So many people ask me what art therapy is- or how to be an art therapist- or what exactly I do as an art therapist. Usually they excitedly tell me about the adult coloring books they have tried and loved. I love hearing these stories! And today I thought I would answer some of these questions.
What is Art Therapy?
Art Therapy is a profession that requires specific training and expertise (at least a Master’s degree), and there is even an approved definition of art therapy on the American Art Therapy Association’s website:
Art therapy is an integrative mental health profession that combines knowledge and understanding of human development and psychological theories and techniques with visual arts and the creative process to provide a unique approach for helping clients improve psychological health, cognitive abilities, and sensory-motor functions. Art therapists use art media, and often the verbal processing of produced imagery, to help people resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight.
You can find other associations with similar definitions, and they can be very useful, but my working definition is much shorter:
I use art to empower people.
At Star Center, I see lots of people and I design creative interventions that allow these people to work toward their goals using their creativity. Some of these folks are non-verbal and they are empowered by making the many choices involved in the creative process and by using the art to express what they are unable to express verbally. Some are too verbal and can talk all day long about myriads of things, but need to access their personal wisdom, gain insight, or express themselves in a non-verbal way in order to facilitate their recovery process. Some are learners who are challenged in a variety of ways and I use art to empower them to learn skills in a different way and to foster self-awareness.
So- the art therapy process is multi-faceted and includes the participant, the art materials, process, and product, and the art therapist. I always tell folks that if you express it on paper or in a sculpture, you’ve taken what’s in your head and heart and put it out there, and then it’s much easier to deal with.
I love what I do! And I love empowering people with art.
And I firmly believe that all people can benefit from making art at whatever level they are, in whatever manner they choose. Which brings me to adult coloring books.
Adult Coloring Books: Therapeutic, but not Art Therapy
I have observed for decades that adults with stressful jobs would hide children’s coloring books and crayons and use them when they needed a break. Many people would confess this to me as if I were a member of the clergy! I would assure them that they were participating in something called “self-care” and that they had nothing to be ashamed of. As a matter of fact, the very act of coloring, which is a repetitive motion, could stimulate the release of endorphins in their brains, so they were practicing something very healthy! I was excited to see “adult coloring books” enter the market with a splash a few years ago. Now these folks would have more age-appropriate images to choose from, and coloring was becoming a socially acceptable form of self-care or stress relief. The thing I wasn’t excited about was that some of the books were subtitled “art therapy”. Hmmm… I know art therapy is a profession. And this coloring book is claiming to be art therapy. And, there’s an undeniable relief that some people seek and find in coloring. So here’s where I stand: coloring books are awesome! Coloring can be fun, relaxing, stress-relieving, and creative (to a point). But it is not art therapy! It’s missing the key ingredient- the art therapist. So please keep using coloring books if you find it helpful for you. And know that the stress relief you feel by coloring is just the very beginning- the smallest taste- of the relief that art therapy can provide for a person who chooses to participate in art therapy.
But what if you are not interested in participating in art therapy, but you still want to take advantage of some of the many benefits of making art? Maybe coloring isn’t your thing? What then? I want to give you a few ideas to get you going.
Visit an art museum if at all possible.
Art Museums are a great way to engage with numerous pieces of art, stimulating your own creative processes. A great option locally is West Tennessee Regional Art Museum. They have impressive exhibits, are close by, and take pride in being Tennessee’s only permanent fine arts museum between Nashville and Memphis. There is always something beautiful to see there.
The Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis is wonderful, too, because it’s an awesome place and because I get to work with the good folks at the Dixon to provide a program called Exceptional Art. This program is for adults with developmental/intellectual/physical disabilities that might not otherwise access the art at the Dixon. The gardens are exceptionally beautiful right now with the tulips in full bloom. Seeing the art in the galleries, including the permanent exhibit, feeds my heart and fuels my art. And I get to share that with others and use the experience to empower them with art! All my favorite things all wrapped up in one! So here’s your art assignment, should you choose to accept it:
Visit an art museum. Walk through contemplatively, paying attention to what you hear, smell, feel, and see. Notice colors, textures, emotions, and thoughts as you wander. When you are finished (you’ll know when), draw something in response to the experience. Keep it simple and tell your inner mean-art-teacher-judge-monster to hush. This is not about doing something perfectly. It’s about capturing the experience.
Make some art with friends.
Really. Pick a picture, buy some canvas, brushes, and paint, and get together with some friends and paint! Again, it is more about the experience and community, so try to let go of the inner critic. Or go to a local Sip-n-Strokes type place. It’s a lot of fun! You’ll thank yourself!
Make art or do crafts with your loved ones.
This is one my daughter and I have been utilizing lately. She’s eight and very in to dolls- you know the ones- 18inch dolls that have more accessories than I do! She has been perusing videos of crafts that result in even more accessories for said dolls. Since this is her interest right now, we’ve used that as a beginning point, with her choosing a craft (that I approve). We then make a list of supplies needed, and decide where would be the best place to get them. We go on the shopping trip and purchase the items, then come home and get to making! Of course, I would much prefer a more open-ended creative approach, but to me right now the goal is to spend quality time with my daughter and to be immersed in what she loves, so crafts it is, for now. (We did a lot of open-ended creative art when she was younger). And she is so proud of her accomplishments! And I empower her to do it herself, which fosters independence.
I loved reading this article! I loved what you said about the working definition of art therapy: you use art to empower people. I know I have learned (and am still learning) so much from you! This article is fuel to the fire.
Thank you for taking the time to put this into words.
This is a fantastic approach and a wonderful perspective on art therapy! We are so grateful to have Janie as a valuable resource for our pre-professional art therapy program at Union University. Thank you for all you do Janie!
Janie, I love that you clearly define and explain art therapy and its goals. Most us know that it includes art and therapy but are not clear on exactly what you and other therapists do. It is wonderful that art can teach communication skills to everyone including those who do not talk and those who talk too much. Keep up the good, and meaningful, work.
Really enjoyed this, Janie. Lovely reminders how healthy it is to enjoy art all around us. Art therapy can be defined so many ways, but your article keeps it simple yet powerful. Keep empowering people, Janie!
Exceptional article, my dear. 🙂
oh great loved the article to read