I have not written in a very long time, but I promise to make it a goal for 2017. This article was inspired by my ongoing passion for art and the field of Art Therapy. I wrote it for the "Connections!" newsletter for SFV-CAMFT (San Fernando Valley Chapter of California Association of Marriage and Family Therapy), where I chair the Expressive Arts Special Interest Group. Enjoy Part 1 and leave comments below!
The Art of Art Therapy: What it is and How it Works (Part 1)
The mention of Art therapy often elicits comments such as “But it’s just arts and crafts!” and questions such as “Can’t I just buy or use one of those coloring books?” Parents are often concerned with the effective qualities of art therapy as a form of treatment. Also, non-expressive-arts professionals and self-help enthusiasts show curiosity relative to therapy, using “artistic” mediums calling it “art therapy” and present it as a means to heal. Hence, the question, “What is art therapy?” is needed to distinguish this non-talk therapeutic modality as a profession rather than fun arts and crafts, or a self-help approach.
As Cathy Malchiodi states in her peer reviewed articles published in Psychology Today, “It is not surprising that making art is relaxing. However, “art therapy” has been morphed into just about any “feel-good” art project. A good example of what is currently being called art therapy is the coloring book phenomenon. Descriptors like “meditative,” “mindful,” and “spiritual” are being used to explain the benefits; others imply that shading in the various designs are a way to focus, create a work of beauty, or find personal satisfaction through distraction and diversion; and some even go as far as to propose that coloring books are a form of personal therapy, even “art therapy,” fueling the idea that coloring is an inner experience with impacts similar to meditation or yoga.
Yes, it is very important to “feel-good,” personally and professionally; wanting the best for our clients, but these coloring books are not mindfulness and meditation practices in the true sense of the word and are not “art therapy.” It takes more than coloring to bring about reparation. The mundane motion of crayon or pencil moving back and forth within pre-set boundaries, in the form of coloring lines is only a form of containment, mastery, and mind-numbing escape from the here-and-now. Any effective form of psychotherapy or counseling extends well beyond a series of grounding and relaxation techniques. Specifically, effective expressive arts therapy helps to expand awareness and promotes a connection of both body and mind in the present moment. Further, expressive arts challenges us to broaden our "windows of tolerance" by engaging us in the creative process to take a bit of risk, move a bit farther out of our comfort zone, and become just a bit more curious and compassionate toward the deepest parts of ourselves. The deeper experience of “art therapy” is grounded in two key principles. First, art therapy involves the application of a purposeful, meaningful art-based intervention in contrast to completing an art activity or art “project.” Applying interventions is a central component of any helping professional’s role and is predicated on the second aspect--relationship. It is the right (whole brain) integration, attuned, interpersonal qualities of the art therapy relationship that support art’s reparative powers. Humans have always healed within relationships, whether through social/community or professional support. However, while art expression may bring about wellness in some sense, "Art Therapy” is defined by the relational dynamic and process, which are at the center of reparation and recovery; providing us a meaningful product via purposeful interventions representative of new or corrective experiences.
True Art Therapy helps clients in the following ways: gain insight awakening innate capabilities to resolve/reconcile conflicts and problems; develop interpersonal and social skills; manage behaviors and addictions; improve reality orientation; reduce stress; and increase self-esteem and self-expression. Insight and comprehension is increased by helping clients put their emotions and nonverbal experiences into words. Inner dialogue often guides choices while creating, as well as after completing the art product. Both the creation and reflection of the “art piece” supported by the relational connection with the art therapist facilitates better understanding of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Marked changes are recognizable in the client by art therapist and client; relative to his/her behaviors toward self and others. The self-directed nature of art expression, which involves choices about what to do and how to do it, allows clients to change their behavioral responses through the process of art expression. Art therapy provides clients the opportunity to actually practice alternative responses to existing personal narratives. Perception and self-perception are also increased by focusing on the present moment, identifying emotional responses and experiencing connections between emotions and body awareness. Though increased awareness may at first be uncomfortable it can provide the first step in recognizing and validating emotions and act as a starting point for further therapeutic exploration and actions. Clients are also able to achieve personal integration by strengthening identity and self-image, gaining increased positivity. The experience of Art Therapy makes emotions visible, allowing for further investigation of feelings and thoughts within the course of therapy in a safe manner. Also, conflicting emotions can be brought together in one coherent image, something often impossible to do using words alone. Emotional responses are modulated and impulses are regulated, thus experiencing more freedom. Art Therapy fosters experiential space in which individuals can experiment with new responses to difficult feelings (a reparative/corrective experience), thus increasing a sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy.
Of course, the quest for more research is a given. In the meanwhile, we must continue to break the stigma, clarifying and educating about the meaning and powerful impact of Art Therapy. We must remain curious; always exploring and asking questions. There will always be those who find art’s healing forces naturally in times of trauma, crisis, loss, or simply as a means to reduce stress. Most who are passionate about art therapy as a profession discovered their calling because of their own transformative experiences with art. But without both the clear articulation of purposeful art-based interventions and specific relational dynamics that support these interventions, “art as therapy” and “art projects” are simply artistic terms without traction—leaving the public to come to its own conclusion about “What is art therapy?”
Stay tuned for Part 2: How to Use Art Therapy, Specifically with Children!
Thank you for reading!