Let me begin by prefacing everything with seven statements:
1. I am a practitioner and a dedicated advocate of the practice of arts therapy;
2. I am trained and qualified arts therapist, but that does not mean I know more about you and your art than you do;
3. I am an expert of my life, just as you are the expert of yours;
4. The more I know, the more I know I don’t know;
5. The arts help us to explore and discover the areas of not knowing in our lives;
6. It is far more enjoyable and safe to go on adventures into unknown territories with a guide or a friend.
7. We are all connected in the flow of life. Whether we are alone, together, or together together, we are all in this together.
No matter how much we think we know, there is just so much out there to wonder about that to profess to be an expert at anything is slightly cheeky, from a cosmic perspective. The more we know, the more we don’t know, the old saying goes. This is a very important ethical and philosophical stance for me to take, as I believe that it is essential to retain a beginner’s mind when it comes to both art and therapy. Each person, situation, environment, relationship and moment is unique, and in order to be open to the present and thus to reality, I feel that I must expel this ‘professional’ goal of becoming an expert from my practice before I ever get the chance to arrive at this label. Yes, it’s true, I was trained as an art therapist. I believe that rigorous and high quality training in one’s chosen profession is very important, especially when your career will impact very vulnerable people, such as those that seek out therapy. On-going education, training, supervision, collaboration and a regular arts practice outside of work are all essential ingredients for making an good arts therapist. Yet, to consider ‘training’ to be an arrival of sorts at some actual level of expertise, metaphysically, would be a preposterous ignorance. For what is life and learning if not constant re-discovery of the truth that: the more you learn and the more you know, the more you realize you know nothing. Because our awareness grows to include more and more of the world around us, the world around us appears to be expanding, infinite in its’ intricacies and mysteries. Furthermore, when it comes to therapy, I fervently believe that we are each of us the experts and rightful explorers of our own lives to the extent that this is possible, and so to ever take the position as therapist of being the sole expert in the relationship is to dis-empower those who might seek me out, and to bolster an artificial power dynamic which is not helpful, in my opinion. My job is to guide and support a client through art-making and through a tough time in their lives, so that they can learn more and more about themselves. Once we learn how to engage the creative process, it can be a life-long relationships, especially after the therapeutic relationship is over.
Furthermore, to over-identify with attachment to roles or labels such as “art therapist” or “client” and so on, really undermines the fact that a human being is not just a label. To respect the inherent power dynamic of the therapeutic relationship is very important, and boundaries must be respected for the sake of the client, and to support successful therapy. People all over the world have this propensity to want to point their fingers and name things in order to compartmentalize them, and to fit them nicely into our habitual points of view and beliefs. When I come into contact with another person, I don’t just bring my therapist-persona into the room. Yet, it is absolutely essential to maintain professional boundaries, and luckily, I am not a fan of over-sharing about my personal life in general. It is so basic that we recognize the reality of any social situation. The therapeutic relationship has an inherent power dynamic, and set roles that are designed to assist the process. Without a therapist and client in a session, there is no therapy happening. And so those roles are clearly defined and spoken about from the beginning.
But it is equally important to address the essential sameness of all people. We are all human beings. We are born from our mother’s bodies, we live, and we die. We are all just doing our darndest to make it through, however we think best at the time. As a human being, I have many roles. I am a daughter, grand-daughter, wife, friend, cousin… I am an artist, an intellectual, a writer, a poet, a dancer, a photographer, a cartoonist, a movie-maker, a playwright, a clown, an athlete, a cook, a maid, a babysitter, a teacher, a student… and on and on the list goes. Really, these labels are just referring to our activities and actions, and the ways others perceive us in the social realm. Yet… who are we, beyond these social roles? What is the self? What is really happening when two human beings come into contact? Human beings are mammals, and almost all of our DNA is shared with the rest of Nature. Scientists could factually reclassify human beings as bacterial colonies due to the trillions of bacteria living in and supporting our bodies. Within the grander scheme of this ever expanding universe, I am just a speck! And I don’t’ mind at all.
Truly, nothing is as it seems. It is just so much more amazing than we could ever realize. We have so much to learn.
That’s why, these days, I have developed a mantra in response to any insecurities or fears. If I ever get that nagging feeling of anxiety which arises from entering the land of Not Knowing, I have been trying to confidently remember to say to myself:
“Don’t Know! So, make good art!”
When that internal stirring begins, and I can just remind myself of where I am and what it is, I have found it to be the most fruitful stance for creativity and humor.
And the tides of humanity keep turning and crashing over each other, covering each others’ dusty trails.
Meanwhile the birch trees bamboozle their many ways through the cracks,
And the momentous and electric hive of energy which connects us
And allows us to move in coordinated groups
That are larger than any of us
But not larger than
We can imagine,
What is Arts Therapy?
Arts + therapy?
Arts as therapy?
Before we begin defining terms, I would like to boldly announce that as much as we can all theorize and analyze and write and talk about art therapy, my belief is that in reality, what we refer to as “art therapy” is an experience, an action, a process above all other definitions. That means that the question “What is art therapy?” in my opinion should be rephrased as “What is art therapy to YOU?” Yes, art therapy is a stated profession and there are job titles such as “art therapist,” and we can talk about it and research it and write about it and it’s very interesting, but in the end, art therapy is a lived experience. And therefore, it will be what you make of it. What will emerge during your experience of creating and relating? Within a safe and even a sacred place, we may invite the emergence of spontaneity, of improvisation, of being willing to surprise oneself, of wild and fearless curiosity, of adventure, of healing, of beauty.
I quite liked and agree with how Vancouver counselor Pat Roles (MSW, RSW, BCATR Registered Social Worker and Registered Art Therapist) defines art therapy on her site:
“Art therapy is therapy where the focus is on the creative art process rather than the product. The individual who creates the art is the one who attributes meaning to the piece, not the therapist. Art therapy is not about analyzing the art to find hidden meaning. Art is like a mirror for the artist can can be a means of self-reflection and self-awareness. Anything that is creative has part of the creator in it as it draws on the individual’s personal experience such as poetry, songwriting, story writing, music, drama and visual art. Expression is found through the creative process and solutions to problems are explored by looking outside the box. Art therapy draws on the imagination that is inherent in everyone.
Art therapy is a collaborative process between the client and the therapist. Whether sessions or structured or not is negotiated as to what works best for the client. Some people appreciate some structure and direction, whereas others are more self-directed in the art process.
Using art as a modality can be a way to help with the expression of difficult feelings. The saying is that a picture says a thousand words, so images can show what an individual might not be able to in words.
Art Therapy is making art for a purpose. The therapist helps the client establish goals and direction to work on through art. It is art as a means of expression that can be more non-verbal or an adjunct to verbal communication.
Therapy through art isn’t just about drawing and painting. It can be making things from construction paper, using glue, photography, fabric, sand, and objects, finger painting, clay and construction, or paper mache. The imagination is the limit. It is about exploring what is unfamiliar to help expand thinking and expression. Or for some who might be more intensely expressive and get lost in the art, it might be about finding boundaries in the materials. Everyone has different goals.
Verbal expression is involved in art therapy, however, it is an approach that doesn’t require a lot of verbal conversation if this is not desired by the client. Individuals who are verbal can enter into dialogue about the art and explore issues further.
Art as therapy is appropriate for individuals of any age. An interest in art is a common reason individuals often decide to try art therapy as they feel a comfort in the medium. For these individuals, this comfort can help art to feel like an easier way to engage in therapy.
Art therapy is not just for children and teenagers. Adults benefit from art therapy. Art can be also be used in family therapy. For families it can be a way to see communication and interaction patterns as they become visible through art activities. It can also be a way to work toward solutions as a family on common problems. It is especially useful as a way for children to participate in therapy and in family therapy as they tend to enjoy the process more easily. Art is often something children and youth are more familiar with than adults so it helps to elevate the children’s voice in family therapy by empowering the children and teens.
An individual does not need to be technically good at art to benefit from art therapy. In fact, sometimes someone who is really skilled in the technical side of art can focus so much on doing a good job with the product that the process is not noticed. Other artists see how much of themselves are in the art so they may both appreciate the process but also feel vulnerable.”
What I like best about art therapy is that it often operates in spaces and places beyond words. Words and labels can complicate, in their desire to manage. The process of tapping into the creative healing arts is ancient. “Art therapy” is what you call a cluster of approaches to art + therapy which in the western world is very based in psychoanalytic theory. Many professionals are attempting to place specific labels and borders around exactly what those two words mean, but perhaps in this day and age of the global mind (the internet) this may limit and hinder our ability to share ideas, to grow and learn and to expand together into unknown territory. People have been creating with art materials for thousands and thousands and who knows how many years really. So, art therapy is just one way of approaching the fact that the process of creating art is in and of itself healing. Nevertheless, let us look at the specific definitions of art therapy in the ol’ Wikipedia.
Wiki: “Because of its dual origins in art and psychotherapy, art therapy definitions vary. It can either focus on dealing with the art-making process as therapeutic in and of itself (“art as therapy”), or on the psycho-therapeutic transference process between the therapist and the client who makes art. The therapist interprets the client’s symbolic self-expression, as communicated in the art, and elicits interpretations from the client.”
I’d also like to add that as an art therapist, I would NEVER interpret my clients’ expressions. That’s like trying to interpret someone else’s dreams with a dream dictionary. Silly and even potentially damaging. Yet, as a witness, I can not help but engage with the art work. The difference between ‘interpreting’ and ‘witnessing’ is a vast ocean. To interpret is to assign meaning. What is of the utmost and even of sacred importance is the meaning that the creator assigns to their creations and the relationship they develop with their own processes and products of creation. The role of the arts therapist is to see it all take place. Their job is to create the means to support this person as best as they can, so that the artist can arrive at an art work that means something to them.
The above image represents a question that I get a lot from many different people-“Art therapy… so that means I’m going to do a drawing and then you’re going to tell me what’s wrong with me?” Or, reading between the lines: “I”m scared of being exposed and vulnerable. Are you going to look at my art and see right through me?”
I always say no, that as an arts therapist, it is not my job to interpret other people’s art for them. I am not a fortune-teller. I am not a mind reader. But I do get very curious about how the artist relates to their artwork, and how they story it. And so, by engaging in conversation and perhaps more art-making, the arts therapist can get to know the perspective of the artist, and be able to begin to see it as they do. And this is an amazing and humbling gift. Sometimes when someone makes an artwork, I can see it, but I do not really see it. And looking again doesn’t always cut it, either. But by having the artist there, and being able to physically resonate with their emotions in the room during the time of their creation- it’s phenomenal. There is always so much more than what meets the eye…Only the artist knows what the piece means to them. And unless they share it, it is unknowable. And also, the witnessing of an art work can be an artistic process in and of itself. There is much to be felt and learnt from any art work, no matter how humble or glorious. The world arrives at our senses, and we respond. Same with art. Witnessing art, there are sensations that arrive in the body during any viewing or performance experience. These sensations, once you learn to pay attention and to interpret them for yourself, is data. Once you are literate in interoception, all sensations are information. So when we look at art, we can have a response to it. An aesthetic response. We can intentionally respond art-fully to other art works. And so the creative process may extend, indefinitely.
I must pose the question:
“Where does art begin, and where does it end?”
Art has saved my life, and I’ve seen it be a life raft for those drowning. Art is a bridge over troubled water. Art is a powerful way to engage in healing. It is precisely because art has the potential to be so powerful, that it is recommended to have an arts therapist guide you through difficult or frightening or overwhelming experiences, images and feelings surrounding art and art making. Anything that can be a medicine can also become a poison. Dosage, as Paracelsus is recorded to have said, makes the differences between a poison or a remedy. Any experience that opens us up, makes us vulnerable, and externalizes our problems can be completely overwhelming, and if we are not ready for it, or don’t know to integrate and digest it, it can be very dangerous. Art is powerful and so should be treated with respect, sacredness, attention and care.
Art Therapy Links
Vancouver Art Therapy Institute
Canadian Art Therapy Institute http: www.catainfo.ca
British Columbia Art Therapy Association http: www.bcarttherapy.com
Art Therapy Without Borders http: www.atwb.org
The Arts and Healing Network http: www.artheals.org/start.html
DIY Art Therapy
One recurring question about art therapy that comes up often is: Do you need an art therapist around to do art therapy? The answer, in my opinion, is it depends on what you believe therapy means. If it is understood that the main component of a therapy is the therapeutic relationship, then DIY art therapy is not possible by definition. Why is the therapeutic relationship so important in the context of art therapy?
Engaging in the creative process can bring up some really hard issues/images, and anyone who has been traumatized can potentially re-traumatize themselves by delving too deeply and too quickly into their subconscious. Due to the visual, non-verbal element of art, art can bring up all sorts of memories and issues and old traumas very quickly. So quickly some times, in fact, that it is dangerous. One must be careful when treading into the unknown realm of the inner world. Just because it is possible to go to dark and hidden places through the art, does not mean one should. In my experience, art-making can be used for self-destruction and neurotic enabling, especially when difficult emotions, images and memories are activated. An art therapist is therefore an important guide to help a troubled client navigate through their subconscious realms.
With this understanding, it may seem that art-making is really just a tool or a prop or a pretext for the therapeutic relationship, and that this relationship is what is paramount. But what about the relationship with the artwork and the creative process? My opinion is that the ultimate goal of art therapy for any art therapist should be to get their clients to a place creatively and personally that they no longer require a therapist around in order to engage in the creative process. I believe that DIY art therapy is not only possible but recommended for healthy, balanced people who are attempting to maintain a healthy equilibrium in their lives. Art-making can be preventative medicine for the soul. Of course, there are many cases when art therapy can be very valuable and meaningful for those who are facing a terminal illness, or are in palliative care, and when the therapeutic relationship would continue until the last breath. Yet for those with a chance at recovery, ultimately, the therapeutic relationship will help in healing, and then in developing the skills to maintain holistic homeostasis. That whole “feed a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime” quote really informs a larger philosophy of care.
For me, one of the most integral skills and the most healing and spiritual aspect of art therapy is in developing and deepening one’s own relationship with the creative process, and with oneself. It’s about developing an internal support and system of support through the art-making and the creative process, as this is free, easily accessible, and available to return to again and again throughout one’s life. Therapists are quite expensive, and thus art therapy is not a realistic long -term support option for many people, and may not even be a short-term option for many people, such as families with lower incomes. Yet for long-term self-care, one can again and again turn to the creative process. The way I see it, art-making and engaging in the creative process will be the longest enduring relationship of my life. People go away, people die, and places change, but we will have our relationships with our art-making and thus with ourselves, for better or worse, right up until the end. I see art-making as an important part of the process of courting myself, of making friends with myself, of making peace with myself, of healing myself, and just plain learning to ‘be.’ Therapists are just people who also come and go, and of course are not available all of the time. But you can engage with the creative process and tap on one’s self-healing buttons any time, and any place! While reaching out for help during difficult times is a strength, and while the therapeutic relationship can be incredibly important and powerful, it is not meant to be forever in most cases. For long-term self-care, it is important for us to all feel empowered and to realize that everything we need to know is contained within us. All we really have to do is ask the right questions, listen to our own answers with an open mind and open heart, embrace change and fear, and then move! act! express! Art-making and creative self-expression can really help us in this most important of tasks.
For all of this I am informed by personal experience. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I even heard the phrase “art therapy,” but the more I read about it, the more I realized that I had been doing what art therapy talks about on my own for years. That is, I engaged in the creative process for healing, self-expression, inquisition, and exploration, and I discovered many ways to achieve a meditative state of flow through my practice. Sometimes drawing or doodling was just used as catharsis or to pass the time, or even just to keep my hands busy when I was feeling anxious. I never really realized that I was “doing” all of this for a “reason” or anything, but making art and doodling just naturally emerged as one of my ways of coping and developing. Art-making did not take a front seat in my life until much later, as when I was a child and teenager I engaged in sports, music, writing and dance much more often and with much more focus and dedication, but art-making was always there in the peripheries, in all the little moments. It was the only place in my life where I did not have to be perfect, or competitive, or serious. I could safely and silently rebel and express myself. It was always playful, fun, and personal, and it was my refuge. When cartoonist Lynda Barry speaks about art and creativity as the body’s psychological immune system or about how creating art strengthens the immune system, I am prone to agree with her, as I am reminded of how my body just spontaneously knew to create art for health throughout my lifetime.
Here is a related article about DIY Art Therapy by Elizabeth Scott, M.S entitled:
Art Therapy: Relieve Stress By Being Creative: Do-It-Yourself Art Therapy
“While art therapy is its own field, you can use the benefits of art to express your creative side and drawing skills to reduce stress and get in touch with your feelings. I think most of us knew this instinctively as kids: virtually all of us know the joys of sculpting something (with play-dough), painting something (with fingers), or drawing (with crayons and other materials). However, other than making random doodles in the margins of a page while you’re on killing time, if you’re like most adults, you don’t express yourself with art like you did as a kid.
Benefits of Art:
One of the reasons that clinical art therapy is effective is that the act of drawing and creating art can help you relieve stress in several ways. Here are some ways that creating art can alleviate stress:
- Distraction: Drawing and art can take your mind off of what’s stressing you, at least for a few minutes. And when you’re finished being engrossed in your sketches, you should have a clearer head with which to tackle your problems again.
- Flow: There’s a certain quality of being called “flow”, that experts say is very beneficial for us. This refers to a state of being completely engaged in something to the point of being in a near meditative state. It carries many of the benefits of meditation, leaving you much less stressed when you’re done. You can experience ‘flow’ when you’re doing creative activities like writing, and even gardening. You can also get it from drawing.
- Self Care: Just the act of having a hobby can make you feel more balanced in your lifestyle. Sometimes with all of life’s responsibilities, we forget that we need and deserve ‘down time’ and self care. Taking even a few minutes on a regular basis to devote to a hobby can give you more of what you need in this area. And, with drawing, you have the additional benefit of being left with something beautiful (or at least interesting) to show for it!
Do-It-Yourself Art Therapy for Stress Relief
One of my favorite ways to use drawing for stress relief is to maintain a sketch diary. Keeping a sketchbook can be a form of journaling, and it can be cathartic, creative, and stress relieving. You can use a journal for personal art therapy and stress management in the following ways:
- Sketch pictures that describe your feelings related to things in your life that are causing you stress currently. If it’s in the back of your mind anyway, this could be a way of processing your related emotions, reducing some of the stress they carry.
- Sketch abstract pictures that express feelings related to past stressful experiences, as a way of processing your emotions and healing.
- Keep a ‘Dream Sketch Diary’, and sketch scenes from dreams you’d like to remember or better understand.
- Keep a sketch diary of what you think is beautiful in life. Draw the faces of those you love, places that bring you peace, or other pieces of beauty. The process of sketching can be a great stress reliever, and revisiting your creations can also bring you some peace in the future.
Additional Art Resources:
If you’re interested in trying out a regular drawing practice, there’s a great site on the About network devoted to drawing and sketching, for people of all levels, including beginners. You can sign up for classes and a regular newsletter (just like with you can sign up for free stress management classes and a free weekly newsletteron this site!), and get more tips on keeping a sketch diary. Have fun!”
More DIY Art Therapy Links:
* DIY Art Therapy! http://pinterest.com/jennyschopp/diy-art-therapy/
*Apartment Therapy! ://www.apartmenttherapy.com/
* Jonas Gerard, Abstract Expressionism, & DIY Art Therapy http://sheilawilson.hubpages.com/hub/Jonas-Gerard-Abstract-Expressionism-DIY-Art-Therapy
* Craftbits http://www.craftbits.com/therapy-crafts
* D.I.Y Art Therapy http://www.diyarttherapy.com/category/blogs/
I am also an expressive arts practitioner.
What is expressive arts therapy?
Wiki: Expressive therapy, also known as expressive arts therapy or creative arts therapy, is the use of the creative arts as a form of therapy. Unlike traditional art expression, the process of creation is emphasized rather than the final product. Expressive therapy is predicated on the assumption that people can heal through use of imagination and the various forms of creative expression.
To me, expressive therapy is all about poly-aesthetics This means honouring the fact that the sensual and aesthetic qualities of each art form are shared and contained within each art form. For example, music is not just rhythmic, but involves movement of the body and sculpting of the air. Visual art is not just about vision with the eyes, but involves rhythm and movement, and so on. It is about honouring the image and the aesthetic qualities of each art form, and learning to move between them fluidly to extend the creative process and the harvesting of insight to effect change and transformation in our daily lives. It is not merely about expressing oneself through the arts, or about the arts alone, it is about how we can get to deeper levels of awareness and knowing through the arts, and learning how to bring that aesthetic sense of knowing back into our daily lives. It is about creating ourselves and our relationships and connections in life with aesthetic care. It is about making the ordinary extraordinary and the extraordinary ordinary. It is about being playful and free with perception and imagination, and also learning how to shape and contain the arts through the appropriate frames. It is about honouring the power of the arts, and giving them their due and respect through the art of relationship. It is about the dance between knowing and not knowing, it is about bringing awareness to what nourishes us, and about creating art and art works, and about beauty in all its´ forms.
Expressive arts therapy, which could also be called interdisciplinary arts therapy, or inter-modal arts therapy, or creative arts therapy, is an interdisciplinary way of working with any and all art media, in a therapeutic relationship. Play and imagination are paramount, as is the understanding that the arts are interconnected by their nature, even if socially the arts are separated by false divides. For example, painting is not just a visual art. When one paints, one moves, one follows various rhythms, and one cannot help but make noise. What is painting if not sculpting shape and colour, if it is not a form of performance art? Music-making involves movement, and a sculpting of the air molecules, and poetry involves images made of words, and performance, and so on. Just because there is music class and art class and poetry and drama and so on in our educational systems, or just because there is ‘art therapy’ and ‘drama therapy’ and ‘music therapy’, and they are all separate fields, to me, expressive arts is a way of working that emphasizes a fearless fluidity in working with the imagination and the body and all art materials, based on an understanding that labeling differences between various art materials is not as helpful, healing, practical, or important as following the imagination with a compassionate curiosity, and working with what a client wants to do. An important concept in expressive art is ‘low skill, high sensitivity,’ which means that no one need be an expert in any one art materials. It is a more holistic, process oriented approach, in which you just have to be curious and open and willing to create and engage. The expressive arts have a historical and theoretical background that is more based in interdisciplinary studies, including philosophy (particularly post-modernism) that in psychoanalysis, like the other more traditional forms of arts therapies.
I much prefer the definition of expressive therapy/creative arts therapy, and thus align myself more with this approach, than the more classic ‘art therapy’ approach, which is far too steeped in psychoanalytic theory to match my beliefs around healing and psychology, and far too focused on the question of ‘what is art’ for my taste. Expressive therapy, to me, is when you practice freedom of expression with a healing intent.
Basically… CALL IT WHAT YOU WANT!
For fun!= A PLAYFUL MUSICAL GAME
This game brought joy to my life. Excellent applications for play and/or music therapy online.I find the pure notes/tones soothing. It felt like to matter what I did I would still be making sublime music.
Try it. Click on the squares…
You won’t regret it. You just might not be able to stop smiling.
Here is a link to a good intro to Expressive therapies by Cathy Malchiodi:
And here is a link to Cathy Malchiodi’s comprehensive blog-roll all about the healing arts at the magazine Psychology Today:
What is Social Justice Art Therapy?
Any relationship between a stated professional and client has the potential barrier of an imbalanced power dynamic. Such imbalances can hinder the feelings of safety in the creative environment which are necessary for optimal freedom of expression and exploration into the unknown. I prefer the powerful dynamic of artist to artist.
and Eco-art therapy?
For more on this topic, please visit my other website dedicated to the exploration of the interrelationship of life and between ecology and art @
or my Pinterest board entitled “Ecopsychology” @
These are the two eco-artists who’s creativity and efforts I am currently most blown away by:
Jason de Caires Taylor: http://www.underwatersculpture.com/
An Ecology of the Imagination:
(A Theoretical and Practical Exploration of the Imagination
for Holistic Healing in the Context of Art Therapy)