What Art Therapy is and How it Can Be Used

Art therapy is a clinical mental/emotional health expressive therapy. It is a highly evocative method of communicating feelings, thoughts, and needs. Because our primary communications (kinesthetic, aural and visual) occur or a preverbal level, expressive therapies can be more powerful than verbal therapy alone. This is especially true concerning feelings that render an individual more vulnerable. Therefore an art therapist must have a high degree of sensitivity and empathic ability.

Art therapy is NOT about being able to draw. It is about using art supplies to enhance verbal therapy. During an art therapy session individuals use a variety of art supplies (including collage, clay, mask making, sculpture) to illustrate their thoughts and feelings regarding an issue, as they talk about it.

Art therapy is NOT about the therapist reading or interpreting a person’s artwork. The person who created the artwork does any interpretation.

Art therapy helps individuals work through their experiences on many levels. Creating a piece of art about an experience requires people to think and feel, deeply, about the experience. As they do this they transform raw experience into symbolic forms.

Symbols help people define themselves. They belong to us only when we define them. It is vital that individuals have the freedom to define themselves by defining their own symbols and perception of reality. Self-definition is part of recovery from many problems.

By making a symbolic map of an event individuals recognize different aspects and perspectives of it. Symbolizing the event allows individuals to look at it from a distance, making it easier to gain a degree of resolution. The persons concerns are talked about, as they are present in the artwork, not the self, providing a safe distance for the individual. Thoughts and feelings about the event become more manageable. The making of art that deals with difficult life experiences gives people an opportunity to gain mastery over that experience.

Metaphors also increase self-definition. When individuals illustrate their, “Current Mood as a Landscape”, with guidance from the therapist, they create their own metaphor and increase self-awareness, which promotes healthy maturation.

As individuals illustrate an event or memory, they use imagination and the creative process to do so. While doing this people recognize the creative process they have as a strength. Using creative and imaginative powers in therapy helps people re-energize them and learn how to use them as coping skills. Being creative is closely aligned with good health.

The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) requires its art therapists to have a master’s degree from an approved university. During the clinical education students learn how to use a variety of different therapeutic (cognitive, behavioral, humanistic, etc.) approaches with art therapy.

“I am an artist at living, my life is my work of art” Suzuki