by Arlene M Green, LCSW, ACSW
In March, we received a group of questions from a woman in the UK regarding art therapy. We forwarded the questions to some of our members who use art in their practices. This article was developed out of Ms Green’s kind and informative response.
“We express our inner feelings by creating outer forms. … In the therapeutic world, … expressive therapy [has been used] for nonverbal and/or metaphoric expression. Most of us have already discovered some aspect of expressive art as being helpful in our daily lives. You may doodle as you speak on the telephone and find it soothing. You may write a personal journal and find that as you write, your feelings and ideas change. … They are ways to release your feelings, clear your mind, raise your spirits, and bring yourself to a higher state of consciousness. The process is therapeutic.”
– The Creative Connection, Expressive Arts as Healing,
by Natalie Rogers, daughter of Carl Rogers, the “Father of Humanistic Psychology”
I am not an art therapist, rather, I’m an artist who is a psychotherapist. I use art, among other creative methods, in my treatment work.
Why use art or any other form of creative expression – movement, music, writing, etc – to assist with healing? Because therapists use treatment modalities with which they are most comfortable, and clients are more likely to heal, grow and change when they are exposed to the modalities that best meet their needs.
Everyone is Creative
This therapeutic process is not about artmaking. Artmaking incorporates creativity and is related to the arts. Creativity is its own entity whether artistically oriented or not. This is an intuitive, unconscious process that invites discovery. Results can reveal beauty, gentleness, intensity and any emotion.
Art that is produced in a therapeutic setting is not about making art. It is about the expression of feeling with art as the medium. It’s a means of self-expression that is oriented towards process not result. It’s not to be judged as good or bad art or the style as right or wrong. Essentially whatever is created is the perfect expression of the client’s feelings in that moment.
People have different learning styles: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Most treatment modalities focus on the auditory. This is the most traditional and expected treatment approach – talk therapy.
However there are times when clients get stuck, and art can be a highly successful approach to breaking many of the verbal stalemates with clients. For instance, clients may:
- Hear messages in a selective or distorted fashion
- Tune others out
- Use language to distract them from difficult issues
- Have short attention spans
- Dissociate in varying degrees
- Find listening and talking next to impossible because of all the internal self-talk that directs their lives.
For All Ages
Therapeutic art is commonly used with children since it’s such a normal form of speech for a child. They often lack words, but they certainly can draw pictures which have meaning for them.
Adults have the same capability. Once adults move into the playfulness of expressing themselves through art, they can reveal a great deal.
Sometimes this work is directed – such as draw a tree. More often, it isn’t. The color, size and medium a person chooses as well as whether a piece is representational or not are all useful information. The degree of vigor, sounds and body language that go into creating can also provide insight into a client’s issues.
Therapeutic artmaking is a creative, exciting and rewarding therapeutic modality in which to participate. I feel honored that so many of my clients have felt safe and open enough to let me get to know them through their creative process. I’m even more deeply touched to see them get to know themselves in this sensitive and powerful way.
Arlene M. Green, LCSW, ASCW is a painter, psychotherapist and consultant. In her therapeutic work, she often focuses from a body-centered and creative process perspective. She works with life transitions, creativity enhancement, relationships, sexual trauma and depression, leads Artist Support Groups, and trains professionals on “Creative Process in Healing.” She is a founding member of the Women’s Arts Center and Gallery in Denver, Colorado, and believes that everyone can Imagine*Risk*Create™.