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Art Therapy 101: What is Art Therapy?

Written by Roselynn Vanderpool, Artist and Art Therapist.

It’s pretty amazing to me that many people in the DC area still have not heard of Art Therapy. Though in all fairness, the American Art Therapy Association has only been around for about 45 years, and the George Washington University established the nation’s second graduate Art Therapy program in 1971 (Drexel University started their program in 1967). In the landscape of mental health treatment, we are still the relative new neighbor on the block.

The good news is that exposure to Art Therapy is ever increasing. News reports reference the power of Creative Art Therapies in stories of Veterans in treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the aftermath of tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, and also in highlights of treatment with Autism and Schizophrenia. Although our profession has deep roots in psychiatric hospitals as an adjunct treatment, Art Therapy can be found in schools, after-care programs, oncology hospital wards, psychiatric treatment facilities, community programs, outpatient services, social work agencies, and even private practice.

To begin your introduction to the field, let’s start with what Art Therapy is does not include:

  • It’s not just for children or “creative people.” (While these populations may be more enthusiastic about making art, the creative process is really meant to help you dive into life’s obstacles and find new ways to cope.)
  • Sessions are not “arts and crafts time.” (Yes, we might have you create a mask or a box, but the directive will always gear you inward and reflect on the issues in your life that bring you to therapy.)
  • Art Therapy is not the place to explicitly learn or improve art skills. (If this is your goal, you may want to consider an art class instead. While improved art skills can be a side effect, this is not the main goal.)
  • My personal favorite misconception is that we “fix broken artwork.” (Nope, that would be Restoration.)
  • We make you stare at ink blots and psychoanalyze your comments. (While this would be easier and less messy, it does not honor your true and full creative expression.)

Hopefully the list helps clear up some misgivings and leads you in the direction of what Art Therapy does include:

  • Art is used as a form of communication. Sessions are rarely silent though; Art Therapists are trained in counseling as much as they are with art technique. Our education and practice allows us to use the artwork as an additional support to talking in therapy sessions.
  • Your art is never critiqued or graded. We would be providing a serious disservice if we asked you to make your art “prettier” or “more marketable.” We honor what you create because it is inherently part of you. A counselor should never make a personal judgment about your lifestyle, so we shouldn’t criticize your artwork either.
  • Sometimes it is hard for a person to describe a feeling or memory, either because words tend to escape us when we need them most, or if the event is too abstract to explain, or if the memory is blurred and repressed.  Artwork is able to marry both conscious and unconscious material into something tangible that can then be explored.
  • Art activates multiple bi-lateral sites in the brain that otherwise are not triggered by memory recall and speech alone. Just think about it – when interacting with art materials, you
    • Engage your five senses (touch, smell, hearing, sight, and to some extent maybe even taste)
    • Physically manipulate, experiment, and plan with a medium, which calls for mastery through trial and error, problem solving, and establishing new experiences.
    • The creative process helps integrate several regions of your brain with one task, essentially “exercising” and potentially strengthening neural connections.

One last thing: Art Therapy refers to using visual artistic mediums in either two-dimensions (collage, drawing, painting, digital media) or three-dimensions (sculpture, fabric arts), so it is only a small scope of what we generally think of as “art”. Within the National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies, there is also Dance/Movement therapy, Drama therapy, Music therapy, Poetry therapy, and Psychodrama. Each professional discipline has its own educational and training requirements, credentials, and ethics boards. Similarly to Art Therapy, a client seeking these services does not need to be a great dancer, or actor, or poet. Creative Arts Therapists may be “experts” in their field, but their passion is in using their talents to help people express themselves in new ways and overcome life obstacles.

While Art Therapy presents many valuable and interesting qualities, also know that if it doesn’t feel right for you that it is ok. I tend to think of choosing a therapist like ordering ice cream at Baskin Robbins: there are unlimited flavor and topping combinations to suit every person’s taste, and you will never really know what you enjoy until you try it out.



American Art Therapy Association homepage www.ArtTherapy.org

Art Therapy Credentials Board homepage www.ATCB.org

National Coalition of Creative Art Therapies Associations www.nccata.org

Arts and Health Blog by Art Therapist Cathy Malchiodi http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/arts-and-health

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