What is Art Therapy, anyway?

What the heck is art therapy?  I get this question EVERY time I tell someone what I do for work.

Let me try to shed a little light…. When I first discovered art therapy I was in college, majoring in Fine Arts.  I though, gee, that’s cool.  Art as therapy.  And then the program disappeared and I forgot all about it.  I made art through college, and then I kind of forgot that as well!  I didn’t think it was worthy of my time.  I needed an income.  I needed a job!  And so I stopped art making completely.  But I kept imagining art making, fantasizing about painting, dreaming about patterns.  I couldn’t completely forget.  There came a day when I had a baby, and a few other days and weeks and years when that baby began to grow up.  Suddenly we had crayons. We had paint.  And I couldn’t stop making STUFF!  That little baby reminded me how thoroughly engaged I could become in coloring…a Dora the Explorer coloring book!  I began to shade with my glitter red and my broken black.

I started to feel a lot better.

But it wasn’t even art!  It was children’s coloring books.  I felt like the artist I had been was now very far away.  I wondered if I was any good.  And then I realized, it really didn’t matter.  I was engaging in an activity that both my daughter and I enjoyed.  I was finding my happy place again!  In a way, the coloring books were my art therapy. Then I began to pursue other interests, going back to school to do Occupational Therapy, for example.  I decided I was currently helping people in my line of work, but I wanted to help them more.  I completed a number of undergrad prerequisites to apply for the OT program and spent years taking one slow class at a time.  When I was ready to apply, I went to the campus and as I listened to the clinical class material, and smelled the sterility of it all, I began to cry.  Not right there, because I thought they might find me a bit wacky, but on the long drive home.  It wasn’t right.  I was going further and further from my creative self.  And so I did not apply. I applied to an Art Therapy program instead, because after that fateful day I met one person who was wise enough to ask me what I love to do.

I love to make art.  

I love to be around people making art.  

I love the smell of crayons and paint.  

I love to make a big old mess.   And that was it.

But, I still haven’t answered what art therapy is!!  That’s because to me it is so very many things!  It is a mom coloring on a menu with her kid at breakfast.  It is an artist painting on a canvas in a field.  It is a teenager tagging a brick wall with graffiti.  It is a group of people who can no longer make logical sentences because of strokes or head injuries, sitting around a massive table, coloring, sewing, sitting, painting, and being with one another.  It is asking a child to draw something, and then asking them what their drawing might need.  It is being curious about why a person chooses to paint with oils instead of water colors.  It is about the brain and the heart and a million different stories being freed from the trappings of verbal communication.  As I went through my three years in school, I “had” to make art (as a class requirement).  What a huge blessing that was, because during my time there my child suffered a traumatic eye surgery experience, my husband nearly died from encephalitis, and a dear friend died from brain cancer.  There was a load of massive life experience taking place while I read articles and wrote papers, and, fortunately for me, made art.  The art gave me time to be me.  I was able to not focus on anyone else for a good hour, sometimes more.  I plugged in my ear buds and poured out all of my struggles onto paper. It truly saved me.

So, what is art therapy?  To me it is a means to tap into your internal world without the pressure of telling someone what you think they want to hear.  It is something anyone can do, from veterans to elders to single parents and young children.  It is a way to converse with internal emotional states and long-held implicit memories.  And all you have to do is make a mark.  The rest is a process of unwinding and releasing, and trusting yourself to reveal the answers.

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