Let’s look at definitions of Art and Therapy:
Art: the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
Therapy: treatment intended to heal or relieve a disorder.
How do these definitions come together to create Art Therapy?
Words to pick out are expression, emotional power, and heal. Art therapy uses the process of engaging in art making within a therapeutic relationship as a means to create positive internal change. It enables expression and communication. Feelings and emotions are expressed non-verbally. This can feel much less threatening to a child or an adult struggling with communication and memory. They cannot put words together congruently to share how they are feeling or what is on their mind using talking therapies. We all have thoughts and beliefs we are not fully conscious of. Expression through art can enable these to become unlocked and identified.
Some children may have started to believe hurtful comments about them and identified with a negative script which they may be fluent in sharing or acting out. Art therapy can help them surmount this and begin to notice the (hurt) child behind challenging behaviours which will be a powerful emotional process.
Adults with dementia may have lost a sense of identity. Historically some have been perceived to have lost most of their capacity to function and process. This is not the case. Art therapy can support them in reconnecting with themselves and the world around them.
The therapist does not impose interpretations or judgement. This refers to the artistic merit of the work, to anything we may think the image represents, and to the child’s thoughts and feelings. Being alongside the child on their recovery journey, the role of the therapist is to support the child in finding meaning to their process. They can start thinking about those hidden emotions that have surfaced. Being alongside an adult with dementia, the role of the therapist is not to offer a cure but a hope for connection and a more positive quality of life for as long as possible.
Giving a space to the unconscious can allow for painful memories and feelings to emerge. It is important that clients are well supported outside of therapy too. However, it also enables them to recognise their strengths and celebrate their successes. This is helpful in promoting a positive identity and building confidence and self-esteem.
The art therapist provides a regular, reliable, confidential space, in which the client receives focused attention. It might not always seem that there is anything happening in the moment. Sometimes sessions trigger feelings that arise later in the day. At other times intense emotions will be present in the therapy session.
The art therapist uses the space provided to create a structured and confidential setting that promotes safety and containment. They offer a range of art materials so that clients have a selection to choose from. They can draw, paint or make things. They might engage in art making alone or with the therapist.
The therapist does not usually set a theme and the pace of the work is set by the client. Direction may however be given as necessary and appropriate for the space to be physically and emotionally safe.
BAAT says the following about Art Therapy:
“The relationship between the therapist and the client is of central importance, but art therapy differs from other psychological therapies in that it is a three way process between the client, the therapist and the image or artefact. Thus it offers the opportunity for expression and communication and can be particularly helpful to people who find it hard to express their thoughts and feelings verbally.”
The relationship between the therapist and client is central in art therapy practice. A relationship is an exchange of energy. In therapy it is one that enables a sharing of information that creates transformation. It is powerful in its own right.
The role of the relationship is paramount to therapy with regards to enabling healing and is held in mind when agreeing the terms of therapy. This includes agreeing boundaries with clients.