So, What is Art Therapy?

Chelsea Van Tongeren

People ask me “What is art therapy?” a lot. Most try to give it a shot by adding the two words together. Art … so you do some kind of creative activity and then there is a therapeutic quality incorporated. This is pretty close to the truth.

Art therapy uses art as an additional communicative tool in the therapeutic relationship.

What is art therapy markers

CC Image courtesy of Marylhurst University on Flickr

There are two main forms of art therapy in practice. The first form is usually found in a studio format, where individuals come together and work with some medium of art in the same room. This art can be discussed among each other or it can just speak for itself. The therapeutic quality in this experience is in the time spent creating art.

When one partakes in painting, sculpting or drawing there is a catharsis that occurs. It can be described as a type of meditation or a calm focus with a singular idea. The content of the art in this type of setting usually has to do with an issue or problem a person is struggling with. For example, an individual struggling with loneliness might sculpt the human figure to explore the idea of being alone. The process of creating art provides time for prolonged thought about an issue and a setting for self-awareness.

The second form of art therapy is more directive. An art therapist or mental health professional will guide a group or individual through a number of artful experiences. In some cases assessments are used.

One of the more popular art assessments is called the “House, Tree, Person”. A therapist will ask the client to draw these three images and then discuss the meaning of each. The house usually represents the support, environment or family in one’s life. The drawing stimulates conversation about these topics. It also provides a way to talk about serious issues in a less direct way. For example, if there were family problems, the client would be able to talk about the problems in the drawing first instead of speaking immediately about oneself. It is important to remember that there are no features in a drawing that represent a singular thing. A hole in a tree does not automatically mean that someone was abused as a child. A trained professional in art therapy knows how a person describes the art is much more valuable information than the content itself.

What is art therapy sample

CC Image courtesy of Ben-C. on Flickr

Art therapy can be used with individuals of any age, not just children. It is effective with children however because drawings are an easier form of expression for children who have not developed a large vocabulary or high levels of self-awareness. It also provides a focus point in therapy when attention spans are not very long. These aspects of art therapy can still be used with adults, teenagers and people with other needs. Art provides a starting point for a conversation. It also adds a third “individual” in the room at times because a therapist and client can talk together about it.

Like other alternate forms of therapy, art has the potential to add meaning, understanding and examination in a different way than traditional talk-therapy.

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Chelsea Van Tongeren, MA, Art Therapist, LLPC
Chelsea is an art therapist and limited license professional counselor. She received her masters in both community counseling and art therapy from Wayne State University. She provides individual art therapy or counseling for children, adolescents, and adults. As a therapist, Chelsea encourages and explores the possibility for change. learn more…

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