• Rupa Parthasarathy

What is Art therapy?

Updated: Nov 29, 2019

One of the best ways to find out what art therapy is, to experience it, as "Art can permeate beyond the deepest part of us, where no words exist."(Eileen Miller).



"What is Art therapy?" is often the first question I am asked when I introduce myself as an Art therapist".

Art therapy is still an emerging profession in Australia, so when people ask this question, it gives me an excellent opportunity to shine some light on the profession. Through this article, I hope to provide the reader background on what art therapy is, on how art therapy works, what Art therapists do and the benefits of utilising Art therapy. I also hope to clarify some common assumptions I have noticed people hold about art therapy.


What is art therapy?


The arts therapies are a form of psychotherapy utilising creative modalities, including visual art-making, drama, and dance/movement, within a therapeutic relationship to improve and inform physical, mental and emotional wellbeing" (ANZCATA, 2019).


Why Art?


Arts therapist recognise the potential all art forms have in promoting the mental wellbeing of individuals. They acknowledge that for centuries, Art has connected us culturally and is used to celebrate and define cultural traditions and belief systems. Art can create alternative languages and symbolic expression that holds cultural stories of belonging and connection. There are many stories across cultures, where both adults and children have turned to the creative process to give expression to experiences that are so often inexpressible.


What happens when we make Art?

As human beings, we are complex and unique. There are various factors like our upbringing, culture, heritage, genetics, family, to name a few, that play a role in how we process and react to situations. There are times when we are unable to express our thoughts, feelings, emotions only by verbalising it. Art making provides us with an avenue to externalise these internal workings. The self-expression allows us to view them outside of us, gives some much-needed space to reflect and process them.


Such an exercise can be daunting and overwhelming. Art therapists are professionals, who ensure you feel well supported through this creative process. Art therapists are trained in counselling, ethics, research and the general application of trauma-informed art therapy to work with adults and children. Art therapists work across a range of settings like mental health, child protection service, hospitals, educational institutions, private practice and not for profit community. The peak professional association for Art therapists in Australia, New Zealand, and Asia is The Australian, New Zealand and Asian Creative Arts Therapy Association (ANZACATA). Professional membership requires University training and completing 750 clinically supervised hours.


What do Art therapists do?


A common approach used in an art therapy session is to remain person-centred. In a person-centred approach, the client is considered the expert on their life, and the therapist acts as a compassionate facilitator who sets up safe space where healing can occur. In the session, in addition to facilitating conversations, the therapist makes a gentle invitation to the client to make Art. A variety of art materials are presented for the clients to choose from. In the session dance/movement, drama, and mindfulness exercises may be incorporated. The session's focus is to support clients to express and work through their issues, problems, and concerns that have brought them into therapy. The art therapist and client are engaged in working together to understand the meaning and the experience of the artwork and the process of making it (Case, Caroline, Dalley & Tessa, 2013).


Addressing some assumptions


"I am not creative at all, hence can't make art" or "I am not good at art" are common retorts some people make, when they find out art therapy involves art making and uses creative process. My response to that is we are all creative. Creativity is about being able to use imagination, problem-solving and involves everyday thinking. So there is no one particular type of person who is creative, we all are. Art therapy neither requires artistic ability nor ability to excel in Art, it only requires the willingness to experiment with self-expression.


"So is Art therapy is like an art class?"


Though the therapist may offer recommendations or tips on how to use art materials, to clients who are unfamiliar with particular art material; Art therapy is different from an art class. In an art class, the focus is on educating the participant. The educator offers an assessment of the Art made to help the participant develop a skill or master a technique. However, Art therapy is a therapeutic approach, where the therapist reflects on the client's meaning of the imagery, in a non-judgemental manner, and does not assess the artwork made in the session.


"Art therapy is only for children who can't verbalise their feelings" and "Art therapy is only for people with mental illness."

Art therapy benefits a wide range of client population. The casual approach to sessions and the invitation to experiment with art materials appeals to people from all age groups, backgrounds and cultures.


Benefits of Art therapy


Art helps people to express feelings that are difficult to verbalise and can help process traumatic events. The imagery created during the session assists in conceptualisation and encourages imagination and creativity. It can help identify and clarify issues, developing better communication skills. Art therapy can develop healthy coping skills, in turn promoting the overall wellbeing.


The parting suggestion I make is that one of the best ways to find out what art therapy is, to experience it, as "Art can permeate beyond the deepest part of us, where no words exist." (Eileen Miller).


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