you what your art means, but to help you discover what the creation itself and what the process might mean to you.
Hannah Phillips Hale,MA, LPC, ATR
Licensed Professional Counselor & Registered Art Therapist