Art therapy is a therapeutic process that uses the art medium as an alternative communication channel between the therapist and the client.
Most forms of art can be traced back to early days as evidenced by cave paintings throughout the world. However we can only speculate what was the purpose of those paintings –story telling, recording of reality-dreams, teaching, mapping, decorating or celebration. The roots of arts used in therapy can be seen in early Shamanic practices where the use of masks, dance and music were all vital parts of the healing process that aimed to communication and expression.
Art therapy has grown so fast like a youngster who reaches puberty. The British artist Adrian Hill, who has experienced tuberculosis in a sanatorium, established the term ‘Art Therapy’ in 1942. He discovered the therapeutic benefits of drawing and painting while recovering from his disease. His book ‘Art Versus Illness’ (1945) holds a great interest until now. Margaret Naumberg around the same period stressed, while she was working with children, the importance to the child of allowing spontaneous image making to take place. She believed that everyone had the capacity to become an artist, or at least to be visual creative. In more detail she wrote that “The process of Art Therapy is based on the recognition that man’s most fundamental thoughts and feelings, derived from the unconscious reach expression in images rather than words” Naumberg (1958).
After the 2nd World War, medical circles became more interested in the recreational and healing aspect of art. This led to Art Therapy becoming a modern profession in the U.K and U.S.A. Pioneers of the field worked in hospitals and schools. Edward Adamson who was employed as a full-time artist in Netherne hospital felt that art activity worked as a positive medium for the clients.
Art Therapy nowadays:
Art therapy literature continue to grow and it was in 1964 that the British Art Therapy Association (BAAT) formed by Joyce Laing, where she published many articles in art therapy. Laing suggested that art therapy might be used as a form of ‘preventive medicine’ as well as for ‘rehabilitation’ purposes. This notion holds a great attention these years however it is not well developed yet. By the 1980’s Art Therapy has established training courses and recognition. Psychotherapists, such as Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby, Melanie Klein, Erik Erikson et al. have paid special attention to the visual arts. Art therapy created a concrete relationship between the psychoanalysis and their field of work.
So what is art therapy? How art therapy does look like? According to the British Art Therapy Association (BAAT) “Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of expression and communication. Within this context, art is not used as diagnostic tool but as a medium to address emotional issues which may be confusing and distressing. Art therapists work with children, young people, adults and the elderly. Clients may have a wide range of difficulties, disabilities or diagnoses. These include emotional, behavioural or mental health problems, learning or physical disabilities, life-limiting conditions, neurological conditions and physical illnesses”. Art therapy can be useful for people with: social and behaviour issues, physical and eating disorders, mental health and post-traumatic stress issues. In fact art therapy can be particularly helpful for people who find it difficult to communicate verbally, have suffered trauma and facing times of adjustment and change.
Art therapy is provided in groups (large and small) or individually, it is not a recreational activity or an art lesson although it could be playful and enjoyable. It is important to say that clients do not need to have any previous experience in art. Art therapy as a therapeutic treatment has its own aims and boundaries. The main therapeutic aim is to effect change and growth on a personal level, through the use of art materials, in a safe and facilitating environment.
An art therapist is working together with the client to understand the meaning of the image. Image making plays a central role in the therapeutic relationship. Images are used as the primary form of communication and the materials provide a way for the person to express their thoughts and feelings through the image they make. Art making process is more important than the final object and it is very important that an art therapist never judge a painting if it is good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Art therapy is not dependent on spoken language and can therefore be very helpful to anyone who finds it difficult to express their feelings and thoughts or have communication issues.
To conclude, it is important to observe the art image made in art therapy as a living organism, which is developing in every session. The art image can be seen as an object where the client can express and explore his/her emotions. Thus the therapeutic relationship contains three intersubjective elements, the therapist the client and the image. The therapist is there to provide guidance and support through the image for a safe therapeutic journey. Vincent Van Gogh described this journey as “taking the line out for a walk”.