What Is It?
Art therapy uses the creation or viewing of art to help people discover and express their feelings. Unlike art for art’s sake, which focuses on the finished piece, art therapy (which typically employs paint, clay, charcoal, pastels, or other art materials) focuses on the process of creation itself. Moreover, the activity is undertaken primarily for its healing benefits rather than for the creative end result; in fact, the piece of artwork may never be shown to anyone outside the therapy session–and it is sometimes never finished.
Art therapists believe that the act of making a piece of art triggers internal activity that contributes to physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. For people who are not able or ready to create art, going to an art museum or looking through art books can also be helpful: Simply viewing art refreshes the spirit and promotes relaxation.
While people have always expressed their feelings through art, art therapy as a profession has existed only since the 1930s. Among the fields that now frequently incorporate art therapy as part of the treatment process are psychology (in which art is used to uncover hidden emotions) and physical therapy (which uses art to help build self-confidence and aid rehabilitation).
Child psychologists and family therapists often use art therapy because children have a hard time putting feelings into words. Art therapy has also become a vital part of the activities offered in many nursing homes, long-term-care facilities, and hospices.
How Does It Work?
Art therapy helps healing in various ways. First, the aesthetic quality of the work produced can lift a person’s mood, boost self-awareness, and improve self-esteem. Second, research shows that physiological functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, slow when people are deeply involved in an activity they enjoy. In addition, making art also provides an opportunity for someone to exercise their eyes and hands, improve eye-hand coordination, and stimulate neurological pathways from the brain to the hands.
Because art therapy uses a language other than words, it is often employed in treating patients with physical or emotional illnesses who have difficulty talking about their fears and hopes, or about their anger and other strong emotions. The creation of art helps people get in touch with thoughts and feelings that are often hidden from the conscious mind.
What You Can Expect
An art therapist usually works in conjunction with a primary-care physician or as part of a medical team in a hospital setting. Art therapy sessions can take place one-on-one or in small groups. Adult therapy sessions usually last from one to two hours; sessions with children and the elderly may be shorter. The art therapist generally provides the materials, a comfortable place to work, and some technical advice. Peaceful background music often adds to the atmosphere. Time for planning, executing, reflecting on, and discussing the work is included in the session.
Before beginning a course of therapy, the art therapist may ask you to explain why you wish to undertake art therapy and help you to define your goals. Your sessions can then be tailored to fit your individual expectations and needs. One session or a weekend workshop may be all you need. Conversely, you may find that meeting with the art therapist on a regular basis for six months or longer is more helpful.
The mere act of creating art has intrinsic benefits, according to art therapists. By promoting feelings of achievement, the creation process automatically boosts self-esteem and self-confidence.
Stress reduction is also a significant benefit. Studies have shown that repressing strong feelings can lead to a buildup of stress, and that stress can intensify pain and intensify the symptoms of various diseases. Because art therapy helps people access their unconscious mind and release pent-up emotions, it has been found to be very useful in treating those suffering from stress and stress-related ailments.
Art therapy is also used as treatment for behavioral problems, and often serves as an ancillary treatment to psychotherapy. It is frequently part of inpatient psychological treatment programs, including those for drug and alcohol abuse.
Patients recovering from trauma or serious injury often find art therapy particularly beneficial, as do people with chronic illnesses, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to these uses, art therapy can also help people with a serious or terminal illness create a tangible record of their thoughts and emotions.
How To Choose a Practitioner
Art therapists work both independently and as part of treatment teams that may include a primary-care practitioner, psychiatrist or psychologist, and rehabilitation counselor. You should interview a number of art therapists to make sure you feel comfortable with the one you finally choose.
Your art therapist should be a trained artist with additional art therapy credentials. The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) recommends that art therapists meet the following requirements:
A bachelor’s degree with at least 15 semester credits in studio art and 12 semester credits in psychology.
A master’s degree in art therapy.
One year of post-graduate work under the supervision of a registered art therapist. The Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB), an independent organization, grants credentials to therapists who have completed graduate education and a post-graduate internship. Art therapists must pass a written examination administered by the ATCB to become board-certified.
Since powerful thoughts and feelings can surface during art therapy, you must make sure your therapist is a qualified practitioner.
Be certain that any practitioner you work with provides good ventilation if you are working with materials such as turpentine and mineral spirits.