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What is Art Therapy?


When people hear that I am an art therapist, the reactions are often polar opposites. Either the response is something along the lines of “that’s cool, but I could never go there, I’m not an artist” OR, “that’s amazing, I love to do art, I bet that works really well!” I will let you in on a little secret, I can successfully engage in art therapy with both types of people! Because at the end of the day, art therapy is not about artistic ability at all, it’s about engaging in the process of artmaking, in order to bring to the surface things that are at a deeper level, and then begin to work with that in a non-threatening way.




          The Canadian Art Therapy Association (CATA) provides the following definition: “Art therapy combines the creative process and psychotherapy, facilitating self-exploration and understanding. Using imagery, colour and shape as part of this creative therapeutic process, thoughts and feelings can be expressed that would otherwise be difficult to articulate.” (CATA, 2024).

        So, what does this practically look like in a session? There are typically three stages: curious inquiry, art making, and harvesting. In the initial part of the session, we will explore what is coming up for the client that they want to work with. In the second part of the session, we engage in art making. Most of the time, I like to meet clients where they are at in terms of the artmaking. I will provide a wide range of materials to work with and ask the client to choose something to engage with, something that’s calling to them. If this is too daunting, we start with an art warm up, like a scribble drawing. This helps the client let go of the need to make their art look a certain way and can also help release initial anxiety surrounding art making in session. If there is a particular issue that the client is wanting to engage with, such as anger, I will work together with the client to tailor the artmaking to the issue that is presenting itself. With the example of anger, art media like clay can be helpful in the use of kinesthetic energy that is used to knead the clay and form it into something new. The initial pounding of the clay can help release anger that is stored in the body, and the neutral nature of the clay can help the client to feel a new feeling as they reshape the clay into a final sculpture (Marrocco, 2006). This is but one example of many different directions that a typical session can take. In the final stage, harvesting, we will sit with the art creation, and get curious about how it relates to the issue the client came with, asking various questions to explore meaning and deepen the process.

        But is it evidence based? In short, YES! Humanity has been using art as expression since prehistoric times, and we need only to look at cave paintings as evidence of this expression. The formal term art therapy, as we know it now, was coined in the 1942 by British artist Adrian Hill, and around the same time, American psychologist Margaret Naumberg was using the same term for the clinical work she was doing (Junge, 2015). As psychology evolved, the recognition of the unconscious and the role that art could play in helping a person to find that outward expression of their inner mind led to the development of art therapy as an innovative and original mental health discipline (Junge, 2015). Art therapy outcome research with diverse populations continues to be published in different academic journals.The American Art Therapy Association has published a list of evidence-based research relating to various topics that can be found at the following link:

 

So, if art therapy has been a curiosity of yours, there is no time like the present to come explore with me the healing and growth that can result from engaging with art.

 

 

Canadian Art Therapy Association (2020). What is art therapy? https://www.canadianarttherapy.org/what-is-art-therapy

Junge, M. (2015). History of Art Therapy. In Gussak, D., & Rosal, M. (Eds.), The Wiley Handbook of Art Therapy (pp.7-16). John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

Marrocco, T. (2006). The Art of Emotional Healing: Over 60 Simple Exercises for Exploring Emotions through Drawing, Painting, Dancing, Writing, Sculpture and More. Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal19(1), 33–34. https://doi.org/10.1080/08322473.2006.11432282

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