Defining Art Therapy

by Ashley Lawrence, CIT

When I am asked about art therapy, I usually start by talking about what art therapy is not. As an art therapist, I am not going to review your art like an art teacher. Some people approach art therapy with a lot of anxiety about their artistic abilities or the revelations in their art. However, in art therapy, art serves as a communication tool very similar, and sometimes better, than words. Art therapists believe the creative process is a therapeutic and healing experience that can be used to explore memories, feelings, and new ideas. The product does not have to be aesthetically pretty to have value and meaning to the artist.

People may also be anxious about the topics that their artwork may reveal. While it is true that art making can communicate messages from the subconscious, this may be the only way painful experiences can be expressed and processed. Before we are verbal communicators, we begin as visual communicators, expressing ourselves through gestures, identifying, and memorizing by sight. When we experience trauma, it has been scientifically proven that there is a disconnect between these traumatic memories and our verbal processors. However, the best way to overcome these experiences is through expression and processing those emotions so we can move forward.

Art making often involves body movement that can relax the artist, releasing the tension from the problem being discussed in therapy and allows the artist to depict the memory. After crossing this mental roadblock, often it is easier to discuss. At this point, art therapists may make observations about the piece, noting specific details, but similar to talk therapy, therapists will rely on the artist to give the piece meaning and not interpret the piece for themselves.

Art therapy is an effective treatment for people experiencing a variety of difficulties, whether they be developmental, medical, educational, social, or psychological. Artwork can be made from a variety of mediums, from pencils and paint to bubble blowing and clay. Art therapists can be found in a variety of locations including hospitals and clinics, schools and shelters, community centers and private practices. Together, an art therapist and a client can explore treatment goals to address the difficulties of life.


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