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What is Art Therapy?

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

Art therapy is a mental health profession in which an art therapist facilitates the client's use of art media and the creative process to reach a number of treatment goals or personal goals such as exploring feelings, reconciling conflicts, improving self awareness, behavior management, social skills.

How did you get involved with the field?

I've been an art therapist for over 30 years. When I was first starting out I didn't realize there was even such a profession. I was taking post graduate art classes at a local university and said to my classmates that what I really wanted to do was work somehow with art and children who were struggling in school. Someone in my class said, "That's called art therapy. And there's a graduate program down the street." So I came here to Eastern Virginia Medical School, before they even had a master's degree. I got a certificate and later finished it off with a master's degree in art therapy. I've been in the field a very long time, and I've watched it grow in a number of ways.

What advantages does art therapy provide over other forms of therapy?

The biggest advantage is that art can express things that are not expressible verbally. That's a huge advantage for people who don't have the language to talk about what's inside of them, children or adults. In many ways it bypasses the kinds of defensive thinking that can get expressed in verbal therapy. Such as, "Oh, I didn't mean to say that," or, "What I really meant was…" Art therapy is a very rich avenue for self expression.

What does an art therapy session generally look like?

Art therapists work in many different ways. We work in individual psychotherapy sessions, and we also work in ways that are more connected with community and open studios and things of that nature. So, in terms of a more traditional approach, say an individual art therapy session, a client or patient might come to the session with her own agenda. She may come to the session saying, "I'm having this, that or the other problem," and art therapists are trained to present appropriate art media to explore or develop whatever the problem is. Some art materials are very regressive and are not the right ones to select for certain individuals and certain issues. In the case that a certain individual comes to us with a certain agenda or problem to address, the art therapist can guide that session by suggesting certain materials that facilitate a process that leads to insight or discovery.

Sometimes a person will come to a session but not really know how to talk about what's on his mind or what he's experiencing internally. In those cases art therapists can present directives -- "I'd like to suggest you explore this with art materials." That sort of thing. To get the client moving toward their goals.

Can you give an example?

It's so variable from patient to patient. I could give an example of, say, a group therapy session. A bunch of adolescents in a group therapy setting. And this is the first time they're meeting as a group; they don't know each other very well. An art therapist could present a task to them to all work on together -- an appropriate one there could be a magazine collage about yourself. Go through the collage boxes and collect items what you think says something about yourself that you'd like to share with the group. And so the collage takes away the anxiety that many people have about displaying their artistic talents, or lack of artistic talents, in front of others. Everybody is kind of on an even playing field there.

Art therapists usually stockpile all kinds of interesting images in collage boxes rather than giving people magazines. The kids in the group would then select whatever they want to select and by choosing that they're able to control what they want to share in a group. At the end of the session we clean up and have a discussion. The kids then share whatever they want to share to the extent that they can with each other.

The job of the art therapist would be to point out similarities, to get the kids to look at the collages as a whole, and have a look at some of the images that are perhaps in common, and begin to develop an ability to see how these images can say something about me. They begin then to get a sense of what communicating through imagery is about. It's not threatening, it's success-oriented. And it offers some amount of control.


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