Open Path: I would wager that many “classically trained” therapists have a murky understanding at best of what an art therapist does with their clients. I’m curious if you can describe some of the portals you use for integrating art into the therapeutic relationship, and how this work typically moves forward in your work with a client.
Jen: I am so grateful to have an opportunity to answer this question, as there does seem to be some degree of mystery around the practice of art psychotherapy.
When I tell people I’m an art therapist, most assume I either work solely with children or with artists. While many art therapists do work with children, and some of us have clients who are trained artists, art therapy is valuable for any age and for all artistic skill-levels. In my current practice, I work with adult clients, the majority of whom have hardly picked up an art material since grade school.
Although some clients specifically seek out an art therapist to support their process, many adults come to my office initially for talk therapy, while expressing an apprehensive attraction to engaging in art. A simple invitation to make a mark on a page is often enough to open the door to the part of a client that has been thirsting to create, as creation is our innate birthright as human beings. Many times, I’ve witnessed intensely therapeutic processes unfold by my merely making enticing art materials available and giving permission to play. In other cases, clients prefer a more directive approach, so we work together on integrating applicable art activities into a treatment plan.
In practicing art therapy, there are various approaches and materials to apply depending on the client’s background, presenting issues, and stage of therapy. This is where an art therapist’s unique and specialized training becomes necessary to determine which art materials and interventions are indicated, and when they are appropriate.
Open Path: I’m curious if you can tell us how you define art therapy, and maybe clear up some other misconceptions that might exist about the way it is practiced?
Jen: In 1951, Florence Cane, an art therapy pioneer, put forth the idea that art makes the unconscious conscious. I define art therapy as the use of art materials to externalize one’s inner world for the purpose self-inquiry, transformation, and integration. One has the opportunity to reauthor past experiences, make meaning of the present, or envision the future when using art materials to bring concrete structure and form to what were previously nebulous feelings and emotions.
Another common misconception about art therapists usually comes by way of a suspicious sideways glance and this question: “So, if I draw something for you, you can interpret it and diagnose me?” When looking at art a client has created, I exercise my training in mindfulness to suspend my own projections and impulses to interpret, thus allowing the client’s image to arrive with freshness into my awareness. Unfolding meaning from the image is a collaborative process between the client and the art therapist, held in the safe container of the therapeutic relationship. It works beautifully when I can witness my client creating art in session, followed by hearing the descriptions and stories about the image being told by its creator.
“Another common misconception about art therapists usually comes by way of a suspicious sideways glance and this question: ‘So, if I draw something for you, you can interpret it and diagnose me?’ When looking at art a client has created, I exercise my training in mindfulness to suspend my own projections and impulses to interpret, thus allowing the client’s image to arrive with freshness into my awareness.”
Open Path: It must be such a relief for clients when they realize their work is not going to be judged or interpreted. Judging and interpreting so often bring us away from our deeper self, or unconscious mind.
Jen: The adult intellect can be adept at keeping habits or homeostases intact (even ones that keep us stuck) when communicating verbally in therapy. Art offers a way to safely deepen into the unconscious behind a safe veil of metaphor, all while relating to the image. I view the art a client creates in session as being similar to a dream a client might bring into therapy. Just as dream “decoder” books are not universally applicable, there is no one interpretive guide for art images. As an art therapist, I cannot presume to know more than the client does about his or her art; however, I am trained to help midwife meaning and insights through the art, and aid my clients in understanding what the image has come to reveal and teach. It directly accesses and honors a client’s inner wisdom. In an art therapy session, we stay within the metaphor of the art—witnessing, describing, or dialoging with the image. Art bypasses the verbal defenses, allowing the ah-ha moments to come sooner and in a way that feels safe. I feel so blessed and humbled to explore these images alongside each client, only shifting out of the metaphor when the client is ready to make the leap, and integrate the new discoveries into his or her life.
Open Path: When you talk about helping to “midwife meaning,” it leads me straight to one of the functions ritual plays in providing a context and language for accessing certain depths of our experience—in other words, how we, as a species, are capable of making the profane sacred. I’m curious about the role ritual plays either in art therapy or other areas of your practice?
Jen: Practicing art as ritual is a cornerstone of my work. Ellen Dissanyake describes art as making the ordinary special or holy, pointing out that this need to “make special” is inherent in our species. In my human and artist bones, I know this to be true, and I joyfully practice from this place of knowing.
Our modern American culture doesn’t necessarily encourage pausing to reflect, connect, commemorate, and create. Often when people come to therapy, many describe feeling lost and seeking to find direction and meaning. When feeling disenchanted and dulled in the day-to-day, we need a way to reawaken and remember the sacred in the ordinary. Bringing mindfulness to everyday moments, noticing details, and recognizing their innate sacredness is a gift of art therapy. Rhythmically bracketing a therapy session with a simple lighting and snuffing of a candle, to honor the inner work being done, is an example of a seemingly small gesture that makes a big impact. In a session when we make art—whether it’s a drawing, a clay bowl, a beaded necklace, a painted stick—there is a ritual transference onto the art object, where it can become empowered as a talisman, carrying previously unseen emotions. Relating to this self-created talisman can be profoundly healing.
In addition to my private practice, I officiate blessing ceremonies for moms-to-be where the woman crossing the threshold into motherhood (via any path — pregnancy, surrogacy, adoption) is surrounded by her community of loved ones to participate in art rituals that help to celebrate and integrate this transition in a supported way. Together her tribe may offer a natural object to a birth altar, contribute a bead to a birthing necklace, string flowers into a crown, or write a blessing on a belly cast, all while sharing food, stories, fears, and wishes.
In both the therapy room and at a mother’s blessing ceremony, I witness the light coming on when people remember the magic in the mundane by way of creating art (creating the Self!) and discover deep meaning through that process. Really, what else are we here for?