Art therapy has historical roots, modern benefits: Certified counselors focus on art today to aid patients

By Jessa Chadwick, Assistant Arts Editor  (Courtesy photo/The Bison)

Art is more than a trip to the localmuseum.

However, art also gives individuals the ability to process through traumatic experiences. It can bring healing and beauty to a broken life, a broken world or a broken person.

Specifically, art therapy is the use of art mediums in a therapy session with a trained professional.

It is a medium that transcends social and economic circles to inspire universal healing.

“Art can be a great way to self-care for people,” assistant professor of psychology and marriage and family therapy Dr. Jonathan Wilson said.

“Art can be a way to escape from the world a little bit. It can also be a tool for expression. Art can be a way to express things that maybe we could not express in words. When I think of art therapy, I think it can be a way to help people that maybe are having a difficult time communicating [and it can] give them another way to do that.”

Everyone has had a day when he or she needed to contemplate and take time to create in order to gain perspective.

Wilson explained that art can be used to help individuals in their everyday lives as well as work through mental and emotional issues.

“As far as self-care is concerned, art can be a great way to express feelings that are being held on the inside,” Wilson said.

“So, if I’m feeling a lot of anger or stress or depression or anxiety then I can express those in art. It can be therapeutic to get those things out in a way that’s healthy as opposed to bottling them up or expressing them in a way that’s less healthy.”

Art therapy may seem to some like a glorified ‘doodle session.’

However, art allows not only an expression of emotion, but it also creates a sense of distance between an experience and an individual in order for the client to process and then evaluate said experience. Sessions involve more than doodling; they can involve a wide variety of technique and exercises.

According to an article about artistic methodology in therapy in ‘Psychology Today,” “Art therapy involves the use of creative techniques such as drawing, painting, collage, coloring or sculpting to help people express themselves artistically and examine the psychological and emotional undertones in their art. With the guidance of a credentialed art therapist, clients can ‘decode’ the nonverbal messages, symbols and metaphors often found in these art forms, which should lead to a better understanding of their feelings and behavior so they can move on to resolve deeper issues.”

For some, this type of therapy is ideal as it allows the client to be quiet while expressing and processing through an experience or experiences. After the art has be created, the client and therapist can discuss the implications of a certain art piece.

“Once you begin creating, the therapist may, at times, simply observe your process as you work, without interference or judgment,” Wilson said.

“When you have finished a piece of artwork—and sometimes while you are still working on it—the therapist will ask you questions along the lines of how you feel about the artistic process, what was easy or difficult about creating your artwork, and what thoughts or memories you may have had while you were working.”

Although this is still a relatively new treatment plan, the benefits have been documented for years. covers some of the history behind this treatment in the article “Art Therapy.”

According to the article, “the term ‘art therapy’ was coined in 1942 by British artist Adrian Hill, who discovered the healthful benefits of painting and drawing while recovering from tuberculosis. In the 1940’s, several writers in the mental health field began to describe their work with people in treatment as ‘art therapy.’ As there were no formal art therapy courses or training programs available at that time, these care providers were often educated in other disciplines and supervised by psychiatrists,
psychologists or other mental healthcare professionals.”

In fact, the benefits of using art in therapy were mentioned much earlier in 1915 by Margaret Naumberg. Even then, she argued art calms the soul and allows individuals to reflect back on their experiences and bring beauty to them.

According to the same article, “[it was] a means of unearthing repressed, unconscious thoughts and emotions. [Naumberg] believed once the symbolic expression of a person’s state of mind was combined with the cognitive and verbal aspects of experience, healing could take place. Both this expression and healing were believed to be able to occur in an art therapy session.”

This type of therapy then began to gain more notice under another leader in the art therapy movement, Hanna Kwiatkowska. She said she believed while some individuals create (through mediums such as knitting, quilting, painting, etc.), art can also be used to help reveal deeper issues. Creating is not only cathartic but brings a deeper meaning to humanity.

“She also saw the significant therapeutic benefits of the drawing process,” according to

“Although she had originally hoped to use her art therapy to help treat individuals facing intellectual challenges, Kwiatkowska discovered her technique also provided relief to families and individuals who faced moderate psychological issues and dysfunctions.”

Today, art therapy is a specialized form of therapy. Therapists who use art as a treatment plan for their clients usually have a master’s degree and follow the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB) codes.

Now, the practice is a recognized therapeutic practice and involves specialized certification.

“There are two paths to doing art therapy or becoming an art therapist,”Dr. Canaan Crane, the marriage andfamily therapy program director said. “One way would be to pursue advanced training in art therapy specifically.

There are a few programs that teach a graduate student to [practice this kind of therapy and] can include training in therapy but also include a prominent focus on the art skills. The other option would be to pursue a degree in counseling/therapy which would enable graduates to practice in a wide variety of organizations and with a wide variety of populations,” he said. “Students would then pursue additional training or certification in using Art as a modality for working with many clients. It really comes down to how specialized of training a person wants.”

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