10 Reasons I Love Being An Art Therapist

 

Art Therapist

Because I have a somewhat unusual job, I spend a lot of time explaining what art therapy is. In the course of that conversation, I inevitably talk about what I personally LOVE about being an art therapist. This got me thinking that I’ve never shared that with you. Let’s fix that.  So without delay, here are some of the top reasons I love being an art therapist.

1. I don’t believe therapy should be a drag. The arts make therapy playful and adventurous.

My job is to help people grow, and sometimes that means dealing with hard things, but that doesn’t mean that the treatment needs to hurt. There is a lot of laughter and creativity in my office. I like it that way. So do my clients.

2. Art therapy is both cathartic and containing.

Expressing yourself through images “transfers” some of your feelings into the art piece and helps clear you out a bit. The image then “holds” some of those feelings for you, whether in a sculpture, painting, drawing, book, or a box.
We need all the help we can get when we feel overwhelmed, art therapy can often provide some immediate relief. See this post on doing art “to get the crazies out.”

3. Art therapy teaches coping skills.

The skills and techniques people learn in my office can all be used at home. Once you see how you can center and ground yourself by drawing mandalas, creating a string painting, or collaging in an art journal, you can find ways to weave the healing power of art into your life.
Stamps Coping

Cutting handmade stamps

4.There are some things that words just cannot properly express.

If you have experienced extreme emotional distress, trauma, or loss, some of your experience is “beyond words -” there are images, sounds, smells, and sensations that hang around, sometimes unwanted. We now know that trauma often gets processed and encoded in different ways than our everyday memories. (For further information on trauma, see this article on PTSD, and this one on developmental trauma.)
It can be very hard to talk your way out of this. Using art is a way to speak the language of the senses, and transform your experience.

5. Art therapy is a whole-brain approach.

While I am no neuroscientist, I am fascinated by the way our brain operates. As you know, art therapy engages different parts of the brain.  Why wouldn’t we use all the tools at our disposal? If you’ve been talking about your problems for ages and nothing has changed, why not engage your imagination and creativity and see what happens?

Teal Black Mandala

6. Art therapy offers a new perspective.

Frequently, once my client completes an image, we will stand it upright, take a few steps back from the art table, and look at the art together from a distance. I like several things about this.
First, just like in life, the art changes when you see it from different vantage points. The client and I both  notice different things, and that often gives us new insights or solutions.
Standing together looking at the image also diminishes some of the power differential that exists between the “doctor” and the “patient.” I am an expert on mental health and art therapy, it’s true, but the client is the expert on herself, and we both are adventurers exploring the territory of this image. I feel less like client and therapist, and more like two artists looking at an art piece.
This is incredibly empowering to the art therapy client. I think that’s really cool, and it’s part of what makes me feel proud to be an art therapist.
Finally, I love this technique because especially with strong anxiety or trauma, looking at the piece and becoming curious about it is a powerful tool against anxiety and panic. You can’t be “scared out of your wits” while also feeling curious.
We have a highly evolved frontal lobe in our brain that is designed to largely turn off during emergencies. (Though given our current realities, this also happens when you get really mad at your boss. For a scholarly explanation of the stress response, click here, and for the “Wiki” one, click here.)

 7. I love showing adults that they ARE creative.

Teaching people to tap into their creativity is a part of my job. How amazing is that?
Remain an Artist Quote

8. Art is a great language to use with “resistant” teens.

Of course I don’t think that most of the teens I see are “resistant;” they might feel scared or be in denial, but resistant implies that they are stubbornly doing something to harm themselves.
I have yet to meet anyone who is doing anything that doesn’t provide them with some benefit. I think we just aren’t wired that way. I like to help people tune into what is helpful about what they are doing, as well as what’s not, join with them about that, and then start to explore other coping skills that will help more than they hurt.
With teenagers who already feel awkward about themselves and their issues, asking them to create a magazine photo collage about their anxiety can seem a lot more fun and natural than saying, “So, Emily… why are you so anxious? You’re popular, pretty, you get good grades. Is this conversation making you anxious? Is that sweat forming on your brow?”
As my teens would say: “Awwwkward!”
Of course we verbally process the collage, but it puts the conversation in her terms, not mine. That’s important. There’s the issue of giving power back to the client again. See what I mean? Art therapy rocks.
I Heart Art Therapy

9.The treatment options are endless in art therapy.

I get to be creative without even picking up a paint brush. If my client is feeling stuck, I can dream up 15 different ways to help them experience and explore “stuckness” through art. (Art therapist, Lisa Mitchell, at Inner Canvas, is a master at helping ANY therapist tap into their creativity, even in talk therapy. Please check her out!)

I might say, “Could you make an image of stuckness?”  Or, “Perhaps you could make something with this tough clay as a way to explore the stuck feeling?” Or, “Let’s tangle and knot up a ball of yarn and then work through undoing it and see what’s happening with the stuck feeling.”

All of those options would give her the physical experience of getting stuck and eventually, getting unstuck, as well as a visual image of stuckness. For a bank of ideas that an art therapist might use in her work with clients, visit my Art Therapy Ideas board on Pinterest.

Imagine how much more potent that is than the same client sitting slumped in my office couch, talking in low tones, apathetically giving the same old speech about how nothing ever changes for her.

Finally, art therapy combines beautifully with mindfulness techniques, visualization and meditation, and sensory activities. This offers me tons of flexibility and creativity in every session. No matter what we are doing, it’s creative somehow. That’s a huge perk in my job.

Nest

10. Art therapy feels “magical.”

There is a little “magic” in art therapy. It doesn’t mean it will suit everyone or cure your every ill, but I find the power of the unconscious to speak to us through images, like it does in our dream life, very powerful. When you have the help of an art therapist to explore these images, you may gain insights you never would by just talking.
I will never forget the woman who painted a beautiful abstract image with lines of various colors radiating from a circular shape. When she finished, we stood it up on the table and stepped back. To our surprise, we saw a woman, looking up to the light.
It was astonishing. Powerful. Moving. Whether or not it was “intentional,” she gave herself the hope she so needed in that moment through this image. The hope was there, but this was the only way she could see it.

(We can just talk too!)

Of course I have fun with my talk-based clients, but being an art therapist,  I approach even my talk-based sessions in a creative, imaginative way. This makes my job so much more fun. To learn more about working with me through your anxiety, depression, trauma, creative blocks, and personal growth goals, click here.

What do you love about art therapy?

What do you love about art therapy? How has art played a transformative role in your life? Do you crave more creativity? Fear it? Run from it? Tell us about it in the comments.

14 Comments

  1. Patricia

    I try to do something artistic each day. It is creative and grounding. Currently, I am creating one card each day to give to people in my life… Instead of giving up something for Lent this year, I am giving away something. Sharing art is such a blessing… People are pleasantly surprised and touched by something handmade.

    Reply
    • Amy Johnson Maricle

      HI Patricia:

      It’s always so lovely to have you here! I think remaining grounded in our own art is so important. It’s actually the thing I was thinking I wished I had included – that doing art about my own feelings – both about my work and personal life, is so helpful!

      I love the idea of giving to others instead of self-denial. It enriches you and others. Thank you for sharing your idea with all of us! May you have many inspired moments over the next 40 days.

      Creatively Yours,

      Amy

      Reply
  2. Patricia

    Thanks for your gracious response, Amy! There is such warmth that I experience when you reply. I appreciate the work that you are doing, and feel blessed to hear from you. Take good care… That’s what art is all about.

    Reply
    • Amy Johnson Maricle

      Aw, Patricia, you always know how to make a gal feel good!
      Cheers,
      Amy

      Reply
  3. Maya

    Amy,

    I loved this post so much! Really enjoy your writing 🙂

    Best,
    Maya

    Reply
    • Amy Johnson Maricle

      HI Maya:

      It’s so wonderful to have you drop by! Your lovely blog, http://mayabenattar.com/blog/ does such a good job of showing all of us lay people how we can use music to soothe and feel better every day, so I really appreciate your compliment.

      All the best to you!

      Amy

      Reply
  4. Lisa

    Yes, indeed! These are all good top tens. I would add that as an art therapist, you get to be surrounded by color and materials that boost every cell. And this living with color and art making is the key to joy and courage.
    Thanks for the mention and the thoughtful list.
    Lisa

    Reply
    • Amy Johnson Maricle

      Hi Lisa:

      Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by, read, and comment. I agree, getting the opportunity to be constantly amongst artistic media is so enriching – both for me and the client. It just seems to open up so many possibilities, and urges us to harness that courage you speak of and be and create more than we thought possible.

      And it’s my pleasure to clue folks in about the great work you are doing to help all kinds of therapists work more creatively.

      Cheers,

      Amy

      Reply
    • Amy Johnson Maricle

      HI Bethany:

      Welcome to foxboroarttherapy.com!

      Art therapy certainly is nourishing, and from your Psychology Today profile I see you are in PA! I am a PA native (everywhere in a 1 hour radius of Scranton, PA. Yes, the cultural hub. You know it when you drive through it. Or see it on “The Office.”) Ha!

      In any case, it sounds like you are doing rich work with photography, drumming, and art. I’d love to hear a bit about how you are using it with clients if you care to share. If you’d have any interest in talking about it on the blog, I’d love to chat backchannel.

      Cheers,
      Amy

      Reply
  5. Lidia M.

    Hi Amy,

    I loved these top 10! I’ve been struggling with wanting to be a therapist but also wanting art to be a part of my profession. And as a result I found your post and learned about art therapy. I think its amazing! And was wondering what suggestions you have to becoming an art therapist? I’m seriously considering this as my career.

    I would love your feedback! Thank you.

    -Lidia

    Reply
  6. peter

    i appreciate that in all likelihood as an art therapist I would be working with vulnerable demographic….and as I have a criminal conviction from over 10 years ago do you think this would preclude me from doing so or for joining the baat …..your thoughts/advice would be helpful……i am currently doing a fine art degree…?

    Reply
    • Amy Maricle

      Hey Peter: gosh, this is an area I have no idea about whatsoever. I’d say check with the BAAT about such questions. Best of luck, Amy

      Reply

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