What is art therapy?
by Liz Dowling, Art Therapist
If you’ve ever looked up at clouds and recognised shapes in them you would have been working your intuition and imagination by association. Images seen in random marks or shapes is one of the processes used in art therapy to tune in to the ‘true self’, a person’s truth.
Art therapy may be broadly described as ‘counselling through art’ although it is primarily a non-verbal therapy in which the process of creating an artwork is more important than the end product.
There is no special ability or disability required to participate in this process, no right or wrong, it is unique to the person creating the image. Where an art therapist may guide the process initially only the person understands their reasons for their choices and any subsequent responses which occur during the artmaking.
The art therapist by necessity provides a safe and confidential environment for clients, whether one on one or within a group session. In demonstrating the individuality of perception and encouraging a person’s confidence in their self-expression, each session becomes more and more empowering for that person. No judgment or biased thinking is imposed by the facilitator as the person connects to their emotions rather than their mental state. This aims to avoid any critical overload or overriding of their first responses or ‘gut feeling’, inner guidance, their truth.
On completing their artwork, participants are invited to discuss the process if they wish. Sometimes it may take time to understand their image so I usually suggest they keep it in view at home somewhere for a week in case it ‘speaks’ to them.
The final part of the session is debriefing from the process. Whereas the freedom of creativity may inspire joy, it may expose personal memories which need to be understood and contained. This is important as any deep issues may have surfaced and need to be addressed to restore balance within the person before leaving the therapeutic space. Here the training and discipline in psychotherapy and relevant legal studies within the Masters course is invaluable. Art therapists naturally have a responsibility to ‘do no harm’ and protect clients/participants with whom they are consulting.