Images Can Transcend Words: Inside an Art Therapy Session

Introduction

Art therapy is an evidence-based treatment that utilizes a variety of art media and psychology based processes in order to reach therapeutic goals and improve overall quality of life. An art therapist is a board certified masters-level clinician who works with people of all ages across a broad spectrum of practice. Art Therapists value artistic expression as an avenue to better understand underlying psychological needs and to access personal history that is not available through verbal means alone. Art mirrors the inner life of the artist and we may discover the client through their decision-making, creative behaviors, and material use in an art therapy session. The creative nature of art therapy allows for flexibility. An art therapist may utilize this with both group and individual clients!

Who do Art Therapists See?

I have worked within a variety of settings over the last 10 years as an art therapist; hospice, community center, refugee program, school, pediatric hospital, private practice, and inpatient mental health. Many of these populations had encountered forms of trauma, chronic illness, and/or devastating life transitions.

Art therapy works for many different people in many different backgrounds because it transcends language and the barrier of spoken word. I named my art therapy practice after this very thought: Art Speaks. I believe that art gives voice to the unspeakable. It allows clients to process emotional needs without the pressures or confinement of words alone. This is especially true for children who may not yet have the vocabulary to describe an event or emotional state.

Art therapy can fit into a variety of programs and anyone can participate. It can be helpful if the client displays an interest in art, but artistic skill is not required.

The Art Therapy Session

When deciding on the art intervention I may use, I have specific client needs and interests in mind. When working individually with clients, I may prepare directives, identify client needs, and/or allow for free expression. The art materials used may range from fluid (such as watercolor paints, clay) to restrictive (pencil drawings or collage) depending on those specific needs of each client. I make sure to include my clients in this decision-making process and allow opportunities for special project requests and/or art materials.

The art really becomes the center of our sessions together. In my work with pediatric oncology patients, we often focus on the process of making. This physical act of creating promotes moments of joy and enhanced well-being. The kinesthetic experience tends to inspire creativity and allow for exploration of the materials.

Art can be a great distraction from the medical setting, allowing patients to put focus into the art rather than symptoms, upcoming procedures, or the frequently disruptive environment. The art can also serve as a tribute to life experiences; validating the client’s journey and allowing a space to tell his or her story. The art product often symbolizes deeper meaning, which the client can then discuss and explore it together with the art therapist.

When we begin to discuss the artwork, the pressure is off of the client, as focus is placed on the imagery. Words are directed towards the images created, which protects from potential feelings of vulnerability and allows the client to pace the session based on his or her needs.

Conclusion

Art is a powerful emotional outlet and can sometimes bring up deep seated issues. This is why having a properly credentialed art therapist to guide the session is so beneficial. The populations in which art therapists serve are often in vulnerable states and have faced trauma, loss, and/or other difficult life events. Having a visual record allows the client and the therapist to further examine those important experiences for potential meaning.

I often encourage clients by emphasizing that each person is the  “expert” of their own experience. They have the power to give voice to those experiences through the art-making. In conclusion, an art therapy session with an art therapist is an opportunity to move toward self-actualization, empowerment, and meaning making.

 

This blog post was written by guest blogger Audrey Hook, MA, ATR-BC. Thank you Audrey! 

 

References

Karkou, V., & Sanderson, P. (2006). Arts therapies: A research-based map of the field. Edinburgh, Scotland: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone.

Lusebrink, V.B. (1990). Imagery and visual expression in therapy. New York, NY: Plenum.

The American Art Therapy Association (2017). Who are art therapists. Alexandria, VA: Arttherapy.org.

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