What is art therapy?

The following is an excerpt from an interview I did earlier this year. I thought I’d share this part here as it’s a question that a lot of people have.

Art therapy is a type of expressive therapy which has its roots in phychodynamic and psychoanalytic histories. It’s informed by many different approaches to therapy including the humanist schools of psychology.

For me, the core of art therapy is really about three things. It’s firstly about providing a vehicle for clients to express themselves in a way that’s more than just verbal.

In art therapy or expressive arts therapies, we will use movement. We will use poetry. We will use drawing. We will use paint. We might use sculpture. We might use ritual. We might use song. We might use fairy tales. We use all of these expressive tools as a way for clients to dig a little deeper, get beyond the kind of daily story of what might be happening for them, and express the emotional dimension to their situation, using symbol and metaphor. It’s really using art as an expressive tool.

The second big part of art therapy is relationship.

There’s a really important role for the relationship between the art therapist and the participant. The art therapist does a number of things, they hold the space in a way that creates a very safe feeling space and enables participants to share in a deep and true way. Whether it’s done one on one in sessions or in groups the relationship with the therapist is critical; issues of trust, empathy, consistency and ‘unconditional positive regard’ all play a part in creating this safe space for therapy.

The art therapists also models a kind of relationship with art making that is possible for the client. When the therapist models a kind of self acceptance of creative work it opens up the possibilities for people to express themselves in this way. That’s why in my opinion it is so critical for art therapists to have their own deep and authentic relationship with art making as a tool for self-expression.

A lot of time people have history or baggage around art and art making and have developed a complex and uncomfortable relationship with that part of themselves. They may have been told they are no good at art by an art teacher or they may have secretly dreamed of becoming an artist, but then received very strong cultural messages that told them there was no point trying unless they were a creative genius, unless they were Picasso, that there was no point.

People are going to have a lot of mixed feelings around art and so the relationship with the therapist and the therapists relationship with art is really key to opening up this door to allow them to express themselves in a comfortable way using art and creative methods, both during sessions and perhaps as part of their self care toolkit in an ongoing way.

I think that the third key element for me is developing an awareness of what intranspersonal art therapy will call states of consciousness. This process of art therapy helps us become aware and develop what we call the witness state to observe ourselves in a gentle and compassionate way.

So often when we’re in pain or we’re experiencing anxiety or grief or very strong feelings, we can be lost in those feelings. We identify with those feelings. We start to believe that it’s the only way we’ll ever feel and that feeling is us. Through this therapeutic process of art therapy we can create a bit of distance by encapsulating a situation in artwork or expressing a feeling in an artwork, we can then put it almost at arm’s length – and literally sometimes we hold up our art work at arm’s length after created it. We look at it with fresh eyes and curiosity to see what meaning this art work might have for us about our situation. We become the part of us that notices and not just the part of us that feels.

In that sense, we’re approaching ourselves and our situation with curiosity and not just being lost in it because sometimes when we’re lost in it, we can feel hopeless and despair.

I think that’s in a nutshell, and of course I could talk about it for longer because I find it really interesting, but that is how I would describe what art therapy is all about.

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