Wait, What Do You Do in Art Therapy?
A unique aspect of being an art therapist is that almost no one knows what I do. Whenever I tell someone I’m an art therapist, they inevitably ask what an art therapist does.
The first thing I always clarify is that I work with individuals to improve their mental health. Many people don’t understand that art therapy is a form of mental health treatment.
Whenever I clarify this, people typically jump to extremes, asking if I work with traumatized kids or with hospitalized adults in a psychiatric setting.
While art therapists do those things, it is not what I do. People typically want to know what exact disorders I work with. The issue here is that I don’t like pathologizing people (you can read more about that in my essay on To Diagnose or Not). I craft my words to AVOID pathologizing.
For example, I tell people that I specialize in highly intelligent women with overwhelming emotions and thoughts. Individuals usually understand this, and immediately follow up with “What do you do in art therapy?”
I think it’s a natural question. I always explain that it differs depending on the client and their needs. I am also careful to clarify that art therapy is about the process AND the art itself. For example, I’ll explain that if I have a client who needs to process some anger, I might have them rip pieces of paper or throw balls of clay on the ground. In other instances, I might have them draw the things that make them angry and then dialogue with the image.
I also like to emphasize that there is talking during the session. I don’t want to give the impression that someone just comes in and silently creates their art while I watch. While this has its time and place, it’s not the kind of work that I do with people.
I’m typically working with clients on beliefs and patterns that have been present for the majority of their lives. We’re actively dismantling old narratives - and that requires a combination of art, expression, and talking.
By this point of explaining, most strangers I meet don’t want or need more details. For the few that do, I like to paint a picture of what a typical session looks like.
My therapy dog, Egon, and I greet the client in the waiting area and invite them back to the art therapy studio. We usually begin with an art prompt to help ground and center them. While they create their art piece, I review any homework they brought with them (I always give clients things to work on between sessions).
We then dive in to discussing the art they made and what is most alive for them since our last session. I let the session naturally go where it needs to go. It typically leads us back to the underlying issues we are working on (such as feeling more balanced, learning to honor emotions, how to communicate needs and boundaries, etc.).
At this point we will either return to an ongoing art project we are working on, or my intuition will lead me to something else helpful.
As our time draws to a close (and it goes by so fast!), I let clients know we have about 10 minutes left. At five minutes, I let them select an art card (I keep a box of small pieces of art that I have made) and write on the back side things for them to work on before our next session. For example, I might ask that they create a piece of art about what brings them joy or that they devote a journal page to dumping out all of the things that make them angry. All of these assignments I consider integrative work - it is intended to integrate the changes we are discussing in therapy.
After clients leave, I clean the area and tuck their art away into their designated space in my storage room. I then write their therapy note. Afterward, I take Egon on a walk outside, as a thank you for being so good in therapy.
No matter how much I write or verbally explain about art therapy, it really is something for someone to experience to truly understand. That is what is so amazing about art therapy - it’s not just a deep conversation, it’s an experience.
Thank you for reading. If you're interested in being an art therapy client,
you can learn more here.