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  • Catherine Phillips

Art therapy: there’s art, then there’s art that feels good, and then there’s art therapy

Art therapy uses the act and the techniques of art to treat psychological disorders and foster mental wellbeing. It encompasses a wide range of creative outlets to help people express their emotions and inner worlds, communicate, confront their trauma, and find a path to healing.

To understand how artistic expression can intervene when a person is unwell, The Lovepost interviewed three registered arts therapists in Aotearoa-New Zealand. They offered their insights into art therapy’s benefits and its timely support for emotional resilience in our lives.

What art therapy is not

Some basic misconceptions about art therapy can become barriers for people to seek out professional clinicians and sessions. Art therapy is not a specialised art class which aims to produce beautiful pieces of art, and you do not have to be talented at art in order to use art as a therapy. Louise Morton, clinical arts therapist and founder of Active Arts Therapy in Wellington explains: “The therapist is not there to teach technique or to critique your skills, and the focus of sessions is more about the process of creating and what happens along the way than the finished artwork.”

Art therapist Ellyn Rose Smith Whatley, a member of WellART (the Wellington Art Therapists collective) also encounters patients who are apprehensive about being good enough artists. “A lot of people come through the door with the same narrative of being told they weren’t good at art as a child or that it was a waste of time," she says. "Frankly, in my experience it's better if the client has no art experience, because they come with no expectations or ingrained habits.”

Often the media portrays art therapists as the interpreters of their patients' work, setting up a second barrier. People who don’t wish to subject their artwork to that kind of scrutiny are naturally put off. The reverse is nearer to reality: the patient is invited to share their interpretation with the therapist. “I think one of the most common misconceptions is that an art therapist will look at your artwork and analyse what it says about you," Smith says. "Common practice is [for the therapist] to come from a place of not knowing and allow the client to share their interpretation of their image or artwork.” A therapist may ask further questions about certain parts of the artwork that the patient hasn’t talked about, but that is the extent of the analysis.

Art making, art as therapy, and art therapy

Art is as old as humanity. Humans have created works of art throughout the ages. They painted on walls, moulded clay into pots, wove baskets and played music. Art was created for expression and connection with wider communities.

The idea of using art as a therapeutic tool originated in the 1940s with a British artist, Adrian Hill. Hill suffered from tuberculosis and was treated in a sanatorium. Hill painted and drew while he was confined to a hospital bed, and he noticed the remedial effects these practices had on his recovery. He decided to have other patients try his method. Many reported that, although they could not leave their hospital wards, they suffered less when they had the freedom to express themselves creatively.

Since Adrian Hill, others have contributed to the spread and practice of art therapy. Another British artist Edward Adamson introduced art therapy into hospitals for people who were mentally ill, and studied the connection between artistic expression and emotional release. Austrian social realist painter Edith Kramer perceived that art therapy allowed for non-verbal communication, and as a result allowed patients to process difficult feelings and find acceptance.

Morton elaborates on this creative processing: "Arts therapy is an active, exploratory psychotherapeutic approach which harnesses people’s innate creativity in their healing.

"Arts therapists use creative processes including visual arts, movement, drama and writing to help people to navigate difficulties, rediscover strengths and overcome obstacles in their life.

"Arts therapy is an experiential therapy, difficult to fully comprehend until you’ve experienced it for yourself."

The experience can be triggering for individuals suffering from psychological distress. Arts therapists are trained to hold the space for patients to process complex emotions and experiences through their creativity.

"Art therapy cannot be done by yourself," Smith weighs in. "Often colouring books these days are deemed ‘art therapy’ when in fact they are not.

"I like to split art into three main categories: art making, art as therapy, and art therapy. Art making is simple. It involves at least one person and art materials. Art as therapy is art making that has wellbeing benefits. You may do it to relax, to express yourself, or to connect with others. But art therapy requires a qualified and registered art therapist to be in the room with you—or digital[ly present] these days—guiding you, containing you and supporting you to explore and achieve your therapeutic goals."

Arts therapists are not simply empathetic listeners. Arts therapist candidates in Aotearoa must hold a master’s degree from Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design or an equivalent overseas institution. Therapist training programmes are rigorous, delving into neuroscience and psychological disorders, to inform therapists’ insight into the needs and risk factors of their patients. Therapists must also register with the Professional Association for Creative Arts Therapies in Australia, New Zealand and Asia (ANZACATA), whose website includes a directory of registered therapists.

Holistic, tangible, non-verbal and safe

The therapy of art approaches each person’s multiple needs holistically. Art offers an alternative form of self-expression, which does not require words. The making of art engages the body, mind and senses. It can provide a physically tangible method to face trauma. And the therapist provides a safe space for patients to express themselves and meets their human need for connection.

Supreet Kaur—clinical arts therapist, founder of Kikkli Expressive Therapies, and a board member of ANZACATA— explains how art activities open new mind-body pathways for expression. “Creative arts therapy invites responses from both sides of the brain: the interventions involve left and right brain stimulation at the same time,” she says. The activities done in therapy sessions are usually kinetic (involving movement), engaging our five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch). This cultivates mindfulness and self-regulation, and eases distress.

Smith concurs. “Sensory and kinetic stimulation is fantastic for getting us out of [a] spiralling headspace and connecting back with our bodies,” Smith says. She encourages anyone who is curious about improving their mental wellbeing to explore any sensory activities they enjoy.

Art activities also reduce or even eliminate the need for verbal communication. While therapy is generally associated with speech, Kaur observes that “more often than not, we don’t have the vocabulary to understand or describe what we are experiencing.” Colours or textures or written words may better invoke what we are feeling at that moment.

“When you have an artwork in the room with you it can be like having another person in the room," adds Smith. "Someone else to bounce ideas off, someone else to tell your story or to take your emotions out on.”

This aspect of art therapy is also practical for individuals or communities where verbal communication is not preferred, or may not be possible. Smith continues: "We often forget verbal communication isn’t everyone’s preferred form of communication, especially people who are neurodiverse or second-language speakers. I have found the physical [or] written communication available through art therapy extremely beneficial for overcoming language barriers."

Art therapy allows patients to render their experience in an approachable way. Narrating or confronting their experience may be too triggering or difficult. “The artworks created in arts therapy sessions help people to give a physical form to the difficulties they are facing," Morton says, "making them concrete and tangible ‘things’ that they are able to really examine closely, respond to and alter as they need.” An artwork is very safe. It can be moulded and changed, or even destroyed at the patient’s will. This gives each patient choice, agency and a sense of power over situations like trauma, grief and bereavement.

The third hand at work

What if a patient lacks the confidence or cannot physically make a piece of art? That's where the ‘third hand’ technique, developed by Edith Kramer can be used. Kaur explains how third hands participate: “The therapist might support the client through the process of expression by offering metaphors, introducing art directives, helping shape a sculpture or demonstrating how to use a certain art material.”

Smith became the literal third hand for an elderly patient who was dying from cancer. Smith listened to and followed her patient’s instructions to create a self-portrait on canvas. Her patient specifically asked Smith to paint the facial cancer that was killing her. Prior to this session, the patient's family had refused to acknowledge her cancer. They displayed only younger, healthy photos of her. Smith’s third-hand artwork enabled her patient to finally validate her living experience in the company of a therapist who listened and reflected on the canvas what she was experiencing. Three sessions with the third hand technique helped this patient to accept her impending death and decide how she wanted to live during her remaining time.

Checking in on an art therapy session

A qualified and registered therapist will provide a safe, contained environment for arts therapy sessions. Sessions usually begin with a check-in exercise—a writing prompt or a sensory exercise—to establish how the patient is feeling and what they would like to address during the session. Then the patient and therapist will either talk or do an art activity alongside each other.

One size does not fit all. The presentation of mental distress can vary from person to person, even if they have been diagnosed with the same mental illness. Therefore, no exercise or activity is guaranteed to work for everyone. Creativity might bring up difficult and troubling emotions. The therapist is a witness and facilitator for the unfolding and integration of those emotions.

In her sessions, Smith says she has "seen people shift toxic, emotive reactions by having a safe outlet to express their anger and frustration.”

Art therapy sessions allow participants to meet their basic needs for human connection. This can be vitally important, not just on an individual level but on a collective, societal level. Reconnection is particularly important after COVID lockdowns, as increasing levels of isolation and disconnection have become part of our modern world.

“We know that screen use is the highest it’s ever been," Kaur says, "and even though it encourages creative expression, the human element is often missing from the equation. "Social connection is an essential part of the creative therapy paradigm, and it facilitates expression and co-regulation.”

Smith also believes that art therapy resonates at this time.

In the wake of COVID—with increased mental health diagnoses, increased neurodiversity, increased isolation, and a whole nation experiencing disenfranchised grief—the benefits of art therapy include anxiety reduction, stress relief, establishing creative coping mechanisms, self-exploration, self-esteem building, pain management, trauma processing and relationship building.

Do try this at home

The Lovepost asked each art therapist how to sample this purposeful creativity at home. It’s important to note that these experiments can not replicate the role of art therapists. But they do provide ways to relax and practise mindfulness.

Morton’s suggestion: create a collage of self-discovery.

Try creating a collage using images and words cut or ripped from magazines. Include any images and words that appeal to you right now, even if you don’t know why they’re calling to you. Then take your time to mindfully arrange them on the page. Put the finished image in a place where you can see it, and consider what it might be saying to you about what’s important, or what you need right now.

Kaur’s suggestion: make a tower of self-esteem.

Using craft materials like paper, scissors, card stock and glue (and feathers, string, glitter—anything decorative), cut out five pieces of card stock. Then, on an A4 or A3 sheet of paper, stack them up. On each piece, write something you know you are good at, or something that other people say you’re good at. Leave the tower in a spot where you can see it for a week, to notice each of these strengths individually as you go about your days. Let your very best attributes stare back at you. You may want to journal about how you engaged with each skill or strength over the week.

Smith’s suggestion: what sensory activity do you enjoy? Indulge it!

Do you like squishy things? Maybe you’d like to make some slime or see how wet you can get some clay, or experiment with finger painting. Do you like soft things? Try some wet or dry felting, some large-scale macramé or tiny pompoms. Do you like polished things? How about trying some kinetic origami, or painting rocks? Do you like things that make you move? Try painting with boxing gloves by punching the canvas, or spend some time throwing clay. You don’t even need to make anything, just pitch away.

Call it an artist’s date with your inner self. See what comes up.


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